One of my all-time favorite moments on Mad Men is a 57-second scene in the Season Three episode “The Grown-Ups.” Pete is bitching to Harry about being passed over as head of accounts when the television switches to a black screen with the word “Bulletin” written in a large font, the sound having conveniently been turned down at Pete’s request. In that subtle gesture, along with a shot of Don walking down the hall to the drone of dozens of unanswered phones, President Kennedy’s death is thrust upon the Sterling Cooper employees, and within minutes, Pete’s first-world problems don’t seem so apocalyptic anymore.
It was unlikely Matthew Weiner would be able to top the raw emotional sucker punch of November 22nd, 1963, when it came time to tackle the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. But he didn’t need to, because the country was in a very different place in 1968 than it was four and a half years earlier. As his characters demonstrated, April 1968 is a way more jaded era. There was pain and there was heartache, but Dr. King’s murder was much less of a shock to these people than when John F. Kennedy was killed. This time around, everyone was upset – but for the wrong reasons. They used King’s death as an excuse to unleash their fury, to avoid their responsibilities, to seize a career opportunity, to save a bit of money. Throughout most of the episode, it seemed as though the civil rights leader died in vain. But in actuality, this national tragedy was the catalyst for a felicitous development not only in Peggy and Abe‘s relationship, but in Don’s life as well.
The Mourning After
In order to get most of the major Mad Men players in the same room in the early evening (it wasn’t morning, Mr. Hewson) of April 4th, the writers concocted an advertising-awards ceremony plot conceit that had a speech by Paul Newman (an actor shot from a very long angle) interrupted by an anonymous voice in the crowd announcing Martin Luther King had been shot. While the SCDP and CGC crews absorbed the dire news from Memphis, Ginsberg was out with a nice Jewish girl named Beverly Farber, the two having been Crossing Delancey‘d by their chess-playing dads. The report on the diner radio wound up killing whatever mood was slowly building between the fast-talking copywriter and the Hunter College student teacher, but I’m optimistic for a second date. After all, Beverly didn’t bolt after Ginsberg let it slip that he’s still a virgin. And Morris Ginsberg seems to think the best way for his son to combat his grief is a romp in the sheets with Beverly. The episode’s title, “The Flood,” comes from Morris’ analogy of the King assassination to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark: Everyone needs a partner, especially during a time of nationwide sorrow.
Ginsberg’s story line is one of many throughout the episode that explores the arguably misguided effect King’s murder had on Americans. There is not one instance that discusses King’s direct impact on civil rights, or on any of the characters on Mad Men. The only African-American characters of note, Dawn and Peggy’s secretary Phyllis, are in one scene apiece, and their presence is merely to demonstrate how far removed the main characters are to their black secretaries’ experience. Don, thinking he’s doing the right thing, tries to send Dawn home the day after the assassination, when in reality, all Dawn wants is a bit of normalcy – so she insists on staying at the office. Joan‘s botched attempt at giving Dawn a hug was just the right comedic touch at such a sober moment.
There’s not much work getting done on April 5th, so tempers are reaching their boiling point at the SCDP offices. Pete and Harry, in a superb anti-homage to their aforementioned scene from “The Grown-Ups,” with Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer doing their best work of the season so far, get into a shouting match over how the King assassination has infringed upon their day-to-day lives. Harry is pissed the special reports pre-empted so many of their clients’ commercials, while Pete slams him for his lack of sensitivity, calling him a racist. At least Harry is being honest. Pete is using the assassination as a cover for his frustration that Trudy won’t let him back into the house. He may throw around lines like “It’s a shameful, shameful day!” but it’s not like he ever joined Paul Kinsey and the Freedom Riders for a trip down South. Still, King’s murder made Pete realize his mortality and his love for his wife and daughter (he sets Harry straight by reminding him that King was a man with “a wife and four children”).
The inadvertent positive effect of the King assassination also trickled down into Abe’s journalistic career – he scored assignments reporting for The New York Times in Harlem – as well his personal life. At the start of the episode, Peggy is about to move on up to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the skyyy . . . But following the news of April 4th, her sketchy real estate agent persuades her to take advantage of the tense uptown atmosphere by offering a lower sum than the apartment’s asking price. The plan ends up backfiring, and now Abe, relieved he doesn’t have to move to the white-bread Upper East Side, is encouraging his girlfriend to buy something in the “West 80s.” And Peggy has fallen hook, line and sinker for this plan, even though Abe’s not ponying up a cent for this purchase. Why? Because he slipped the phrase “raising our kids” into his argument for moving into a more “diverse area.” Those three little words knocked all sense of pragmatism out of Peggy’s head and reduced her to a giggling schoolgirl. Don’t let that guy’s name appear on any legal documents until he’s put a ring on it, Pegs.
Don spends the episode as he usually does whenever something heavy goes down – avoiding the issue. Preoccupied with his own selfish thoughts, and making countless phone calls trying to track down Sylvia, who is down in riot-plagued Washington D.C., Don is snapped back into reality when Betty guilts him into taking the kids for the weekend. Instead of setting an example for his family by attending a vigil in Central Park with Megan, Sally and Gene, Don takes Bobby – who has more lines in this episode than he has had in five whole seasons – to see Planet of the Apes. His initial intention for the outing is to lose himself in a fantasy world, but Bobby’s innocent comment to a black usher sweeping up popcorn about how people go to the movies when they’re sad, touches a long-dormant nerve that may or may not turn the tide on his downward spiral. Later that evening, after Megan chastises him for his aloof behavior at a time when his kids need him the most, Don confides in her that he has been pretending to feel affection and joy for his kids. It’s never been there naturally. Given his loveless upbringing, I believe that to be true. He “only ever wanted to be the man who loves children.” But at that moment in the empty movie theater, when Bobby reached out to the sad-looking usher, the pretend love became real love, and Don felt his “heart was going to explode.” Dammit, Don, stop making me like you again.
It’s a shame that it took the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination to get Don to start loving his children. But at least now Bobby will no longer be known as the forgotten Draper kid. Thanks to him, Don’s heart grew three sizes that day.
Previously: The Sell-Outs