'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.
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!”…
Like Pete, Don’s reaction to the news is one of concern, but not for his wife and kids. He tries to track down Sylvia, who is with her husband on a trip to Washington D.C. It’s hard to tell whether Don Draper is falling in love with yet another new beginning, but his worrying seems to indicate there’s more emotional attachment there than even he may wish.
There’s certainly less emotional attachment, though, when it comes to his children. At the very least, Don has always had some species of a father-daughter relationship with Sally, but he’s always been a cipher to his son. Sally’s efforts to come to grips with her parents’ shortcomings has been well-documented, while Bobby’s have been left up to the imagination. Up until this point, the show has treated the poor kid like window dressing, as much a part of its meticulous recreation of period life as a Zenith television or a pack of Lucky Strikes. He rounds out the nuclear family, but has never really been given much to do. (At least he doesn’t have as bad a deal as Chris Brody on Homeland, the Job of pay-cable children.)
In tonight’s episode, Bobby starts picking at the seams of his life. He peels back the wallpaper in his bedroom because the pattern doesn’t match up, which seems to be the illogical act of a child. But when he ends up spending the day with his father—the two of them using each other as an excuse not to attend a vigil in the park—it’s clear that the boy’s a lot sharper than either us or Don have given him credit for. The two spend some rare father-son time worshiping at Don’s personal church, the movies. They see Planet of the Apes, a film with the supremely appropriate theme of man’s inhumanity to man, but also one with a twist ending that’s often taken for granted. The fact that the planet was Earth all along fills Don and Bobby with visible awe, leading Bobby to exhale, “Jesus.” That would have earned a scolding from Betty, but in Don it inspires pride. That his son has somehow inherited his appreciation for art, for the power of imagery, despite his utter lack of involvement, stirs something in him.
This newfound sentiment—you can almost hear Don thinking, “Whoa, this kid is pretty cool, maybe I should talk to him more than once a year!”—is compounded when Bobby reassures a black usher that the movie theater’s patrons aren’t necessarily uncaring about the previous day’s events, but that “everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” It’s a heartfelt bit of pure empathy from the mouths of babes, and it makes Don realize that his son has somehow turned out a good egg despite his and Betty’s abysmal parenting.
Finally, after all this time, Don is realizing the price you pay for keeping others at arm’s length until it’s too late. He confesses to Megan that he never truly felt love for his children, that his affection was all fakery, and pretty crappy fakery, at that. He’s drunk, and Megan tells him he uses a bottle in the way her father uses his intellect, to avoid dealing with emotion. Don may not still have his father’s name, but he has inherited his sins. He tries to comfort Bobby, who responds with a shot through the heart: “I just keep thinking, what if somebody shoots Henry?” Oof, that’s gotta hurt.
There have been a lot of shots of Don drinking alone this season. Yet another crops up this week at the awards ceremony when everyone else is off mingling, and Don, still chafed from the Heinz thing no doubt, refuses to say hi to Peggy. The episode ends with a shot of him on the rooftop smoking a cigarette, looking like the only living boy in New York as a threnody of police sirens wails below. The final line of Season 5 was “Are you alone?”, meant by the girl at the bar as a way to gauge his availability, but loaded with a whole lot more contextual weight. Don has a wife, an ex-wife, three children, a mistress, and a whole office of co-workers, but when it comes down to it, has he ever been able to share his life with anyone but himself?
NEXT: Apartment hunting and old-school JDate…
While Don is singing “Sunrise, Sunset” over Bobby’s new maturity, Ginsberg’s father — who already resembles a bit of a Tevye — is doing a rendition of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Ginsberg is used to being alone, but unlike Don, it’s not by choice. His date with the schoolteacher goes well, despite being cut short by the tragedy and despite his attempt to test her interest by rambling about his virginity. Clearly, she’s attracted to the goofy Jewish boy with the Tom Selleck mustache. The episode’s title “The Flood” comes from Mr. Ginsberg’s Biblical admonition, “In the flood, the animals went two by two. You’re going to get on the boat with your father?” It’s no coincidence that he cites the story of Noah, the original dad with a drinking problem. When his own personal apocalypse comes, will Don have anyone to march with?
Peggy, meanwhile, continues to show how she’s different from her mentor. With Abe, she’s building the life that she wants, not the one she’s expected to have. Chaough gives her boyfriend’s Easy Rider get-up a once-over and writes him off, but Peggy doesn’t care. There’s a bit of gender-role awkwardness with Peggy being the one to buy the apartment, but Abe doesn’t care. These two crazy kids love each other and they’re not going to let expectations or petty resentments get in the way of that.
Abe wants to walk side-by-side with Peggy into the ark, and he admits that his apparent disinterest in her apartment search was only respect for the fact that this wasn’t his decision. When he mentions the fact that he didn’t see them raising their kids in the tony Upper East Side, Peggy radiates relief and joy. Where Don’s marriage was a makeshift thing thrown together over a vacation to Disneyland, Peggy’s will be one constructed slowly, brick-by-brick.
Overall, “The Flood” was significantly stronger than Season 3’s JFK-assassination episode “The Grown-Ups.” It was also probably the best hour so far this season. Don is finally getting a clue that his actions have consequences not just for others, but for himself. At this point, sympathy for the charming devil is pretty much out of the question, but it’s still possible to pity him. While it’s always been hard to see exactly what Henry sees in Betty, she’s at least able to find some stability. Pete meanwhile had a wonderfully supportive home life—and a wife that was such a perfect match that it was almost incestuous, like a pair of married fraternal twins—but he traded it away in his quest to emulate men like Don. But, as Don knows, just because you look and act like a winner, doesn’t mean you aren’t a loser.
Megan’s father’s response to the assassination was that he “applauded the escalation of decay,” which is one of those lines that sounds like it could have only been translated from French. It also sounds like he could be talking as a viewer of the show.
Mad Men is now fully into its orange period. The color keeps popping up everywhere.
Pete tries to have a conversation with his Chinese deliveryman, but like with nearly everyone on this show, there’s a communication breakdown.
“I can’t wait for people to meet you. Really meet you,” says Henry to Betty after telling her he wants to run for State Senate. Are you sure about that, buddy? Also, would this mean a move from Westchester to Albany?
Betty still refers to Megan as Don’s “girlfriend.” Huh.
“All I see when I close my eyes is our name and a Molotov cocktail being lit with a match, and then a coupon at the bottom.” That’s the wacko pitch from Roger’s LSD friend, which gets a giggle from Stan, who knows a little about drug-inspired creativity.
I feel like using Jon Hamm’s narration in an American Airlines ad during the commercial break constitutes cheating in some way.
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