I’m not sure how this would have played last week.
Would watching characters sit glued to their TV screens in the wake of a national tragedy—as many of us were following the chaos in Boston—hit too close to home? Or is the best way to deal with horrors like these to escape them, to experience them through the lens of a fictional character, like little Bobby Draper wrapping his mind around the Martin Luther King assassination by watching Charlton Heston look dystopia in the face in Planet of the Apes?
I can’t say for certain, but I’m inclined to agree with Bobby on this one. Mad Men’s always felt more cinematic and grand than most TV dramas, and as he tells the theater usher, “everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” This week the show once again forced its characters to look outside themselves and confront some of the shameful calamities of its era, and as a result, we got the first truly great episode of season six.
This could have simply been a repeat of “The Grown Ups” (the excellent season-three episode centered around the JFK assassination), but the tone is noticeably different. Everyone’s a little more jaded this time around; they’re saddened, but no one’s really shocked. Betty—who was so affected by witnessing Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV that, as if shaken awake from a dream, she finally decided to divorce Don—avoids the TV at all costs this time, banning her kids from going near the set and limiting their exposure to the news to radio because “you never know what they might show” onscreen. Pete, who along with Trudy seemed to take the Kennedy assassination the hardest in season three, is once again deeply shaken by the tragedy, but this time he’s bold enough to voice his opinions on the event outside of the privacy of his home. Just like five years prior, he’s outraged that some people are going about their daily business, and when Harry complains in the office about the news cutting into several of his TV specials, Pete snaps, putting him in his place and calling him a racist pig. It can be difficult to make Pete Campbell seem like the good guy, but being flippant about the MLK assassination is certainly one way to do it.
When I spoke to Vincent Kartheiser a few weeks ago, I asked him why he thought the Kennedy assassination hit Pete so hard, and he had this to say: “I think it touched everybody very profoundly, but I think especially Pete because he felt a connection to this man. I mean, he was born of noble birth, much like Pete was, they were a liberal family much like Pete’s but upper class—way upper-class—and I think he agreed with the policies, and they were people of the time. I think much like our era, if something terrible were to happen to Obama, I think there’d be a certain emotional reaction from the younger people of this generation. Someone who was speaking to them was taken from them. And I think that’s something a lot of young people felt. And a lot of people who were older too, I mean, every character on the show had a profound kind of sadness around Kennedy’s death. It touched Pete especially hard I think because he was of the era that he was actually speaking to, that he really felt that connection to Kennedy.” It’s interesting, then, to see Pete react similarly to Martin Luther King’s death. He obviously comes from a wildly different background, but maybe that connection to “the policies” was still there—King absolutely was a man, perhaps the man, of the time.
In his grief, Pete reaches out to his estranged family, calling up Trudy to see how she’s coping and asking to stay with her and Tammy. He’s denied, left to talk about the riots with an unresponsive Chinese delivery guy. Meanwhile, Don doesn’t seek the solace of loved ones’ company (in fact, he’s annoyed that he has to drive through the riots to go pick up his kids), but he winds up being the one who finds it. While Megan takes Sally and Gene to a vigil, Don stays home with Bobby. Bobby’s not allowed to watch TV for a week, so of course Don takes him to the movies.
After the big twist ending of Planet of the Apes—that haunting shot of the Statue of Liberty in ruins, revealing the alien planet is actually a post-apocalyptic Earth—most of the crowd in the theater appears disturbed, getting up and walking out wordlessly. Bobby’s impressed, though, uttering a beyond-his-years “Jesus” after Don explains the ending to him. They stay for the next showing, but before it starts, Bobby makes small talk with the African-American usher picking up discarded popcorn. He asks him if he’s seen the film before making that remark about people going to the movies when they’re sad, and it’s this small moment that sets up one of the series’ bigger ones.
When Megan returns home, she’s annoyed with his seemingly unemotional response to the assassination, and Don—amazingly—responds by revealing he didn’t feel anything when his kids were born. “You want to love them, but you don’t,” he says, dropping in a line about his father being the same way. Then, just when we’re starting to wonder just how much of a monster Don actually is, he turns it around with “Then you see them do something, and you feel that feeling you were pretending to have, and it feels like your heart is going to explode.” So Don is just now realizing he loves his kids—but is it too little too late? He crawls into bed with Bobby to try to help him fall asleep, and in a heartbreaking moment, Bobby asks him, “What if somebody shoots Henry?” He’s not as concerned about his dad’s well-being, and Don’s pained expression as he realizes he’s been too distant a father says more than words could (of course, he fumbles for words anyway, dismissing his son’s fears with “Henry’s not that important”). It’s not the first time he’s been forced to confront his failings as a father in the wake of a tragedy—see the aforementioned JFK-inspired divorce—but once again, as we close on Don gazing out at the city, listening to the sirens filling the night, his home life is in a state of emergency.
-With JFK, it was Margaret’s wedding. This time, it’s an awards dinner. The men and women of SCDP always seem to be at black-tie affairs when national tragedy strikes.
-I honestly have no idea what to make of Ginsberg revealing to his blind date that he’s a virgin.
-Abe may seem like a helpless baby sometimes, but he stepped up this episode, leaping into action to go cover the riots in Harlem and off-handedly revealing to Peggy that he plans on having kids with her. Good one, Abe. Get a haircut and we’ll really be getting somewhere.
-”Do you think your secretary’s OK?” “Sylvia and Arnold are in D.C.”—a clear indication of where Don’s priorities are at the moment.
-”The man knew how to talk. I don’t know why, but I always thought that would save him.”—perhaps it’s because Roger, also a man who knows how to talk, needs to believe that can be his saving grace.
-It was interesting that, save for the kitchen workers in the diner Ginsberg was at, we don’t see any black characters reacting to the news of MLK’s death. Instead, we see white characters reacting to their presence the next day—Peggy consoling her secretary, Joan awkwardly hugging Dawn.
-Don Draper’s finally got American Airlines, sorta: that’s Jon Hamm’s voice in their newest commercial.
-Looks like we’re not through with Betty’s body image storyline just yet, either; the way her face fell when Henry told her, “I can’t wait for people to meet you” spoke volumes.
-Maybe it’s because Mad Men’s musical choices have been less-than-subtle of late, but I was really expecting the episode to wrap up with something from James Brown’s famous concert in Boston the day after the assassination. Maybe “Try Me” or “That’s Life”?