Mad Men is a horror series. There… I said it. I didn't believe this until recently. My impression was that it was a dark and brooding drama about the desperate and horny realities of life. This was until I had a conversation with a woman who could not watch the show. “Not watch Mad Men?” I thought… “How could you not watch Mad Men?” “You don’t understand,” she said… “Watching Mad Men to me is like watching horror movies to you.”
That registered with me because I am a notoriously scaredy-cat horror movie-viewer. I fidget, cover my eyes like a kid, and furiously fast-forward through the scary parts so I can rewind and watch them, knowing what will happen. The horrors to her are the lies and betrayal… the possibility that the man she married and trusts is, in reality, a different man altogether. An avatar for the worst nightmare of one who wants to love and be loved. It was with new eyes that I began to see many women unable to watch the show.
In Episode 3 (Collaborators) of Season 6 (Spoiler alert!), we find that Don Draper is sleeping with the wife (Sylvia) of the closest friend we have seen him have to date. This is after believing that he amended his ways in Season 5. Don’s new wife, Megan, is a terrific, smart, supportive, and beautiful lady. We find out that she miscarries and, ignorant of the affair, vouchsafes this to Sylvia, who she sees as a friend. She tells Sylvia she feels “shitty” about the miscarriage and not telling Don about it. This, in turn, makes Sylvia feel guilty about the affair.
In a following scene, we see Don and Sylvia having dinner together. It was supposed to be a couples’ dinner with both of the spouses but Megan is feeling ill and Sylvia’s husband, a doctor, is called away. The stage is set here for one of the most frightening exchanges of the series. Sensing Sylvia’s guilt, Don says to her in a sadistic and misogynistic way, “Now I understand. You want to feel shitty right up until the point where I take your dress off.” Don shows us a rare glimpse of the horror character. Flashing eyes, violent and degrading words… a cruel and black heart driven by domination. The word “shitty” cues us in here to a contrast between abject vulnerability and cruel betrayal.
All of this is buttressed by scenes from Don’s adolescence in which he lived for some time in a house of prostitution. The seedy and unfaithful people… the backroom trysts… the fruits of the rejection of love. In one instance, Don is seen looking at a tryst through a keyhole. A voyeurism that creates and is indicative of a desire to dominate. My mind is immediately taken back to the circumstances of Freddy Krueger's birth in Nightmare on Elm Street. A ghastly, tragic, and formative foundation for a terrifying character… as I believe we are seeing here.
A while ago, I wrote (here, here, and here) of Freud’s understanding of the uncanny and how zombie horror can reflect it. Right under my nose was an even better reflection on the tragedy of human sin as expressed in the uncanny. The subtle horror of Don Draper… the thing that really keeps us up at night.