Last night’s episode of Mad Men centered on several plot lines with a common theme—violence towards women—against the backdrop of the July 1966 massacre of eight nursing students in Chicago.
There’s something about massacres like Speck’s or sexual serial killers like Jack the Ripper or Ted Bundy that intrigue and titillate, and last night’s episode made me ponder why that is. I have had a life-long fascination with serial and mass murderers, and have a terrifyingly encyclopedic knowledge of some of the worst of them. (I should have a button made: “I know way too much about Gary Ridgway – ask me how!”)
I also know I’m not alone in this. I know a lot of women who hold a similar fascination. Nevertheless, my interest in serial murderers has often disturbed the men in my life, who can’t understand why I would be so interested by something so macabre. I think it may have something to do with subject position. When I study a murderer of women, I see myself reflected in his victims. So, I can’t help but wonder whether the men in my life recoil from the true-crime horror stories that fascinate me because, unable to see themselves in the victims’ shoes, they are instead confronted with their id-reflection in the killer.
As Peggy’s friend Joyce Life passed around grisly crime scene photos with a photography loupe, new copywriter Michael Ginsberg is appalled by Richard’ Speck’s horror show and declares the women “sickos” for being drawn in by them. Nevertheless, when he saw the opportunity at a meeting with Butler Shoes, Michael pitched a rather dark twist on the Cinderella story, where it’s unclear whether the handsome stranger who finds her alone and shoeless in the night is a savior or a devil.
It occurred to me in that meeting that, earlier, Michael wasn’t necessarily disgusted by the women’s fascination with the crime photos. Whereas the women at SCDP find themselves transfixed by the photos with a sort of “there but for the grace of God/that could be me” mix of horror and relief, Michael may have wondered when confronted with those images whether there wasn’t some small capacity within him to conceive and execute such a massacre, given the “right” circumstances of upbringing and brain chemistry.
We certainly saw Don’s last night during what thankfully turned out to be a disturbing fever dream. After encountering an old lover in the elevator earlier that day, Don finds her at his door, having followed him home. She later seduces him and makes it clear she won’t be leaving him alone. Don responds angrily, choking the life out of her and shoving her lifeless body halfway beneath the bed with a single, high-heeled leg peeking out—a nod to Michael’s shoe pitch, no doubt. We are left to digest the possibility that Dick Whitman will be adding a literal skeleton to his closet full of figurative ones, until Megan appears at Don’s bedside, making it clear that his evening activities merely played out during some fitful REM sleep.
But bogeymen don’t resemble Richard Speck or the one Don inhabited in his dreams nearly as often as they do men like Greg Harris, Joan’s Mystery-Date-rapist-turned-husband. Returned from his year-long tour, Greg indicates that he volunteered to go back for another year without consulting Joan. “GOOD!” I said. “Let him go.” Joan eventually makes the important realization that she doesn’t need a man, especially not one like Greg. I really thought Joan would never acknowledge the fact that Greg raped her before they were married. As she finally laid it all out on the dining table, calling him out for his insecurity in his own manhood, I braced myself for the inevitable slap, punch, or shove. Instead, he got up and walked out, and I felt relief wash over me as Joan told her mother, “It’s over.”