Don Draper has always been an odd archetype of American masculinity. He is caught between the self-invention and desire for respectability of Jay Gatsby and the visceral, often frightening sexuality of Stanley Kowalski. Consequently, enlightened female viewers everywhere both despise what he represents and yet still want to fuck him. Not only does this episode explore this uncomfortable comingling of sex and violence but it also investigates the question of Don’s central decency and its relationship to the women in and out of his bed.
We begin with Peggy’s friend Joyce titillating the copywriting team with unpublished images of the Chicago nurses raped and murdered by Richard Speck in July 1966. When she describe details of the naked, bound victims as though she were telling a pornographic ghost story (echoed later in the super creepy narrative Grandma Pauline tells Sally), Joyce appears most interested in exciting Megan, who is clearly aroused. As the previous episode’s naked-cleaning-angry-floor-sex scene attests, a significant portion of Megan’s erotic attraction to Don is predicated on the same qualities that repulse her, which causes her constant pain outside the bedroom as evidenced by her clear annoyance at continually running into his former conquests.
This portrayal of the repulsion/appeal of aggressive male sexuality gets into some murky gender waters. Some second-wave feminists might argue that any attraction to aggressive male sexuality is a sign of women’s continual mental enslavement, but I think that’s bullshit. When many women I know—like Megan—say they enjoy rough sex, dirty talk, or domination fantasies, they are not implying that they actually want to be raped, physically harmed (beyond a few scratches and spanks), or violated. They just want to be fucked. The very fact that THEY are having the fantasies means they are empowered and not actually being controlled by the man. Also, men often enjoy being dominated as well (even Don Draper himself), so sexual domination in the bedroom does not equal submission in life and does not necessarily say anything about your actual social power or lack thereof despite what Katie Roiphe would have you believe. However, American society—particularly Mad Men’s mid-century milieu—was built around the idea that male aggression without female consent was not only tolerated but expected. Actual fear and sexual excitement are two very different things, but a culture that often objectifies and depersonlizes women cannot see the difference. The Speck murders—for all their salacious details—were not about sex but about violence just as Joan’s rape (which was FINALLY acknowledged in this episode) was not about hot sex. It was about cruelty.
Delineating this border between sexual aggression and actual violence climaxes in the now infamous scene of a murderous Don Draper strangling a former mistress directly after sex, pushing her under the bed so only her disembodied stiletto-clad foot is visible. The dream is of course fueled by the embarrassing elevator encounter with Megan and his former mistress; however, it is also directly connected to his interaction with the new copywriter Michael Ginsburg.
It was only Ginsburg who recoiled at the earlier display of the “dirty pictures,” calling the crew sick for wanting to gawk at raped, mutilated female bodies. Nevertheless, Ginsberg later presents an unsolicited ad pitch for high heals, in which he describes a Cinderella stalked, frightened, and ultimately captured by a faceless male presence. Using the cadence of a ghost story, he describes a young woman as the type of prey that is genuinely terrified yet perversely longs to be captured. This is where masculine sexuality moves from hot to creepy. This is the she-said-no-but-she-liked it-anyway defense (see Greg Harris).
When the client gleefully accepts the “darker” pitch, Don is noticeably upset, and his fevered dream directly afterward implies that he cannot separate himself from Cinderella’s faceless stalker. It’s not so much that he is ashamed of his adulterous past (one still senses that he blames Betty more than himself) but that he is genuinely frightened of his inability to view women as more than depersonalized bodies. Stanley Kowalski is not only always inching toward the surface but is also somewhat central to his self-invented identity. He is the sophisticated Gatsby who knows how to aggressively fuck. The mix of charisma, confidence, sexuality, danger, and deception is what defines him and makes him so appealing. Unfortunately, these are often characteristics that we use to define people like Richard Speck. Throughout the series, Don has upheld a masculine identity that never 100% fits because there is a decency beyond the adultery and lies. We saw it in the scenes in California with Anna and the brilliant scene in which Betty discovered his secret past. Both instances show his well-worn self slipping off like one of Gatsby’s suits. But he clearly is unsure whether the core beneath this facade is still decent enough, especially decent enough for Megan. He obviously does not want to strangle Megan the way he did Betty, but he doesn’t trust himself in the dark.