Mad Men Watch: A Dark Turn to the Uncertain Future

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Frank Ockenfels / AMC

Don (Jon Hamm) and Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), in a scene from Season 5

“They didn’t know it was going to be worse than that. They didn’t know what was in store for them.”

In last night’s episode, “Mystery Date,” Mad Men peeked around the corner at the dark years ahead, now that the show has reached the latter half of the 1960s. Those of us watching from the safe confines of 2012 already know what the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gang is slowly learning: it’s going to be a rough half-decade.

“Mystery Date” begins with an awkward tête-à-tête between Don and Megan after they run into one of Don’s old flames in the elevator. Megan is sick of bumping into women whom Don “worked with,” and she’s little assured by his affirmation that he is happily married. He was, after all, married when he had many of his old flings. We had a sense that this episode would be awkward, but the thread latticing the chapter turned out to be much darker.

Early in the episode, we find the copywriters ogling over crime-scene photos (in a TIME folder no less; our cultural influence goes back decades) of the brutal murder of eight nursing students in Chicago. On Bastille Day, a 25-year-old petty criminal named Richard Speck killed eight women in their dormitory, methodically tying them up, then raping, strangling and stabbing them one by one. Only one nurse survived, by hiding under a bed, as Speck lost count of his victims.

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The massacre hangs like a sinister cloud over the episode — in the midst of a long, hot summer, things have taken a dark turn. Don is physically sick; his daughter Sally is suffering under the hands of Pauline, Betty’s mother-in-law; Roger forgets he’s supposed to initiate a corporate image layout for Mohawk Airlines, which, thanks to a mechanic’s strike, is one of the few airlines still flying. He pays Peggy $400 to work over the weekend and come up with something fast.

When Peggy wraps up a late night’s work, she hears a bump in the night. In a scene straight out of a bad horror movie, she wanders through SCDP’s deserted offices to find that Dawn (Don’s secretary, the only African American hired after the “equal opportunity” advertisement from Episode 1) has fallen asleep on Don’s couch. Dawn can’t go home because no cab will take her north of 96th Street, and her brother doesn’t want her riding the subway due to the recent Los Angeles DUI Lawyer riots in Chicago. So Peggy offers her a place to crash for the night.

It’s here that we start to grasp how much the world has changed — and how much it has yet to fall apart. Peggy and Dawn share some brews and bond; Peggy tells Dawn that she sympathizes because she was once the only person in her position (a female copywriter). Then in an awkward exchange, Peggy decides to leave her purse — flush with Roger’s 400 bucks — on the coffee table, not sure if Dawn will take the money. (The bonds of feminism are only so strong.) Dawn doesn’t, but leaves a nice note thanking Peggy for her hospitality.

Back at Casa de Draper, there’s drama afoot. Don comes home early to sleep off his illness, only to find Andrea (the old flame from the elevator) at his door. He quickly shoos her out over fear that Megan will catch her there, but she returns. Don gives into his urges, flu and all, and tears Andrea’s clothes off. After she insists she’ll return, Don strangles her to death and shoves the body under the bed. But alas, it’s all a dream. Megan was sleeping beside him the whole time. It appears Don has wrestled with his old appetites and may finally have killed them. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, at the creepy house where Betty and Henry live, Sally has read all about the murders and can’t sleep. When she asks Pauline to explain what happened, the horrible step-grandmother basically walks her through the massacre. “They didn’t know it was going to be worse than that,” Pauline tells her. “They didn’t know what was in store for them.” Then, in a decision we know will have disastrous ramifications, Pauline gives young Sally a sleeping pill that knocks her out.

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In a way, all our characters have no idea what’s in store for them. The riots of 1966 were pale in comparison to what would come in 1968; for all its brutality, the Chicago nursing-student massacre barely registered in the popular consciousness compared with the long, hot summer of 1969, when the Manson family went on a rampage in Southern California. The future is indeed dark. But safely ensconced in the 21st century, we’re having a hell of a time seeing how the ad men navigate an increasingly turbulent world.

Best grasp of the obvious: After sharing a few beers with Peggy (who drank liquor in the office), Dawn points out, “Y’all sure do drink a lot.” Indeed, Dawn, we’ve been saying the same thing since the first episode.

Winner of the Worst Decision award: Greg, Joan’s surgeon husband, returns from a year in Vietnam to meet “his” (Roger’s) son, then announces that he has volunteered for another tour of duty. Greg tells Joan that he is needed in Vietnam and that in World War II, no one would have questioned the desire to go back and finish the job. Joan responds by kicking him out. Well played, Greg: You traded in a devoted, bombshell wife for a war that’s a year and a half away from imploding. It’s probably for the best — Joan belongs with Roger anyway, and the Greg subplots always felt a bit forced.

Prediction corner: That sleeping pill Sally Draper popped at the behest of her step-grandmother won’t be the last drug she tries. We’re likely to see some issues here. Stay tuned.