This might turn out to be one of the more controversial episodes of “Mad Men.” The background is a topic around which politically correct groupthink has calcified – the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. – yet the show explodes many liberal pieties and, very surprisingly, ends up being the funniest episode of the year so far.
On a normal show dealing with the MLK killing, the creators would depict its impact on the Black characters and milk their grief. Instead, the Black characters are mostly stoic and going about their business even as the Whites indulge their feelings of shame, fear and awkwardness.
Not that Matt Weiner and his crew had much choice. They never laid the groundwork to illustrate how African Americans (referred to as “Negroes” on the show, as was the case at the time) might have felt about anything. Mad Men has never featured any major Black characters and in fact, it wasn’t until last week that we even saw two Black people talking to each other. As I said last week, my guess is that Matt Weiner is uncomfortable with portraying African American issues and has decided to play to his strength, which is the white, urban upper-middle-class. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but poor Lena Dunham was viciously raked over the coals last year because “Girls,” a much less ambitious show about four white girls and their boyfriends, didn’t have any Black characters. For whatever reason, “Mad Men” has been luckier in evading the PC police.
In any event, unlike Matt Weiner, I’m old enough to remember 1968, and his depiction of these events seem a little off. I’ve been Googling unsuccessfully to confirm that Paul Newman was speaking at the 1968 “Andy Awards,” but I assume he was and that, furthermore, the night went down just as it was depicted – with the organizers trying to hold back the news of the assassination until the end of the program, but with chaos erupting when the report leaked out (needless to say, this was in the pre-Twitter days, when you could plausibly decide to withhold news from a large group of people for an hour or two.)
Paul Newman was a famous liberal before he was a salad dressing mogul and his Andy Awards speech is exactly the kind of pompous thing he would have made (“I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I have six kids and I’m worried about their future.”) As a guest notes, he was invited to speak precisely BECAUSE he’s an actor, which makes Newman seem somewhat self-delusional, but not as delusion as he does in making a full-throated endorsement of Eugene McCarthy to his mystified audience.
But if they got Paul Newman right, I’m not sure if they’re accurate about the audience. Of course, liberals like Pete and Peggy’s boyfriend Abe would have been outraged by the muurder, but would someone like Joan have started crying? Or would Megan, Peggy and Betty have really been so distraught?
This is a case where historical perspective seems to have distorted our understanding of what it was really like to have lived through a particular period. I’m reminded of an earlier season when Joan and the other women in the office were in tears over the death of Marilyn Monroe. I just don’t remember it that way. Surprise yes, tears no. When Marilyn died, she was not the icon she later became; and to the larger white community, MLK was not yet a saint. The immediate reaction of privileged New Yorkers would have been fear, not anguish. After all, there had been dangerous race riots in 1965 and 1967 and they would have assumed that this would trigger more of them.
But if the reaction of the Mad Men ladies seems off-key, the responses of the men seem right on the money. The fight between Pete and Harry was both hilarious and true-to-life. The always-clueless Harry has spent the morning dealing with the business implications of the assassination (i.e., the cancellation of the regularly scheduled shows resulted in demands from TV sponsors to get their money back.) Harry is hardly the most sensitive fellow to start with, and when he matter-of-factly talks business rather than spout liberal catchphrases, Pete gets on his high horse. When Burt Cooper tries to intervene Pete yells, “Did you know we were in the presence of a bona fide racist?” Which is laughable because Burt himself is the real racist, not Harry.
What also seems right is the awkward way the Whites on the show tried to interact with and sympathize with the Blacks and inadvertently ended up being insensitive. The distance between Black and White is so distant that Joan and Peggy can only fumble their interactions. Joan’s aborted embrace of Dawn is cringe-worthy. Peggy is somewhat more successful with her own secretary and she does manage to get a real hug in, but even she blurts out that “it could have been a lot worse.” Right, Martin Luther King was shot dead and it could have been a lot worse. Time for some sensitivity training, Peggy.
The only one who manages to say the right thing is Bobby Draper, who has gone with Don to see “The Planet of the Apes.” Talking to the Black usher, he doesn’t say he’s sorry, condescend to him or act like the shooting is a tragedy only for Blacks. He just innocently observes, “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they are sad.” Sometimes you can be the most sympathetic when you are not trying too hard.
The name of this episode is “The Flood,” which is an explicit reference to Noah’s Ark and the Biblical flood. But there’s a second meaning too. King Louis XV of France famously (and accurately) predicted “Apres moi, le deluge.” After me, the flood. And after that beloved king died, the dam did break, climaxing in the French Revolution 15 years later. There’s a sense here that MLK’s death is another such inflection point. His assassination helped launch a downward spiral in American society from which we would not recover for decades. For fans of foreshadowing, remember that before the Rosens headed to Washington, D.C., Sylvia said, “Come Monday morning it will all be like a dream.” In other words, in a matter of days their life before the assassination will seem like a dream. This is what Europeans felt like after World War I, looking back on the Belle Epoque.
I’ve spent a lot of time here writing about the Martin Luther King’s murder, but the theme of the show is not really politics or social commentary. It’s about the need for love. As Ginsburg’s father argues, “Now’s the time when a man and a woman need to be together – in a catastrophe. In the Flood, the animals went two by two. You? You’re going to get on the Ark with your father?” In a series populated selfish, unhappy neurotic people, the love between Ginsburg and his father (both Holocaust survivors) is one of the few rays of hope.
We also have the case of Peggy and Abe, who at first don’t seem to be on the same page about housing arrangements or anything else. Then it transpires that Abe wants to raise their kids in a neighborhood with more diversity than the Upper East Side. Their kids!!!! This is news to Peggy, who never knew that Abe envisioned any kind of future for them. This scene is a good example of brilliant acting, direction and writing. You know they have crossed a threshold without it being explicitly stated and without Abe even knowing it. Like most guys, he doesn’t even realize what he’s said to make her so happy. In fact he doesn’t even realize that she IS happy.
And of course it all turns back to Don at the end, in an amazing soliloquy about a parent’s love for his children. Last week the Draper marriage seemed over, but maybe there’s a little spark left. Megan can talk to him honestly in a way that Betty never could. He’s sitting in the bedroom, drinking himself to oblivion and feeling sorry for himself when she comes in and demands: “Is this who you really want to be to [your kids]? When they need you?”
Here’s his answer, in full: “No, I always wanted to be the man who loves children. But from the moment they’re born, the baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars; but you don’t feel anything, especially if you’ve had a difficult childhood. You want to love them but you don’t, and the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. Then one day they get older and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling you were pretending to have, and it feels like your heart is going to explode.”
So perhaps there is some hope for Don after all. He can be more honest with Megan than he’s ever been with any other woman. He can love his own children, even if they inadvertently confess, as Bobby did, that he’s more worried about his stepfather than his real father. The show ends with Don on the balcony looking into the night as the sirens blare in the background. Will there be a rescue vehicle to save him?
Some other thoughts and observations:
- The first hilarious line of the show: the real estate agent, trying desperately, as they always do, to get Peggy to make an offer on the apartment on the Upper East Side, predicts, “When they finish the Second Ave subway, this will quadruple in price.” Forty-five years later and they are still working on it!
- The second hilarious line of the show: when Megan goes over to talk to Peggy at the awards banquet, Don says “Tell her that her laxative radio spot is the sentimental favorite.”
- They really need to do something about the audio on the show. I could barely understand some of the dialogue and had to replay the scene five times where someone yells at Paul Newman that MLK is dead. There were several other exchanges that didn’t reveal themselves after two or three playbacks and I just gave up.
- Ted Chaough clearly has eyes for Peggy and his wife knows it. Btw, he’s still something of a supercilious jerk, despite being a nice boss in the season opener. When Abe arrives looking like Frank Zappa, Chaough cracks to his wife, “You wanted to see Paul Newman and here he is.” Also btw, there were several references last night to the disparities between small and large agencies, so I might have been right last week when I predicted a merger between the two firms.
- Mad Men has most successfully honored Black Americans by not showing them as victims or heroes, but as ordinary Americans with middle class values who happened to be black. To that end, having the two Black secretaries at the two agencies come to work the day after the assassination was a subtle way or exposing middle class privilege. Dawn comes to work because her mother told her too and she insists on staying even after she’s urged she can go home. In contrast, all the white secretaries have abandoned their desks, presumably to watch TV.
- Very interesting take by Henry Francis on John Lindsay. How well I remember the media fascination with the handsome urbane John Lindsey and the way he was credited with preventing post-assassination riots in NYC simply by walking the streets in Harlem. Like he was Jesus or something. Henry snarks that “the only lives he seemed to be worried about protecting were the photographers” (heh) and later claims that what really prevented the riots were pay-offs to Black militants. I guess no man is a hero to his valet, but I’d never heard this interpretation of events before. I’d always believed the media legend.
- Henry might be canny about his boss but his judgment continues to be impaired about his wife. He actually seems to remain smitten with her, going so far as to say that when he runs for State Senate “I can’t wait for people to meet you – really meet you.” Whaaaaattt? This might motivate her to lose the rest of that weight and maybe even go blonde again, but who would want to meet the real Betty?
- This is the fourth actor to play Bobby Draper and the first to get a juicy scene. He’s a facile liar, showing that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, but essentially a good kid. My guess, though, is that this will be the apex of Bobby Draper’s character development.
- For you youngsters out there who didn’t understand Paul Newman’s speech, which would have taken place on April 4, 1968, the political sequence is this: Eugene McCarthy decided to run against LBJ as the anti-war candidate after Bobby Kennedy and other prominent liberals refused to do jump into the race. McCarthy nearly beat LBJ in the March 4 New Hampshire Presidential primary, a shocking outcome at the time for a sitting president. On March 16, Kennedy jumped into the race against a weakened Johnson and two weeks later, on March 31, LBJ dropped out. So for McCarthy supporters like Paul Newman, having Kennedy hop in after McCarthy had taken the risk of opposing a sitting president was intolerable.
- Speaking of Bobby Kennedy, it’s probably not safe to admit this without being called a racist like poor Harry Crane, but as tragic as Martin Luther King’s murder was, the coming RFK assassination was a much huger event. This was the man who had the inside track to be the next president and the brother of an already slain president. Crowds lined the train tracks as his body was transported from New York to Washington, something that hadn’t happened since Lincoln’s body went in the opposite route in 1865. It’s only in retrospect and historical hindsight that the MLK murder has seemed equal to or even more important than Kennedy’s.
- Randall Walsh, the insurance man who wants to talk to Don about his ad ideas, is apparently one of Roger’s LSD buddies. Roger claims that he owes him a favor because he talked him off a roof. The follow-up meeting, while extremely funny, is so preposterous that it doesn’t really belong on Mad Men. Even at the height of the 60’s, there’s no way anyone so fundamentally weird could have ever held a job with any real responsibility at an insurance company. Since the rest of the episode is already pretty funny, we didn’t really need the scene for comic relief.
- Am I crazy or does the girl that Ginsburg gets fix up with, look a lot like a Jewish Peggy? I hope we see more of her. She seems like someone who would value Ginsburg’s sweet qualities and look past his extreme social awkwardness. (This is a guy who hints in one breath that he’d like to see this girl’s apartment and then confesses ten seconds later that he’s a virgin. Another funny scene.)
- I love the end song, “Love is Blue” and even owned the 45. If you look at the album cover, the object of desire looks a lot like Megan.
By the way, don’t forget what Tecumseh said.