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Examining the Personal Failures of "Mad Men's" Characters In Light of the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | April 30, 2013 | Comments ()


JoanDawn1.png

What a viewer has to remember about “Mad Men” is that the series is not an examination of the 1960s and the decade’s major events. Rather, it is an examination of a particular set of characters who live during the ’60s. Real-life events are presented only in relation to these characters — how the events influenced their lives, not necessarily how the events affected the country and world as a whole. We see the larger societal shifts reflected throughout, it’s true. But it isn’t a history lesson. This isn’t an apology for the series, but it is important to remember the distinction when viewing and thinking about the fifth episode of Season Six, “The Flood,” which touched on the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. The episode wasn’t about his death; it was about the characters and the goings on of their lives at the time of his death, as well as their reaction to the tragedy.

“The Flood” comes at an interesting time in the life of the series, in which fans appear to be asking themselves the sort of questions usually reserved for a show’s first season, or first several episodes really. Some considered the reappearance of a Dawn storyline (she was introduced last season and has popped up now and then) to be mere pandering by creator Matthew Weiner and his crew to address one of the bigger issues of the period, civil rights, but just enough so to seem fair. The inclusion of several black extras this episode — busboys and cooks at a diner; the usher at the movie theater — were ways to incorporate much-needed diversity into the “Mad Men” world, even if it was fleeting. The all-white main cast is accurate, however, considering the specific world Weiner chose to focus on: middle- to upper-class whites working on Madison Avenue beginning in 1960. Their world was predominantly white, so it is depicted realistically. That’s not the problem. The issue gnawing at many is whether this specific worldview should have been the focus of the show, or any show, in the first place. By limiting himself to so narrow a portrait of New York life, Weiner couldn’t help but back himself into a corner. Non-white characters feel more like concessions than natural developments, and while the series does touch on areas most anyone can relate to — identity, family, anxiety, love, you name it — and the main characters’ opinions on MLK and his death aren’t somehow invalid because they are white, diverse life experiences aren’t present when they are needed most. When reality shows up, the fiction seems much less significant. We get awkward hugs and apologies, such as the one Joan gave Dawn, because that’s all there is.

That being said, fairly self-centered reactions to a national tragedy are normal — humans are selfish, and we have to keep going about our lives in the midst of uncertainty and upheaval. The assassination certainly made several characters think differently about their recent behavior. Before the assassination took place and news of it spread (it really was brought up at the ANDY awards, which Paul Newman did speak at), we saw several female characters continue to rise in their careers and personal lives, such as Peggy now having enough money to buy her own apartment. Abe is merely an “interested party,” considering he can’t contribute financially, but he does tell Peggy later he envisions them one day having kids. Peggy is clearly happy with this reveal, even if she isn’t yet ready for a family. (And maybe has feelings for her boss, Ted?) Megan is right to congratulate her — she does deserve it.

The two meet up at the ANDY advertising awards honoring advertising, and both have a laugh at the fact theirs are the only works from Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce up for an award, and they don’t work at the firm anymore. Megan’s nomination is for her work on Heinz baked beans — an account no longer with the firm, either, thanks to the recent ketchup debacle. “When I started out, they didn’t make copywriters like you,” a slightly creepy Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin), of CDC, tells Megan. He means her looks, but he’s right on many levels: the likes of Megan and Peggy aren’t typical for the game, and the game is changing. Even the school teacher, Beverly (Nicole Hayden), Ginsberg’s father sets him up with has an advantage — she at least knows about it, and she handles Ginsberg’s Woody Allen-level spiel at a diner about being nervous, not to mention a virgin, with ease. “Michael,” she says, “I’m just doing a favor for my parents. Tonight will not be ‘the night.’ “

Pete processes the assassination in relation to his own personal failures, mainly that of a husband and father. He calls Trudy, still in the suburbs as he is relegated to his city bachelor pad, and offers to come over to provide comfort for her and Tammy. She isn’t interested. Pete’s outburst at Harry’s crassness regarding the event - - the latter being upset the news is cutting into primetime programming and hurting pocketbooks - - makes more sense by the line he leaves his co-worker with: that King had a wife and children, and they are now without a husband and father. Don, when he wasn’t worrying about Sylvia and Arnold being in Washington, D.C., also spent much of the episode examining his own role as a father, especially with Bobby. We haven’t really gotten to know Bobby before now. Don doesn’t know him, either, and their outing to see Planet of the Apes only reminded Don of his failures.

His past doesn’t let him off the hook, but it is true Don’s troubled childhood has contributed to his bad parenting. His confession to Megan about not initially feeling love for his children is the most honest we have seen him in a while: “I wanted to be the man who loves children,” he tells her. “… 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. And one day they get older, and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.” Comforting Bobby later, he learns his son is concerned for the welfare of Henry because of his job with the mayor and potential danger it brings thanks to rioting in the city. Henry is the father he really knows, and Megan calls him on it. Don is better with his kids, better when he isn’t hiding from them. She knows about difficult dads; her own called after the assassination to cheer on the destruction of the U.S. But he’s using his intellect as a crutch, and Don is using alcohol.

Bobby’s fears may not be abated now that Henry is considering a run for the New York State Senate, a move Betty cheers even as she worries about being thrust into the public eye. Her body issues narrative may gear up again. She doesn’t exactly win parent of the year, either; Bobby and Sally only went to the city because Betty demanded it, despite the danger from rioting. Megan, at least, is a comforting presence. Too bad Peggy won’t soon be her neighbor after all. She didn’t get the apartment thanks to a weird development with her real estate agent. Did the agent, who was surprised to learn Abe wasn’t making the decisions in their apartment hunting, sabotage the deal? Not everyone is eager for such societal shifts, and thankfully not everyone is as far out as Roger’s friend, Randall (William Mapother), who thinks a property insurance ad featuring a Molotov cocktail and a coupon is a great idea. “This is an opportunity,” he says. “The heavens are telling us to change.”

Indeed, the assassination is representative of the changing culture but also the cyclical nature of humans — so often, we tear our lives and worlds apart without reason. “Man knew how to talk,” Roger said of the late King. “I don’t know why, but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing.” The Apes finale fascinated Bobby — wait, this new world we’re seeing is actually America, only destroyed? Why did they do that to themselves? Perhaps the title “The Flood” is a biblical reference, reminding viewers of the great flood from The Book of Genesis. God destroyed the world he created because of man’s evilness. A clean slate was needed because humans, essentially, had screwed things up too much to continue at their present pace. God promised He’d never flood the Earth again, but has man actually changed? We murder to dissect. We blow things up, and we hurt each other. Charlton Heston’s George Taylor is right — we’re maniacs.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.



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  • e jerry powell

    Hmmm. My parents graduated from college in May of 1968 (well, technically my father did; my mother was about five months pregnant with me ― surprise! ― during the events of this episode, and she dropped out, not to finish until I was in junior high). My father had to knock around, going from grad school to grad school, not able to find much of a job, and joining the Army around 1970 when he couldn't get any work to let him support a wife and kid. In fact, it wasn't until 1973, with the advent of Affirmative Action, than any employers at all would give him a serious shot (thank you, Texas Instruments, from which he just retired last year, for putting me through college). He got a B.S. in math, graduated ΦΒΚ, and couldn't get anything but offers for manual labor (including going back to North Carolina to work on his parents' farm).

    (I have problems with the era, so white guilt makes me feel pretty damn awesome.)

  • e jerry powell

    My selfish reaction:

    I'M ABOUT TO TURN FORTY-FIVE!
    AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

  • Uriah_Creep

    I thought you were old, Jerry (you keep telling us so), but you lied. I turn 60 next month. YOU'RE A CHILD!

  • e jerry powell

    Hon, I'm gay. 45 means I'm practically on life support. They'll be coming in to pull the plug at any moment.

  • Uriah_Creep

    Did you leave a DNR?

  • e jerry powell

    As if they'd resuscitate me anyway...

  • dinka

    Interesting review. I like the show and the storylines and the characters very much. Asking the question of "Why would Weiner chose to tell a story about middle-upper middle class whites in the 60's on madison ave" seems irrellevant to me. If there is little room for retelling of certain historical moments or plotlines with people of color, it is not in any way a bad thing. Lots of plot and retelling of history does not necessarily add quality and character developement. Tell your story Weiner, develope these characters and make me care about them. THAT is what takes immagination. I do not think anyone should have to answer for why they want to tell a certain story.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    Were my wife and I the only ones who noticed that Don fell in love with his son at the movies? Everyone seems to be discussing how bad a father he is, but the whole conversation with Megan that night was not just about how he's failed as a father in the past. It was about how those failings are crashing down on him now BECAUSE he had a transcendent moment of fatherly love.

    "And one day they get older, and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode."

    Now he knows the difference. I saw the whole thing as hopeful, a glimmer of a possible future in which Don loves his children, or at least one of them, genuinely rather than out of a sense of duty.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    You can still love your kids while being a bad parent. Sure he loves his kids-- once they've justified their invasion into his world and existence to him. I'm not saying he should all STFU, Parents over fatherhood, kids are frequently dull, brats, or leaking and plain old dumb, but they're not an imposition. They did have a great time together but I don't know what's so amazing about his kid finally answering Don's unspoken question 'what's in it for me' question.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    First of all, kids are absolutely an imposition. They require parents to set aside their own plans and desires, and sometimes their own welfare, in service to the child's needs. (Good) parents are just really good at forgiving that imposition because the payoff is so spectacular: unconditional love and the opportunity to guide a new human being from helplessness to independence.

    Second, the fact that Don recognized his son's value as a human being is not objectively amazing, but it is amazing for Don Draper. It's a breakthrough, and I personally am hoping it leads to a more empathetic worldview for a man with extremely resilient emotional barriers.

  • Ethan Rom: still being a creep, even in a flashback to the 60s.

  • aroorda

    The scene with Don and Bobby going to the movies was my favorite thing the show has done in a long time.

  • pcloadletter

    "Jesus!"

  • cgthegeek

    What's Peggy's secretary's name?

  • Victor, the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse is Victor

  • cgthegeek

    My point is, if this show handles race so wonderfully, you'd think we'd know the name of a Black character who's appeared in several eps so far.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    It's Phyllis, but I'm not about to disagree with you.

  • Ruthie O

    I thought Don's response to Bobby's concern was just fucking brilliant: "Henry isn't that important." For Bobby, this means that Henry isn't important enough to get shot. For Don, this means that Henry isn't that important as a man or as a father figure. The absolute, perfect Don response: it seems comforting and kind, but really, it is self-serving and damning.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Henry's a damn sight better than Don, to whom Bobby is a sporadic forced break from drinking, screwing or changing the conversation. I don't even know if that means something to him, or if he really thinks that presence doesn't matter because Henry's not Bobby's blood.

  • TheAggroCraig

    If pictures could be ringtones I'd want mine to be Stan not even trying to keep it together during that meeting with creepy guy.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    That kid does acid while on acid.

  • He and Roger were amazing during that scene.

  • dannyexplosion

    I thought the only reason Pete called Trudy was because he was afraid to stay in town because of the riots. I hope he enjoyed his sad guy chinese food. F*** Pete man.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    I read it more as him being lonely and self-loathing at remembering that he burnt it all down and knowing that Trudy is not the woman who is going to fall apart and need his comfort and say, 'darn it to hell, people need each other, this PROVES that. Just forget it and come home'. But still he wanted her to break and he wanted someone to care if he was safe because no one was calling him. They're not leaning on each other on the couch as they were when JFK was killed and he's remembering that they had a snappy little marriage for a minute, I'd say the best on the show in seasons 3 and 4. No more and he knows who did that. Stupid man. She saw his pathetic state and felt some pity but was further resolved not be broken by his pathetic self or his ploy to appeal to her hoped-for weakness for his pathetic self and just got himself uninvited from a family function. It's easier not to even have to deal with someone so manipulative but genuinely pitiful and sorry--in every sense.

  • katy

    I agree. I think Pete is realizing the downside of his actions and is quickly being schooled that he can no longer have it both ways. I saw true remorse on his part during that scene, and felt a little heart tug when he said that he at least wanted to see his daughter. I can absolutely relate. There's nothing like a national tragedy to make you want to curl up in a big ball with your spouse and children. But, sorry dude, you made your bed.

  • I don't think it was because he was afraid. I thought he called because he was trying to use the tragedy and sympathy angle to weasel his way back home.

  • alwaysanswerb

    Either way, he's still a louse.

  • TheEmpress

    The scene where Pete calls Trudy reminded me of when Kennedy was shot and they decided not to go to Roger's daughter's wedding. God, Pete is so, what's the word? Tolerable! When he's with Trudy.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Quite a different marriage from that episode.

  • BWeaves

    1. I have a hard time telling the two Jewish guys apart, and I'm Jewish. I know Abe is the cool one who lives with Peggy, and Michael is the nerdy virgin with ill fitting, stained clothes, but it always takes me a minute to figure out which one is which. Yeah, I'm blond. No really, I'm blond. And Michael's Dad is awesome at picking out women for him, which is entirely unrealistic. My mother, who has good taste in everything, used to set me up on the worst blind dates.

    2. Battle of the Twats #1: Pete and Harry.

    3. Battle of the Twats #2: Peggy hugging her secretary vs. Joan giving that awkward hug to Dawn. It seemed like Peggy was listening to her secretary, whereas everyone at SCDP was talking at Dawn and telling her how she should feel.

    4. Megan won the award, and they just glossed over it.

    5. It was nice to have Bobby have a storyline for a change. It reminded me of the time my husband and I went out to dinner and sat next to a table of a man and his 8 year old daughter. It was her birthday, and it was OBVIOUS he was not in her life on a regular basis because he had no clue how to talk to the child. He spent most of the time flirting / talking with the waitress, who should have known better as she was neglecting her other tables. Don seemed to have the same awkwardness with Bobby.

    6. I liked the scene when Don walks into his office and sits down with his arm outstretched, just like the opening cartoon sequence.

    7. ALSO, is William Mapother related to Tom Cruise, because that kind of crazy has to be in the DNA?

  • sjfromsj

    4. I feel like that's part of the bigger storyline with Don and Megan. One of the big things I noticed last season was how Don would gloss over Megan's feelings by trying to one-up her, and she lets it happen. Her feelings and success mean nothing if he is not in the mental position to be happy for her.

  • SottoVoce

    7. Yes, they're cousins.

  • ERM

    The all-white main cast is accurate, however, considering the specific world Weiner chose to focus on: White People.

  • MrsAtaxxia

    When Henry told Betty he was going to run for office and then she held up that blue dress she wore to Sterling Cooper's 40th anniversary party back in season 3, all I could think was oh yeah, she is just barreling toward an eating disorder. She is going back on display in a way she hasn't been since she was with Don - and this time as a candidates wife - and she does. not. want. to do it overweight.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Perhaps crawling to Canada alongside Down would trim her down. Also, sick burn, Betty.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    DON, rather

  • As soon as he said he would be a state senator the first thing I thought was that she'd be skinny in no time.

  • MrsAtaxxia

    Yup. And given the timeline I don't think she can do it via something like weight watchers. Diet pills or otherwise assisted anorexia, here we come.

  • They had weight watchers then...she was in it last season. I know exercise wasn't en vogue yet so I'm guessing she'll get a big bottle of uppers and start starving herself

  • MrsAtaxxia

    That's my point really. She got some of it off last season with a gradual, sensible plan in WW but with Henry running she needs that weight off NOW and she won't feel like she will have the time to do it in a healthy way. So yeah, I'm thinking big, big bottle of uppers or something similarly bad.

  • ExUSA

    I agree, race and Mad Men is tricky; and its very easy to appear as if you're pandering. I think it's unfortunate there is a lack of diversity in the cast, but you write what you know. To try to speak to the experiences of a group of people when you are an outsider to it, in a position of power, is very very tricky.

    I don't think a show run and creatively controlled by a middle class white guy is the platform to convey a nuanced look at race. That's not *his* story to tell, but it's certainly a worthwhile one. I only wish someone else was in a position to tell it.

    I did find it interesting that none of the characters thought to ask Dawn how she was feeling, rather than projecting their white guilt onto her.

  • alwaysanswerb

    Though we only got to see Dawn for a few moments, I thought the scene gave us some great character sketches. There was the immediate assumption on the part of the white characters that Dawn would be devastated and would want to go home, and then Dawn's response that she'd really rather be there working, followed up by her discomfort at Joan's attempt at empathy. We don't know much about Dawn, but everything we've been shown so far indicates that she's a professional who takes her job very seriously, and that is reinforced here. You really nailed it with the "white guilt" thing, because instead of understanding that about her and seeing her as an individual, Don and Joan immediately felt confronted by her Blackness and responded in a way that they probably thought was comforting, but was ultimately very impersonal.

  • Xulux

    It was hard to intrepret that awkward moment between Dawn and Joan. Dawn is probably still a little pissed at Joan from their run-in last episode.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    The whole scenario was just painfully awkward and perfunctory. Would Joan have tried to hug her if it had been Dawn's grandfather that died? Probably not, they aren't that close. You could interpret the moment as Joan using Dawn to stand in for all of Black America; she apologized, offered her sympathy, and now she's done her part. "I'm not racist! I have a black friend! We totally bonded over Dr. King's death!"

  • alwaysanswerb

    Exactly

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    She knows that their white guilt will dissolve before the headlines are off the papers and they remember that it's just not time yet to move her off of the bottom rung. I think she knows that they killed the man whilst the people around her think they killed the movement. She can't fall apart because of this, nor is it anything she wants to do. Not everyone is going to respond the same way but the company doesn't see past the monolith, yet. This is them doing their duty and freeing them up to be completely unchanged because they mourned when she needed them to mourn. What she needs is to be taken seriously but then, she's being met with a somewhat clownish moment from the power centre.

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  • MrsAtaxxia

    Tom and Lorenzo pointed out that it might be that the writers are drawing a parallel between Dawn and Peggy. After JFK was shot Peggy was in the office reworking Aquanet. Perhaps, like Peggy, Dawn is somewhat discomfited by the outpouring of emotion and just wants to work. She's clearly shown ambition in her conversation with Joan and it may be that as Peggy was a trailblazer in her copywriting position, so to will Dawn be as Joan's protege in Financial Services?

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