This might seem like a shallow way to start a recap, but hey, as Ginsburg’s date Beverly says, I’m shallow, so here goes. Guys, Peggy is wearing my coat. Or really I’m wearing Peggy’s coat. I bought it when I was 17 years old: a powder blue trench with brass buttons and a modish collar. And there she is, the day after the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination breaks, wearing it because it has started to rain. I bought it from a really dirty thrift store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and it was probably sold in department stores across California, including whichever valley the original owner of Elisabeth Moss’s coat lived in when she sold it to a store that ultimately would feel the thrill of having Janie Bryant shop there for season 6 wardrobe prep. I am wearing that coat! She is wearing my coat. One day Elisabeth and I will talk about how frustrating the fit in the shoulders is.
This seems trivial, but also dumbly relevant. Some of the basic appeal of Mad Men is in feeling what it’s like to wear someone else’s coat (I’m groaning too, don’t worry). The draw of the show is the promise of getting closer to experiences you can never fully share because of time (or emotional barriers, or age). It’s comforting to be able to render a moment naked with hindsight. This is how narrative helps, how it heals, how it limits. This moment when you were feeling pain? Don, that wasn’t bad. No, it was good, it was the moment you realized you loved your kids after all. That moment when you were feeling frustrated and euphoric all at once? Peggy, that was the moment when you realized you wanted kids, and you wanted them with the man in front of you. Life as we live it is confusing. It’s easier to suss it out later. This is where, as a viewer, I always feel Mad Men straining, wobbling under the bulk of history. The personal and the local are easy. The bigger picture is hard.
There is no more confusing moment than a national crisis. Everyone’s narrative is in competition. This episode, aptly named “The Flood,” will be known from now on as the episode where our ensemble deals with the death of Martin Luther King, and there is something rehearsed in some of the reactions. Joan dutifully dabs her eyes with a tissue and awkwardly hugs Dawn in a show of sympathy. Don holds Megan heroically and worries after Sylvia, who has gone on a trip to DC with her husband for that fateful weekend. There is a way to act during moments like these. Peggy is sick over Abe going uptown to cover the riots in Harlem. Pete calls Trudy to make sure she is okay, ostensibly, but he is really reaching out so that he can feel more normal.
People expect riots outside, but they cling to boundaries. “What else are we supposed to do?” Don says when the awards ceremony goes on as planned. (Megan’s ad for beans won, by the way.) The characters we have seen under stress for six seasons now expect the world to fall to pieces, because they’re often being told that it is. And they expect to have a small chance at making things good. Even when Pete seems to understand that there’s no way of making a man’s death good, he tries to mend what can’t be mended with his wife. It’s maybe telling that the fight between Pete and Harry in the office, over whether or not Harry is disgusting for thinking about lost air time for ads, is physically restrained. This is, after all, Pete. He isn’t afraid to throw or take a punch. But again: there is a way to act during moments like these. (A recapper with more interest in the ways the show displays generational gaps will tackle the symmetry of Harry in a plaid suit fighting Pete in his conservative gray. But that won’t be me.)
Mad Men deals in the unexpected, the moments when people stray from the script. This is why the earlier seasons hit home a little better, perhaps; convention is where Matt Weiner lives. When characters behave so out of character that you are made to believe that this is who he or she really is — those are the Mad Men moments that stand out. I could make a list that would make your heart hurt, starting perhaps with Don confessing to Megan that he has realized he loves his children when he never guessed he really could. There’s also Don confessing to Rachel Mencken that his mother was a prostitute; Don telling Peggy that Anna has died; Peggy telling Pete she had his baby and gave it away; and so on. All those emotions that the characters work so hard to hide in a bottle! Those are the money shots. For better or worse, this series exploits vulnerability. That’s what sells.
Something Don says in that tearful scene with Megan about loving Bobby seems sort of off to me. He says he wanted to be the man who loved children. The Man Who Loved Children is a 1940 novel by Christina Stead about a family dragged down by an incompetent father and mother. I haven’t read it. But, not to be all Tom Townsend-y about it, I have read about it. And if I am reading second-hand accounts correctly, a pertinent theme is the destructiveness of emotions that overpower the intellect — which are, you might say, all of them, but in this context we are talking about what we feel for our children. Sometimes, as Don says, those feelings come when you least expect them, and your heart feels like it is about to explode. I mean, the world can be ending outside, but what do you grab in a flood? Photographs. Your coat. Loved ones. There are things worth saving. Then again, I always have a problem with the way the show arrives so neatly at its emotional checkpoints. When you remember where you were when someone great died, do you also remember that this was the moment, as it was for Peggy, that you first thought realistically (and happily) about having children? Crisis does prompt us to have these assessments of our love and our lives, but doesn’t it always seem less orderly when you look back? A television show is allowed the convenience of chronology. There are act breaks, music cues. Don slumps in his chair to the tune of “The End of the World” when he gets a divorce, for crying out loud. Sometimes, when the show is good, it really nails the messiness of how major life events feel. Only through a few characters do I truly feel that messiness this time around.
Other points of fun this week: Ginsburg’s unintentional (or not, as far as we in 2013 are concerned) Woody Allen impression on his date with that nice Jewish girl; a brush with TV show sentience when Pete calls out Harry’s probable plans to turn Dr. King’s death into a movie of the week; Sally being sassy when Don passes on going to a vigil; some prime Betty bitchiness, which I missed like crazy, frankly; a weird guy (Ethan from LOST!) pitching a terrible idea that’s not even worth recounting; and a totally ludicrous deal on an Upper East Side 2-bedroom for Peggy (1300 square feet with a balcony and a doorman, good lord; too bad you didn’t get that apartment, Peg). What have I left out? Oh, Henry is running for senate, and something was communicated about Betty’s feelings on that, though I don’t know what that could be. And little Bobby probably has OCD the way he is peeling at that wallpaper that doesn’t match up. He’s gotta be on the spectrum somewhere. But he’ll be fine, right? Those kids will be fine. They’ll grow up, they’ll look back. They’ll see the big picture, whatever it is.