“This is an opportunity. The heavens are telling us to change.”
Usually, in Mad Men, history just rumbles along in the background, its social mores informing our characters’ motivations, its events occasionally prompting semi-important plotlines. Every so often, though, history leaps up and slaps the narrative across the face. Seasons 1-3 were like that; 1 building to Kennedy’s Presidential victory, 2 climaxing with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 3 ending with the shock of JFK’s assassination. Last week, I wondered whether this season might be building up to climax with the assassination of his brother Bobby. Instead, it took me by surprise with a Big Historical Event right in the middle of the run – the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.
As you can tell from the list above, by 1968 American politics was firmly in to assassination season, and perhaps I should have seen this one coming. But then, from a modern perspective, it’s easier to overlook what a seismic event King’s death was at the time – particularly from the perspective of a white, middle-class Brit. The characters in Mad Men, though, while nearer to the shockwaves by dint of being in America, are almost as isolated from the realities of what King was protesting about. This episode showed them shocked out of that cosy isolation as they had to contemplate just what effects these previously far-off issues might have on their own pampered little lives.
Insofar as most Mad Men episodes have themes, this was one of the show’s recurring ones – the Civil Rights movement, and what it was fighting to overcome. In keeping with the general tone of the show, it’s always been subtle dealing with this, and it’s notable that, even now, it only really has one major character who’s black.
That’s in keeping with the mores of the times, of course. It’s primarily about the lives of the men and women at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, and at the time, they’d probably have had little or no contact with African Americans. I mean, for heaven’s sake, they’re still getting over the hurdle of including Jews!
Which was presumably the juxtaposition we were meant to get from this episode shining a spotlight (for the first time this season) on Michael Ginsberg. I loved Ginsberg last year, with his brilliance tempered by wild eccentricity, not to mention the disturbing circumstances of his birth – in a Nazi concentration camp.
This year, though, he’s very much been a supporting player with the occasional cameo. Thankfully, this ep showed that he was just as much fun even with a fairly awful moustache, as he had to cope with his disapproving father’s matchmaking attempts with local teacher Beverly Farber (shades of Yentl).
While dinner in Mad Men is usually a forced, artificial social occasion that tends to end in disaster, Ginsberg’s was refreshingly normal. Tripped up by his usual awkwardness, he referred to his and Beverly’s fathers as “alter kakers” (old farts, for those who don’t speak Yiddish), before unleashing surely the masterpiece of chat up lines by confessing that he was a virgin.
I’ve speculated before that maybe Ginsberg is gay, and his father heavily alluded to that too when the dinner did (as ever) come to a premature end. But this time, it wasn’t due to any dramatic faux pas – it was down to the news of Dr King’s death coming over the wireless in the diner.
That’s obviously a downer for a liberal like Ginsberg, and bound to put a damper on any social occasion. But it was as nothing compared to the downer it put on Don, Megan, Peggy and Pete, who were attending the ill-fated Advertising Companies of America awards dinner.
This event has featured in the show before, and it never goes well. Who can forget Duck Phillips’ drunken rant at the microphone, or Don smashing his award? They just don’t give it up though, and bravely held it again for 1968, with a barely visible Paul Newman hosting. “I need binoculars,” commented Peggy, lampshading the fact that the show was better off not trying to make up an impersonator as the now-dead heartthrob.
Unfortunately, Paul had barely got through his endorsement of Eugene McCarthy before someone loudly shouted the news about Dr King, and the event ended in its usual disaster. Significantly though, the overall mood among the attendees was not sorrow or regret. It was panic, and fear. The queues for the phone showed it perfectly, with the frantic Pete unable to even wait in line.
The implication was clear. These well-to-do white people knew exactly what a tinderbox they were sitting on, and were terrified that the equally white assassin had just lit the fuse. The aftermath of King’s death was characterised by not entirely unexpected race riots, especially in urban areas with a large black population – such as, say, New York City.
There followed much staring at TV sets, as vintage news footage spooled forth showing just how bad things got. The (white) ruling class immediately tried to stave off the feared revolution, as Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation the very night of Dr King’s death.
As things got bad, some surprising reactions occurred from the characters we’ve come to know (and sometimes rather like). Pete Campbell, in particular, was a surprise. His initial response to a national tragedy and potential civil unrest was to call Trudy, and seemingly try to revoke his enforced exile to his Manhattan apartment, which Trudy was having none of.
Typical Pete, I thought, trying to turn a national tragedy to his own personal advantage. But hen he surprised me with a passionate response to Harry Crane, who was dismayed at the disruption to his beloved TV schedules. Pete, it seemed, was genuinely upset at Dr King’s death, and only the intervention of the too-little-seen Bert Cooper prevented the disagreement from coming to fisticuffs. Just as well for Pete, who seemed to have forgotten the drubbing he got last year at the hands of the sadly-missed Lane Pryce.
Still, it made me recall that Pete was similarly horrified by the death of JFK back in season 3. Could it be that, inside his rancid little soul, there’s an inclusive liberal clawing desperately to get out?
More telling was the reaction of the (white) main characters when dealing with the show’s massively rare actual black people. Peggy, confronted by secretary Phyllis’ tears, drew her into an awkward hug which Phyllis seemed to appreciate. Joan, on the other hand, freely offered just such a hug to Don’s secretary Dawn to her apparent bemusement, while Don offered the sort of condolences you would to someone bereaved of a much-loved relative.
The implication was clear – these white people, patronisingly, hadn’t got a clue that black people weren’t just an amorphous mass of clones, all feeling like they’d lost a member of their immediate family. Dawn looked a bit shell-shocked, true, but then Harlem was a bit of a mess at that point. All she wanted was to get on with her work. Unfortunately for her, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were shutting the office early as a mark of ‘respect’ (nothing at all to do with the imminent threat of riots and looting, I’m sure).
Still, Don Draper does have a pretty liberal sensibility, for an alpha male of his time, and it was easy to believe that his sorrow was heartfelt, if ill-thought out. More striking was an actual display of regret from Roger Sterling (who, lest we forget, was singing in blackface a few years ago). “That man could talk, I’ll give him that,” the sombre-looking Roger averred. “I thought he’d be able to talk his way out of this.”
Don, though, had another reason to be worried about the State of the Nation beyond his vaguely liberal sensibilities. At the outset of the ep, the Rosens – ie his best friend and his mistress – had set out on an impromptu trip to Washington DC. Which, in the aftermath, suffered some of the worst rioting in the country. Megan, of course, assumed her husband’s worry to be a mix of altruism and friendly concern; how little she knows!
Along the way, Tom Smuts’ script (with Matt Weiner’s hot and eager help) touched on another recurring theme, as the ever-annoying Betty insisted that Don take his turn at weekend custody of the kids, despite the fact that large parts of NYC were erupting in flames. “She’s a piece of work,” muttered Megan, darkly – about the most disparaging thing I’ve ever heard her say about anybody.
It did, though, highlight the long overdue contemplation of just what Don feels about his children. His relationship with them over the years has been ambivalent at best; doing what he perceives is the accepted fatherly duty while never seeming to really feel anything for them. This episode drew that into brutal light as he confided in Megan, “I only ever wanted to be the man who loved children… you want to love them,but you don’t.”
This was a bit revelatory – you can know in your mind that parental love isn’t guaranteed, but hearing it straight from the mouth of Don Draper is quite a shocker. As he said, it obviously was both a shadow of and a reflection on his own horrible childhood. And there was at least a crumb of comfort as he added, “then they grow up, and they do something. And you feel what you’ve been faking.”
Where’s Bob Benson?
No sign of the mysterious and perhaps unearthly Bob this week. Instead, though, we got someone equally surreal and even more disquieting – Roger’s inexplicable old friend Randall Wallace (no, not the one who wrote Braveheart). Randall (incarnated by Lost’s creepy William Mapother) is a property insurance agent who looks like he’s out of a Frank Capra movie, but spews impenetrable homilies like Agent Cooper out of Twin Peaks, with the demeanour of Hannibal Lecter.
Reflecting on the tragedy of the night before, Randy confided that the ghost of Martin Luther King had visited him with an idea for an ad campaign – a Molotov cocktail about to be thrown at a building. Stan’s guffaws were mistaken for admiration, while Don just looked concerned at the thought of having an absolute loon in for a business meeting. Roger, to his credit, looked shamefaced. Yet Randy, with his weird, delirious dialogue, was one of the most portentous of characters in this most portentous of shows. I wonder if he’ll be back?
Well… the whole episode, obviously.
Beyond that though, we got Paul Newman proclaiming his endorsement for Senator Eugene McCarthy, the first challenger to incumbent Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination. In the event, McCarthy’s campaign was somewhat derailed by the intervention of the more populist Bobby Kennedy, who might have won the nomination if not for the small inconvenience of being shot dead. As it turned out, the Democrats ended up lumbered with George Wallace, who handed Nixon his first win.
In popular culture, Don bonded (a bit) with his son Bobby, circumventing Betty’s ban on him watching TV by taking him to the movies. The changing face of Bobby Draper – this, I think is about the fifth – sagely observed, “everybody goes to the movies when they’re sad.” Plainly he’s been watching the show.
The movie in question was 1968’s smash hit Planet of the Apes, itself full of enough portentous dialogue to nicely counterpoint the events of the episode. The bits we saw were Dr Zaius condemning the destructive nature of man, followed by that twist ending at a point in time when less than the entire population of the planet knew it was coming. “So they blew up New York?” Bobby queried tremulously. “They blew up the whole of America,” Don replied, apparently unable to conceive of a world outside of the USA. “Jeez,” was Bobby’s earnest response. For a bit of fun, we got to see Don reading what I guess was a 20th Century Fox publicity tie-in:
There was music too; at the end of the ep, as Don took the air on his penthouse balcony to the strains of seemingly every NYC police siren, the picture faded to the strains of Paul Mauriat’s hit instrumental Love is Blue – the calming antithesis of everything in the story this week.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Less time than usual for gaudy period clothes this week, what with the serious nature of the story and everything. Still, Abe was the very model of a hippy beatnik with his Zappa-style hair and leather jacket:
And at the ACA Awards, Megan was sporting a simply stunning metallic gold thingy that looked like a castoff from the James Bond movie of the previous year, You Only Live Twice:
This was a heavier than usual ep of even this show, given the serious nature of the historical events pushed to the foreground.Still, it managed (as ever) to convey its themes with subtle aplomb. In the past, well-meaning movies about the Civil Rights movement (I’m looking at you, Mississippi Burning) still managed to cast the whites in the main roles, leaving the blacks as persecuted victims to be rescued by liberal but patronising Caucasians.
This ep of Mad Men managed to have its cake and eat it, by still showing very few actual black people, but showing its majority whites as (mostly) venal, self-interested and at best well-meaning but dumb. It also highlighted what is still an issue in US race relations today – the fact that, in America, race tends to equate to class. If you’re rich, you’re likely white. If you’re poor, you’re likely black. Maybe we haven’t moved on as far from the 60s as we’d like.