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A shadow of things to come on "Mad Men"

April 9, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Part of the dramatic tension that drives “Mad Men” always has been that we know how the story ends, not for the particular people, mind you, but for THAT place and THAT time.

An unwinnable war. Racial unrest. The dissolution of the nuclear family. The end of the innocence about our leaders and our government. Vietnam. Selma. Watts. Attica. Altamont.

And it’s been fascinating to watch the historical events Matthew Weiner uses as signposts along that path of decay -- and how the lives of the people in "Mad Men" are careening toward chaos like our country, circa 1966. In Sunday’s “Mystery Date,” he chose the Richard Speck murders in Chicago in July of that year to conjure one giant bogeyman hiding under everyone’s collective bed.

Obviously, at the episode's center was a feverish Don Draper, panicked that he might never get beyond his womanizing ways. The dream sequences with the Pussy Galore from his past had just the right "WTF!" feel to it to make the brutal murder that ended the sequence ring true. For all the poetry reading, journal writing and introspection of last season, Don Draper is still a man who can't admit he's a fictitious character created by Dick Whitman and that the real problem in his life is not the stranglee, but the strangler.

But we also saw other characters coming to terms with the changing times in more subtle ways. There was Peggy getting a gut-wrenching wakeup call about her liberaler-than-thou self image. And Roger, again learning that it's going to get harder and harder for rich, white guys to buy their way to success. And Joan, finally admitting you can't write a fairy tale with a monster in the lead. And Poor Sally Draper, learning that innocence, once lost, can never be found, and finding solace in the same place the only survivor of Speck's attacks found salvation.

We described "Man Men" last week to someone as a "slow burn," and while "Mystery Date" didn't have the immediate punch of some of the series' landmark episodes, we think when Weiner writes the show's final chapter, this episode will be remembered as a crucial clue that things are not going to end well.

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