When Mad Men covers big history, it’s a dual-edged sword: while often touching to see how they face elections, assassinations, and the culture of the day, it can also play as a reenactment at Plymouth Plantation. After forty-two minutes and change about the week of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, I wished I was filling in for recaps on one of the nights in which this show is about issues of bed-and-barroom deceit and betrayal, those of sex, liquor, and money. Mock the fashion, some jokes about mustaches and drunkenness and call it a day. It’s harder to talk about what happens when history gets in the way of your shallower ambitions. “Let’s watch inside, maybe we can fall asleep,” says Don to Megan of the TV news panic, and in saying so he speaks one of the truer sentiments of the hour: that moments of crisis are usually so disorienting that we wish to paint them as bad dreams, or indigestion from rich award-show grub. “Man knew how to talk,” says Roger of King in a brilliant moment of candor. “I don’t know why, but I thought that would save him. I thought that would solve the whole thing.”
“This cannot be made good,” hollers Pete Campbell in disgust at Harry Crane’s concerns that advertisers will claw back profits at postponement of the Stanley Cup and The Merv Griffin Show. “It’s a shameful, shameful day.” Here we see some redemption in Campbell, who in this sudden if fleeting turn from degenerate rat behavior, reminds of us of one of King’s better lines: “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” This from a brave and noble man who cheated on his wife as much as Draper does. I love that this season – with glimpses of villainy long before – the show is unafraid to make Harry into a mild-mannered monster. The kind of prick who speaks softly, and is convinced that he’s only being sensible in his whining and solipsism: Enraged Nerd Syndrome.
In Randall, the marketing creep who comes into the office the next day with an idea – supposedly gifted to him by the ghost of MLK – for an insurance ad centered around the image of a molotov cocktail, we get the Man’s hysteria of the era vomited onto shined shoes. A man who doesn’t even realize he’s being callous because he’s so self-righteous, and so convinced that they are the brand of next-level mind that Dr. King would think it a top priority to pay a visit upon entering the afterlife. Randall is a telling sign of the times: the revolution would in fact, be televised, and profits would be made by the white male establishment in sellable concepts of free love, peace, and that mutant hybrid called “pop art”.
Admirably, the show doesn’t resort to any dishonest character alterations in the wake of the flood. I’m thinking particularly of Peggy, who remains painfully uncomfortable hugging her black secretary. Peggy is an alien stranger not merely to any particular race, but rather to the human race as a whole. She grows ethical calluses in this episode, succumbing to her broker’s suggestion that they can milk proximity to Harlem’s potential riots to get a better price on the Yorkville apartment she considers buying. Peggy is on the verge of becoming one of those women we see on the Upper East Side, a Yorkville yank who I guess would be about 70 to 75 years old in 2013, before finally hearing from her boho BF that he’d actually like to go across town, where the young people are putting new paint and nails into run down fixer-uppers on Columbus and Amsterdam. Gentrification, but with more smiling. I respond to Peggy putting her heart on ice more than I do the men of the show, if only because she was for so long our way into their world: the outsider’s view. Now looking the part of a full-on big shot, watching her unease at finally getting what she wanted makes me all the more squeamish.
One of the most sweet and tender things about Don – one of the only tender things – is that he’s a cinophile. It recurs throughout the series that he goes to the movies often, to everything from Bye Bye Birdie to Antonioni’s La Notte. When asked seasons ago if he’d seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he replies, “I’ve seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.” He takes his son to the movies as an act of spite against Betty’s, whose punished the youngster with no TV for a week. But it’s a clear salvation for both dudes, and their selection of showing, Planet of the Apes, is an amusing choice. It’s a ridiculous film, but the kind that through the allure of costume and genre could slyly slip an anti-war message to the youth of America. In hindsight, Charlton Heston is a curious character to teach us peace, but watching Apes with your father is one of those funny, surreal, honest moments in life where if you’re not careful, you might accidentally learn something.
It seems not unrealistic that a boy of Bobby Draper’s age would say aloud something as frank as, “People go to the movies when they’re sad.” It’s the cinema experience – and the message the boy delivers to the black usher sweeping up – which causes Don to acknowledge to Megan his own admission aloud: that he didn’t love his children from the moment they entered the world. That he resisted and still resists fatherhood, but that hearing what Bobby said saturated him with a sudden and surprising degree of affection and allegiance to the boy. Sitting up in bed in a drunk stupor, recalling his own father, Draper would be well served to recall another one of Dr. King’s sentiments: “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”
The moment with the usher is not unlike the first scene of Mad Men‘s pilot, in which Don takes an interest in the aged black busboy – more of a busman – with whom he discusses loyalty to cigarette brands. Bobby’s later expression of concern that his politically-minded stepdad Henry Francis will one day be assassinated too is quelled by Don telling him that “Henry isn’t that important,” an ad man’s variation on that resounding American tradition: We only kill the good ones.