The Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination Crashes Mad Men's Party

Our roundtable discusses the fourth episode of the sixth season.
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AMC

Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.


Barkhorn: Last week we asked whether Mad Men could ever address race as well as it has tackled gender. This week's episode gave us more fodder to answer that question, and I don't know about you two, but to me the answer continues to be a resounding NO.

News of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination burst into the New York Ad Club's awards gala, stopping the festivities before they even began. This seems like a good metaphor for race in the show itself: Ostensibly Mad Men is about advertising, but because of the era when the show's set, it's impossible to ignore the turmoil beyond Madison Avenue. News from the outside world keeps breaking up the party. (This is true of subjects other than race: Remember when the JFK assassination ruined Roger's daughter's wedding, or when Marilyn Monroe's death made Joan want to spend the day in bed?)

There was a wide and realistic range of responses from the white characters. Henry and Abe both saw the assassination as a turning point in their careers. Harry Crane only cared about how the news affected TV advertising. Joan gave Dawn an awkward hug. Peggy gave Phyllis a slightly less awkward hug. Michael's dad told him to go have sex. Lots of the characters turned to work for solace. Most interesting of all, Pete showed signs of empathy. After his own wife refused to let him come home, he acknowledged the personal tragedy in the event: "That man had a wife and four children," he reminds Harry, in perhaps the episode's most poignant piece of dialogue.

But the black characters remained, as ever, two-dimensional. At least last week's episode tried to take a look at Dawn's internal life. We saw her at dinner with her friend, discussing work and romantic frustrations. There was none of that this week. All the responses from the black characters were surface-level, merely hinted at: Dawn reporting for duty at work and asking to stay because, presumably, she felt safer and calmer in midtown than in the chaos of Harlem; Phyllis also coming into the office but then leaving as soon as Peggy sends her home; Bobby conversing with the black janitor at the movie theater.

Maybe the show's refusal to flesh out its black characters is in itself a commentary on the time: The show is about about the advertising industry in the '60s, which is dominated by white people. So maybe the show is presenting the era as white people would have experienced it. We're supposed to notice the absence of richly drawn black characters and be frustrated by it. Maybe. But if that's the case, it feels like a cop-out.

What do you guys think? Am I being unfair? Or just impatient? Do you have hope the show will get better at this?


Fetters: Well, they went there. Sort of.

Mostly I agree, Eleanor: The show isn't anywhere close to being as nuanced in its portrayal of race as it is in its portrayal of gender, at least at this point, in that the tellers of the story are all still white.

But that's been a consistent complaint from Mad Men viewers ever since it came on the air. It does retell history from a white perspective and sometimes, especially early on, a male perspective, largely because—like you said—the advertising industry at the time was mostly white and mostly male. Mad Men hasn't addressed race nearly as much as it's addressed gender at this point, and maybe if we continue to see more of the civil-rights movement (and, importantly, more of the black characters' outside-of-work lives) incorporated into the rest of this season, we'll want to evaluate later on.

I do have some hope, though. What I did like about this episode is that, even in its tiny way, it looked at civil rights the way the show so frequently (and so effectively) looks at feminism: as a phenomenon that even its supporters and beneficiaries interact with in vastly different ways. Peggy and Joan both seem compelled to give their condolences to their respective black secretaries as though a family member has died; Phyllis gratefully accepts Peggy's hug and her offer of the rest of the day off to grieve, while Dawn just seems weirded out and rejects both those same gestures of sympathy from Joan and Don, perhaps not wanting to encourage any sort of patronizing special treatment.

On the one hand, yes, it would have been nice to see more of Dawn's and Phyllis's private reactions. It would have been even nicer to see their stories unfold onscreen more prominently, and earlier on. But on the other hand, I like that Matthew Weiner didn't try to suddenly shift the focus to its existing, heretofore minor black characters in this episode just to show the response from more diverse parts of the community. I like that he stayed in the familiar, established (and yes, primarily white) world of SCDP where a majority of the show takes place, and used its usual cast to illustrate a well-intentioned-yet-sometimes-clueless-1968-white-person perspective on the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. Those two awkward scenes with the secretaries exposed a big gap in cultural understanding, and Roger's remark to Don capitalized on that: "The man knew how to talk. I don't know why, but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing."

It kind of reminded me of that time early on in the first season when Roger so crudely explained to Don—mansplained, really—what women want. Once again, Roger's the mouthpiece for the old-world obliviousness still lurking in an environment that wants to call itself forward-thinking (as evidenced by Pete calling Harry a "bona fide racist" and Harry responding exasperatedly, "That's the latest thing, isn't it? Everybody's a racist!").

On a lighter note, is Bobby Draper the new Sally?

Speaking of Pete: I, too, liked Pete more in this episode than usual this week. Same goes for Don, and even Betty. Seems like in a weird way, a tragedy brought out the more human side of these three. Pete attempted to reunite with his family and stood up for something worthwhile at the office. Not for the first time, either—it was a pretty ham-fisted attempt at being progressive, but remember that plotline with the Admiral TVs account? Don found out he loves his son, and the rest of us found out he hasn't completely lost his ability to truly care about a woman (even if that woman is, you know, not his own wife but his neighbor's). Betty had a rare moment of being supportive when Henry confided in her that helping the city put itself back together after the tragedy made him want to run for office. Maybe there's an ulterior motive there (I wouldn't put it past her!), but to me her response did feel genuinely sweet and supportive.

Amy, what's your take? Are we OK with where Mad Men's budding conversation on race is going? Historic tragedies aren't new territory on Mad Men. We've seen the characters grieve over the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. Did this one feel different?

... And, on a lighter note, is Bobby Draper the new Sally?


Sullivan: This was different, no question. In the past, when episodes have dealt with historic events, they've usually been in the background. Joan may be affected by Marilyn Monroe's death, the office may close, but the event itself rarely drives the entire episode. Last night, Weiner chose to go at the assassination of MLK head-on, using the tragedy not as a metaphor but as the main plot point to which all the characters reacted. I don't think we've seen that before on Mad Men. The closest we've come was the Cuba Missile Crisis in the second season finale. Even that played out against a backdrop of Sterling Cooper in crisis, and relationships in crisis.

I don't think it worked, but I understand why Weiner had to try: The violent way in which MLK's life came to an end and the riots it provoked around the country were too significant to treat as side stories. It also seems that Weiner is very conscious of using the turmoil of 1968 to prompt change in at least some of his characters. He spoke with Terry Gross on Fresh Air last week, and said this about his approach to the season:

Let's get to the destruction. Let's get to the loss. Let's...express the idea that people want to change, and change is afoot. Because as far as I can tell, 1968 is a year about change, about revolution, about violence, about people turning inwards as community breaks down. So I really kind of wanted to get that into the personal story of Don, which is, 'I don't like the way I am.' Where will that go?

For someone who doesn't like who he is, Don puts shockingly little effort into changing—other than that brief healthy-living spree in season four when he pulled out of his season-long bender. He's so consumed with worry about Sylvia (and possibly his buddy Arnold) in D.C. that he forgets to pick up his kids, can't be bothered to check on his secretary in the middle of the riots, drinks himself to sleep at night, and continues to ignore his wife. Yes, he takes Bobby on a movie outing, but that seems partly a way to spite Betty while technically respecting her rules and a way to occupy his son without actually having to interact much with him.

Perhaps the biggest change Don expresses, one which moves Megan to tears, is when he actually tells her what he's thinking instead of resorting to his favorite line: "What do you want me to say?" It turns out Don actually does sometimes reflect on parenthood and children and love, and not just in pitch meetings: "Then one day [your kids] 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." I don't know if I buy that he would actually say all that after being so closed-off to Megan, but you can read the relief on her face as he does.

Some of our other love-to-hate-them characters had good moments in this episode as well. Though I wish the series would stop pinballing them all over the place, their reactions did seem well-established by past seasons. Pete has proven himself perhaps the most liberal denizen of SDCP when it comes to race, both from a business and personal perspective. We've seen him reading Ebony magazine to better understand black consumers, arguing that a television client should target black customers, and he was disgusted when Roger performed a blackface routine at the party best known for Pete and Trudy's Awesome Charleston.

Meanwhile, the end of the episode provided an all-too-rare reminder of what the heck Henry Francis is doing with Betty. I'd like to think that they actually have a pretty wonderful life together and that Weiner is just some demented documentarian who cherry-picks the very worst parts to show us. (Tonight's example: Betty still refers to Megan as Don's "girlfriend.") Henry talks to her about his career—really talks to her—and he values her input. Although you never know, Ashley, I didn't sense any scheming from Betty here. When she said, "I feel like I've been asking you to do this since I met you," it sounded like pride, that she has believed he could be his own man since before she was actually a part of his life. And when Henry responded that "I can't wait for people to meet you, really meet you," I found myself wanting to meet that Betty as well, the Betty he sees.

Here's hoping we'll see some of that Betty in upcoming episodes. Until then, I just have one question: Why doesn't anyone at SCDP realize that creepy Randall the insurance executive is actually creepy Ethan from "Lost" who has clearly time-traveled to 1968 for some nefarious purpose?

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