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'Mad Men' recap: A Death in Memphis

History intrudes on the lives of Don and company as everyone reacts to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted on

Megan Draper

Mad Men

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss

What does history look like in real-time? For most people before the age of the internet, it was a phone call from a friend that begins “Did you hear…?” or a radio report playing in the background as you try to go about your daily business. One of the things Mad Men has always understood was that we can only grasp collective history through our own personal history. That’s why the question that’s always asked is “Where were you when it happened?”

By choosing its setting as the 1960s, the show always faced the running question of how it would handle the many socially definitive events packed into that decade of decades. One gets the sense that Weiner’s first instinct is to be coy about things like this and I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was treated obliquely or if the show just skipped past that particular page in history and referred to it in retrospect. (Especially considering Mad Men‘s tentative treatment of race relations in the past.) But like it did with America’s original fall from innocence in Dallas, the show puts the killing both front-and-center and on-the-sidelines, focusing on examining its characters in the wake of the news.

That news is first broken at the Andy Awards, where both SCDP and Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough are seated in the far back of the room. This underscores Chaough’s complaint last week about the smaller firms being left to fight over the scraps while the big boys stuff themselves full at the buffet, and further fuels the possibility that the two companies might come together in solidarity against their competition. Cutler at least seems to want to perform a hostile takeover of Megan when Peggy introduces them. His attraction makes a bit of meta-sense considering guest star Harry Hamlin has married three different soap opera actresses. The seating arrangements also allows the show to get away with giving us a gray-haired blur in the distance and calling it Paul Newman. (Newman, by the way, opens his speech with an announcement of support for the campaign of Eugene McCarthy, which brings to mind a presidential race that would also soon be shaken by a shocking assassination, yet another man to be killed in yet another hotel.) Then someone yells something and the reaction is immediate: Shock, horror, surprise, and everyone running to the phones.

But the episode is more interested in the not-so-immediate reactions to King’s death. Some want to take advantage of the tragedy for personal gain. Peggy allows her real estate agent to lowball the offer on the Upper Pretty-Far-East Side apartment she has her eye on because of the riots uptown; Roger’s space-case insurance man (played with a creepy detachment from reality by Lost‘s William Mapother), undoubtedly an acquaintance made during Sterling’s Adventures in Acid-land, comes in with a pitch of astoundingly bad taste; and Pete, now a man in exile, tries to use his concern as a way to pry himself loose of the doghouse, calling Trudy from the Sex Pad that has become his Elba. To be fair, Pete seems genuinely concerned for his family’s well-being and has always been more attuned to the plight of African Americans than you’d expect him to be. Perhaps feeling a little guilty for his ploy, the next day he unloads on an insensitive Harry Crane, who is only concerned with how the assassination is affecting TV ad sales. Harry used to be a lovable underdog, but now every time he opens his mouth, my eyes roll like marbles. He seems like the kind of guy who would complain about there not being a White History Month or how women don’t like him because he’s “too nice.”

Dawn and Phyllis, Don and Peggy’s first-initial-matching secretaries, are really the only visible black characters on the show. Carla’s been fired, so Betty doesn’t really have to pretend to care, other than for Henry who was out walking the streets of Harlem with Mayor John Lindsay. Both Peggy and Don offer to give their secretaries the day off, but Dawn chooses to stay. Joan leans in for an extremely awkward consolatory hug that neatly summed up the office’s nervous weirdness about how to treat their black employee on this day.

NEXT: “You maniacs! You blew it up!”…