Sunday's Mad Men took a darker than usual turn, set against the backdrop of the actual story of Richard Speck's rape and murder of 8 student nurses in 1966. In the first few minutes, we get several key things: One, Megan is tired of being reminded of Don's womanizing. Don's womanizing! Remember that? It seems like he's all too good this season, all too married and no longer the serial cheater he once was. But an encounter with a former flame in an elevator, with Megan right next to him, reminds them both, and us, too, that he's still Don Draper. Moments later we're in the agency with Peggy and the gang; Peggy's too-cool-for-school friend from Life Magazine is there showing off exclusive crime scene photos from the Richard Speck murders of those 8 nurses, who were systematically tortured and killed, washing the nation in terror. Also key: A single nurse survived by hiding under a bed—a "theme" that runs through this whole episode, which manages to be alternatively skillful and heavy handed.
Upon seeing the photos, everyone is titillated but also sickened, particularly the new ad guy, Ginsberg, who, we learn later, is somewhat complicit in the ideology of the "captured woman" himself. And the "captured woman" is exactly what this whole episode is about, if you had just two words to describe it. Another major plot point in this regard is what happens when Joan's husband comes back from Vietnam; to set that in motion, we see Joan and her mom preparing for the return of the young, not-so-great doctor. (Have you all but forgotten the rape scene between Joan and him back in 2009? Matthew Weiner has not.) Joan tells her mom "stop talking about men in general," attempting to defuse all the unwanted advice—and we soon find out Joan's husband is not a "man in general," he's a man who wants to leave his wife and infant son and willingly return to Vietnam, which is something that, along with the rape, which comes up at the end of the episode, Joan is unwilling to forgive or accept. There's a great female empowerment moment in the end, but before that...
Don Draper has an awful cough and apparently the flu for this episode, which, perhaps in response to Betty's cancer (or not cancer) made me momentarily and terribly aware of the mortality of all of these characters. Could Weiner actually kill off Don? Could Don have cancer, and not Betty? Probably not, but for a moment, there was concern, and Megan feels it too, although she's mostly just pissed and embarrassed about Don's philandering past. But is it indeed a past? Don goes home sick, and what do you know: The former flame from the elevator arrives, is kicked out, and comes back again, so bent on Don's copious yet flu-like charms that she breaks in to get to him. (This is where I suspected something was off, and yes, it turns out, this is some sort of fever-state dream—or so we are led to believe, because after Don's lady friend and he consummate the relationship, he strangles her and kicks her under the bed. The Richard Speck theme is heavy here, and heavy-handed, but still successfully dramatic—there were gasps heard round Twitter.) And keep in mind, we never get a look under that bed, do we? Conspiracies! In the morning, Megan's bringing Don juice in bed, and all seems well, or at least, back to normal, but there are portents. There are portents.
Prior to that, back at the agency, the team is making a pitch. The client loves it, but in a side conversation, confesses to Ginsberg, who "seems to really know women," they'd thought the agency would go the Cinderella route. This inspires newbie Ginsberg to pitch his own "captured woman" story, in which "Cinderella," is "wounded prey"—and wants to be caught. How this will sell anything is beyond the audience, but the client eats it up, to Don's dismay.
And then there's Peggy, alone in the office, paid by Roger (Roger's really handing out the cash this season, huh?) to create a last-minute campaign for Mohawk Airlines. She's alone and thinking about the nurse murders when she hears a noise. After a creepy few moments we find out it's the agency's new black secretary Dawn, who's afraid to go home and has been sleeping in the office at night. Peggy brings Dawn home and there's an interesting sort of awkward/drunken bonding moment between them, in which Peggy tells Dawn that she understands what it's like to be the "only one" at the agency and says "We have to stick together" while also revealing her own insecurities: "Do you think I act like a man?" she asks. Dawn, who seems reasonable and grounded and sort of weirded out by all of this, says, "I guess you have to a little" (and also confesses that she has no aspirations beyond being a secretary, which must, in some way, soothe Peggy, who's tired of people angling for her job).
An important and disturbing final plot line concerns Sally Draper and Grandma Pauline, who are not getting on. In the episode's beginning, Sally is being forced to eat her tuna sandwich (after calling Don to tell him she basically hates Grandma Pauline). At the kitchen table she's confronted with news of the nurse murders on the front page of the newspaper Pauline is reading. Too much for a little girl to handle, says Pauline, and instead of explaining or talking to Sally, she forbids the girl to read the paper. And of course Sally does, and is then terrified, unable to sleep and coming down to Pauline and her late-night Bugles' snack for comfort. Pauline tells Sally, in quick succession, that that terrible man (Speck) probably killed those girls because he hated his mother, thus becoming the worst grandparent of all time—until she is trumped by her own self by giving Sally a Seconal. Sally ends up asleep (we hope) under the couch, and when Henry and Betty finally come home to still-sleeping drugged Grandma, they call for Sally, but there is no answer.
The only woman who's not caught, in the end, at least for now, is Joan Harris nee Holloway, who in the conclusion of the episode tells her military husband, "I want you to go and never come back." He says, "That's it," and she says "That's it!" Is that it? We can't help remembering Grandma Pauline's earlier warning to Sally: When Pauline was a girl, her dad had kicked her and said "That's for nothing, so look out." There is danger afoot for women, is the message, no matter what you do. Have we seen the last of Joan's husband? That remains to be seen.
Remember how last week's episode ended on the anti-woman-empowerment note "I am 16, going on 17": "Your life little girl / Is an empty page / that men will want to write on," as Betty eats Sally's leftover sundae? This one ends with a more violent, though similarly affecting, "He hit me / and it felt like a kiss," a song about domestic violence produced "under the guidance" of none other than Phil Spector. Yes, this was a particularly dark episode.