The assassination of Martin Luther King is the historical event that takes center stage in this week’s Mad Men, in a way that we’ve never experienced before on the series. It leads to some of the emotionally richest content the show has ever produced, as the focus on personal relationships and families (both real and contemplated) causes main and subsidiary characters alike to come to grips with where they are and where they may be headed in the wake of the celebrated civil rights leader’s slaying.
Most of the eruptions and upheavals of the sixties have been hinted at, suggested or integrated seamlessly into the series’ overall narrative. Even the Kennedy assassination, while deftly portrayed in “The Grown Ups”, still felt a bit of a sideshow to the final dissolution of the Drapers’ marriage. The King assassination is handled differently. The announcement–made after actor Paul Newman takes the occasion of the annual advertising awards to make a brazen and politely received plug for his favorite 1968 Democratic nominee for president, Eugene McCarthy–opens some raw wounds and picks at the scab of others. In a way, the characters find themselves picking at the wallpaper to find what’s underneath, like Bobby Draper in the opening sequence of the episode.
And, in the confusion, sorrow and rage over Dr. King’s death, the Manhattanites cope with a scenario that has them thinking about the fate of their favorite city and whether it will ultimately lie in ruins, as Charlton Heston discovers it in the final scene of “Planet of the Apes” –or at the very least become a bad real estate bet, given Peggy’s nervousness about bidding on a condo a few short blocks from the civic discontent peripheral to but at the psychic heart of the drama. (The touching “father and son” scene in which Don takes Bobby to see that exercise in ‘60s apocalyptic movie-making drew perhaps a too-obvious parallel to the preoccupations of the Mad Men cast, in particular our hero, but it was affecting and effective nonetheless.)
In a strange way, the King assassination opens what may be one of the most hopeful episodes we’ve seen in a long time, as many of the characters demonstrate real grace, compassion and love in the wake of the desperately tragic event. Pete in his halting and ultimately ineffective way reaches out to Trudy, a kindred political spirit who had shared his outrage about the Kennedy assassination and is equally stricken about Dr. King. Megan reminds us of one of the reasons Don fell in love with her, as she is there for Don’s kids in a way that Don is not (at least, until his concerted lapse back into fatherhood with a quietly freaked out Bobby). Henry has an epiphany about his career and the trajectory he wants his life to take, and Betty is there to support him and, ostensibly, provide some physical comfort at the end of a harrowing day in Harlem. (And, Betty just might be reconsidering that brunette look, which would be a good thing). Joan shows real tenderness and feeling toward Dawn, manifested by a very awkward attempt on her part to embrace and console the younger woman when she makes her somewhat disoriented and agitated appearance at the office.
Finally, Abe makes a declaration in a wonderful scene with Peggy that is a reminder what fine work Elisabeth Moss as Peggy has done through the years. As Abe lets drop that he has been thinking of what part of New York he’d like to raise his and Peggy’s kids, Peggy realizes for the first time that he is in it for the long haul. The hyper-talented Ms. Moss beautifully renders the play of emotions across Peggy’s face as she realizes that Abe may indeed be her lifelong partner .
To punctuate the almost strange juxtaposition of so much hope with such profound tragedy and fear, the show leaves it to Michael Ginsberg’s father to not only clarify in one sentence why “The Flood” is such an aptly named episode, but also deliver possibly the series’ single funniest line. The sagacious dad notes that it’s in times of crisis that men and women want to be with each other. He notes that the animals entered the ark at the time of the flood “two by two”, and wonders if his son intends to hop on board with his father, rather than a woman.
It really is a bit of an ark out there in the wake of the King assassination. Some characters are pairing off for good (Abe and Peggy), others are taking on water and perhaps trying to bail at the same time(Don and Megan) while still others are on the shore looking on (Pete and Trudy), or wondering which partner to jump on board with (Ginsberg, his choice being between his father and the comely young Jewish schoolteacher he has been awkwardly fixed up with).
Meanwhile, tragedy doesn’t blunt ambition, as at least three characters see opportunity in its wake, or at least perform some mental calculus as to how it will serve or deter them. Abe sees the tragedy as an opportunity for a New York Times byline and Henry decides it’s time to head to Albany as a state senator. And, Harry Crane, his life essentially consumed by the vagaries of the primetime TV schedule, nearly comes to blows with Pete, who sees vulgarity and racism in Harry’s concern with losing client dollars over “make goods” resulting from preemptions. It’s a fight that feels very contemporary while at the same time highly appropriate for the period, and it’s a great virtue of the MM staff that the writing results in a scene played right down the middle.
A new character sees opportunity in the ruins, as well. The mysterious Randall Walsh, a bow-tied cross between Howard Hughes and a New Age shaman, makes his strange appearance (the fine character actor, William Mapother, from Lost). He channels dead Indian chiefs and thinks he can communicate through telepathy, and he’s believes that Dr. King has come to him in a dream to help him find a different way of communicating about commercial real estate- very different. Obviously, Roger knows him from a previous life, and takes everything he says with a huge bucket of salt. Walsh represents a jarring interlude in the show, and it will be interesting to see if his storyline is drawn further, or was simply comic relief.
The penultimate scene in the episode is one of the more remarkable exchanges between Megan and Don throughout their relationship, in which perhaps for the first time Don reveals to another human being what he truly is feeling. His confession that his sorry childhood had numbed his response to becoming a father, followed by an equally heartrending admission that he’d been transformed into a loving parent gave a glimpse through the dark and foggy window that obscures his tortured soul. Jessica Pare as Megan makes you truly believe at that point in time that she could squeeze at least a lemon’s worth of real humanity from Don. It provides a glimmer of hope that while the Draper marriage may be heading for the rocks, but there’s the potential for navigating around them, particularly if the Rosens have to stay in DC for any particularly length of time. As Don looks out at Manhattan after putting Bobby to bed, perhaps he’s finally trying to come to grips with his life, rather than scheming for his next assignation with Sylvia. Or perhaps it’s one of many curveballs that Matthew Weiner has thrown at the viewer- difficult to hit and hard to predict.
Author’s Note: William Mapother’s appearance reminds me of his raging, uncompromising performance as the grieving widower and father of a wife and daughter killed in a vehicular manslaughter and who, in dissolution and despair, unwittingly enters into an affair with the young woman who killed them. The movie is Another Earth, written and co-starring the indie favorite Brit Marling (Richard Gere’s CFO daughter in the fine 2012 film Arbitrage), and is not only a stirring depiction of two emotionally damaged people looking for salvation, but a thoughtful rumination on the potential for alternate realities. It’s well worth a look.
And does anyone think that Don and Megan’s apparent rapprochement in this episode has to do with her being “Megan Draper” the ad copywriter at the New York Advertising Award dinner, rather than the soap opera actress “Megan Calvert”? Plus, she won the only SCDP award of the night. Reason enough for that fatherly peck on the forehead from Don on her way out the door with the kids.
Submitted by Harlan R. Teller