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Scary Movie: The Fear Factor of Mad Men’s Season Six

The foreboding this season has had fans spinning dark theories about who will get whacked. But the show is telling a more intimate kind of horror story.

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Jaimie Trueblood/AMC

In the end—at least for now—it was not a Manson-style murder, a violent home invasion, a riot or an office bloodbath that befell Mad Men last Sunday. It was Ken Cosgrove getting unceremoniously Cheneyed in the face by a trigger-happy GM executive and surviving to tell the tale, wearing the eyepatch prefigured by Stan’s poster of Moshe Dayan.

Violence in “The Quality of Mercy” came as violence does in Mad Men (when it comes at all, which is rarely): it was sudden, sparingly shown, and bathetic. (Think Lane’s suicide, or Guy’s run-in with a riding lawnmower.) It was, in this case, not much more than a subplot point, setting up the larger business of putting Pete Campbell and Bob Benson in conflict over the Chevy account.

And yet it came in the penultimate episode of a season that has been overhung with a sense of dread and menace, and–unusually even in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of Mad Men speculation–distinguished by especially elaborate fan theories about what horrible things the show was hinting at. Even before the season started, there were portents of danger and crime; see the season-debut poster in which NYC beat cops figured prominently.

As the season went on, the Bob Benson mystery loomed, and the scene-setting news was full of assassinations and riots, viewers began to speculate: Bob would turn out to be a homicidal psychopath, or, most prominently, the show was hinting that Megan would die violently in the manner of Sharon Tate (or was already dead). The rumors and guesses were so thick that creator Matt Weiner, usually tight-lipped abut details, went to the point of declaring: “No one’s going to die,” at least this season.

So we can take a couple things from that. (1) Someone is totally going to die in the season finale. (I’m joking. Unless it turns out to be true, in which case, called it!) And (2) while Mad Men does foreshadow and drop hints, they’re not clues to a puzzle but notes in a theme, and they don’t necessarily telegraph the dramatic developments you might expect.

Season 6 of Mad Men has been filled with images and reminders of horror, public, private, and pop-culture. It’s set in 1968, so naturally the background was inevitably going to be death- and violence-haunted: the MLK and RFK assassinations, the Democratic National Conventions, the Tet Offensive. There were allusions to the way nightmare terrors were working their way into the culture. The cult TV show The Prisoner, a surreal story of sci-fi totalitarianism, appeared in the background and felt like an inspiration for the trippy amphetamine-injection episode. We saw Sally reading Rosemary’s Baby, which showed up in “The Quality of Mercy” as a scary matinee and the inspiration for Peggy’s St. Joseph’s campaign pitch. Don and Megan’s surprised unsettlement at the Satanic-horror movie echoed another example, earlier in the season, of a very different movie that dramatized social fears: Planet of the Apes, which was not only an apocalyptic vision of Earth but was read at the time as an allegory of the racial turmoil in America.

As always, Matthew Weiner is telling a story on this show not just of a people but of a time. And 1968, as season 6 is defining it, was a time when the national sense of horror and chaos became not just pervasive but inescapable: it was on TV, in the movies, and it came into your house. The Grandma Ida story, though badly executed with its borderline racial stereotyping in a show that’s never totally figured out how to handle race, was clearly an example of this: 1968 marks the time when even a high-priced 17th-floor apartment did not elevate you above the dangers of the street, and you could hear the police sirens even on your balcony.

The danger was here. The intruder was in your living room. The draft notice was in your mailbox. The rat was under your couch, bleeding.

That Don Draper ended up in “The Quality of Mercy” watching a Nixon ad bemoaning crime in America and promising law and order was not just more historical window-dressing (or a callback to the failed Nixon campaign of the first season): it was the culmination of all this. That sense that nowhere was safe, coupled with an unparalleled electronic-media campaign, was about to make Nixon the President. In 1960, Nixon lost to JFK’s “High Hopes”; in 1968, for better or worse, the language of dashed hopes was the key to power.

All of this has played out in this season intertwined with the stories of characters we care about, whose relationships and happiness are precarious. So it’s natural that, anxious and trying to figure out the season’s direction (as, honestly, it took its time wandering about), fans started to spin theories about the Big Bang that this was all going to build to. Megan was going to end up butchered. Bob Benson would have a murderous side. Something terrible would happen to Sally. Pete’s gun would finally go off.

And look, I can’t say that any or all of that won’t happen in Sunday’s season finale. But I’m inclined to believe Matthew Weiner when he says this show doesn’t work that way. I don’t think Mad Men is dropping clues of a disaster. I think it’s telling a story, and that story is of pervasive fear. If you spend this season wondering when the awful thing would happen, and who it would happen to, then maybe the season has on some level succeeded, because it’s put you into the mindset that 1968 itself encouraged.

The thing that makes a scary movie most scary, after all, is not the awful thing that happens: it’s waiting and dreading for that thing to happen. Maybe someone will die in Sunday’s Mad Men, but I don’t think that’s the kind of horror movie we’re watching. In the one that we’re watching, the horrible thing is that you survive. And you worry. And you wait.