The season-four premiere of Mad Men didn’t just introduce SCDP’s cute new office and Peggy’s adorable new haircut, it set up what could be this fetishistic show’s kinkiest sexual relationship yet: Don Draper, the “son of a whore,” is regularly sleeping with a prostitute — and asking her to slap him, too. As far as mainstream TV dramas go, this is fairly unprecedented stuff: Masochism is typically treated as joke (Desperate Housewives) or as prelude to grisly murder (CSI). On Mad Men, however, Don’s shocking but brief, slap-happy sexual interlude is not just stratospherically, nakedly Oedipal, it makes sense — both for him, and as a kind of mirror of fans’ obsession with the show. Weiner could kill this story line at any minute, but it will be fascinating to see how far he pushes it — and us.
(SPOILER ALERT: According to IMDb, we’ll see the escort, Candace, again, in episode three, when Don “goes to Acapulco.” Cast lists beyond that episode are not available.)
For three seasons, Don has crafted alluring commercial fantasies while working through a retinue of sexual fantasies: the dream girl, the bohemian, the mother figure, and even the worthy adversary, Bobbie Barrett, who shared Don’s most consistent kink: “Being bad, and then going home and being good.” Now that his favorite fetish is off the menu, he’s found another.
Here’s how it unfolds: “I don’t have much time,” Candace, the redheaded prostitute says. “I have supper with my family. Should I not mention my family?” Don smiles warmly when he answers, “No, it’s fine.” (Don may actually get off on the idea that the escort is a mother, perhaps reminding him of his own.) While Candace is riding him and sweating, he orders her to leave on her brassiere — probably because he likes the dress-up, the role-playing, and can’t resist art directing. “Stop telling me what to do — I know what you want,” she says. “So do it.” And then she slaps him. “Again … ” More slaps. Even after a blow, Don’s chiseled face looks blank as ever.
Maybe Don is just another executive top who likes to play bottom for kicks. Perhaps he wants to be punished for his divorce. Maybe Don — who once told Bobbie, “I don’t feel anything” — just needs to keep creating more extreme sexual experiences in order to feel something. But Don likely wants to be punished because he knows he’s such an epic fraud. (Recently on NPR, Matt Weiner compared Dick Whitman’s “false self” Don Draper to Norma Jean Mortensen’s Marilyn Monroe.) And Don’s most secret shame is that he was only conceived because his father was too much of a cheapskate to spring for a “sheath”: He’s still afraid that he’s just like pops.
“Stop telling me what to do, I know what you want,” is also the kind of line you can imagine Matt Weiner (or Damon Lindelof or J.J. Abrams) saying to a demanding, obsessive, needy fans, who are practically tied down to the bedposts of a long TV series. In some way, showrunners are TV’s doms: They control the narrative, and fans’ access to pleasure, but they ultimately serve at the bottoms’ leisure (we pay in Nielsen points). Mad Men, in particular, has always thrived because of its particularly obsessive fandom, with its object (the typewriters, the fonts) and fashion fetishes (the skirts, the suits). Mad Men is built to be the kind of show you lust after, obsess over, and role-play on Halloween in a tight little skirt and big red wig. Whether you’re into Silver Foxes or Brassy Bombshells or Perky Secretaries or Nerdy Catholic Girls or just plain Tall, Dark, and Mysterious, Mad Men has your vintage fetish covered.
But Mad Men’s biggest turn-on isn’t just the style: It’s always been the kink, the naughtiness, the flat-out wrongness of it all. Sex is never white-bread or healthy, it is illicit, adulterous, violent, or just plain weird, it’s always naughty, always bad. (“Being bad is sexy,” Christina Hendricks explained to us last year.) And because of the period, there’s an exaggerated titillation to intercourse as art-directed here: Sex that isn’t really all that crazy by CW standards can suddenly seem wild (Don’s having sex in a car?!) as if nostalgia is a kind of kink multiplier, making every act of vintage copulation at least 40 percent hotter than it would be today. The show’s eroticism thrums with this element of disaster sex (screwing while Vietnam rages) and with this tension between nostalgic pleasure (those sexy fonts) and historical pain (racism, sexism, homophobia).
Mainly, though, sex on Mad Men is bad. We love that it’s bad. And we may even want to be punished for how much we enjoy watching it. There are very few sex scenes that aren’t followed by something crazily harsh. The show often balances our pleasure with punishment: Roger Sterling has an office romp with a twin, then he has a heart attack. Pete and Peggy have a hot affair, then he gets engaged and she gets pregnant. Sal finds a bellhop: The building catches on fire. Joan finds a handsome doctor: She gets raped. Don gets his name on the door: He gets slapped. If you’re a fan, these wrenching reversals can be painful — but they’re also what give the show its edge.
Like Don, Mad Men fans like the feeling of being bad for an hour before we go back to being good. And, like Don, maybe fans like getting slapped around a little, too.