History is a fickle mistress. She’s a liar and a cheat, skirting around the edges of our memory, changing herself into what she sees fit. This week’s episode of “Mad Men” takes place on April 4, 1968. At 6:01 p.m. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on a motel balcony in Memphis. We remember that part. The balcony. The image of everyone pointing in the direction of the gunshot.
Sunday’s episode was about what history hides behind her back—the events stamped out of public consciousness.
After MLK Jr.’s assassination, riots swept Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities. Some were killed; thousands were injured in a small flood of anger, indignity, and confusion. Catastrophe and tragedy often bring us together even if the act’s intention was to tear us apart. Halfway through the episode, Ginsberg’s father remarks, “In the flood, the animals went two by two. You gonna get on the ark with your father?” Much of the episode revolves around whom these characters would want beside them on the ark. As news spreads of King’s death, calls are placed to families and loved ones. Most poignantly, Pete, alone in his Manhattan apartment, places a call to Trudy in their suburban home. In a conversation that so perfectly captures the devastating awkwardness of long-term break-ups, Pete at once comforts and angers Trudy. She allows herself the serenity of familiarity before reverting to her current hostility. Don lets Megan cling to him, even as he worries about Sylvia, trapped in D.C. amidst riots that would eventually claim 12 lives there. Peggy’s boyfriend, Abe, ditches her to chase the story in Harlem, leaving her to rely on Don for a ride home. Don, as we learn, is a better father-figure than he is a father. Even Henry, ever the protector, leaves Betty to quell possible rioting in the city with the mayor.[ref]This was based on the real-life actions of Mayor John Lindsey who went to Harlem to pledge his solidarity with Black New Yorkers.[/ref]
In 1968, King’s assassination was viewed as an African-American misfortune. Don, Joan, and Peggy don’t expect the black secretaries to come into work, but everyone assumes the whites will. “We’re all so sorry,” Joan says (after the most awkward side hug in television history). The murder is not seen as an American tragedy, but an African-American one. Despite the gains in race relations shown over the course of six seasons, this episode reminds us of the significant cultural segregation that still exists in the time period. Remember, too, that the inner-city riots that occurred after MLK Jr.’s assassination led to significant suburban white flight.[ref]Businesses were destroyed, leading to job loss. Rising insurance prices and fear of crime depressed property values, further accelerating retreat[/ref] Later, Don and Bobby watch “The Planet of the Apes” and the myth of the Great Flood and Dr. Zaius’s view of humanity both come to the same conclusion: the human race is inherently destructive, even genocidal. It’s through this prism that MLK’s assassination is presented–the destruction of a nonviolent civil rights leader at the hand of a fellow American.
The tragedy, even more so than the assassination of JFK that we saw in Season 3, is experienced via television. There are numerous shots of the characters watching the same broadcast, sharing a cultural shift. Harry, the founding head of the television department, shouts down a progressive Pete[ref]Pete has a history of being ahead of the national consciousness: From his interaction with Hollis, the elevator operator, in Season 1; to his faith in JFK when his bosses touted Richard Nixon; to his pitch for ads in Ebony Magazine.[/ref] after Pete admonishes him for thinking of the financial impact the assassination will have on his clients.[ref]It could be said that Pete uses the tragedy for his himself also, as an excuse to call Trudy.[/ref] Peggy’s real estate agent, too, tries to profit off the tragedy, hoping the riots will allow them to sneak in an offer under the asking price; the plot fails and Peggy loses the apartment. Roger’s acid buddy (and potential client), supposedly visited by MLK’s ghost, sees an image of a Molotov above a coupon for property insurance. It’s not fear-mongering, he assures them, it’s just timely. It all adds up to a profoundly cynical view of how the white folks deal with the death of a black leader. Will the same profiteering occur after RFK is shot?
Back on the home front, we discover that Bobby is just as weird as his older sister. Bothered by mismatched wallpaper, Bobby scratches it off, hiding his handiwork behind his bed. He is discovered though, and Betty lets him have it before leaving him to stew in his insomnia (Betty isn’t the best parent, ok?). Bobby’s destruction of the house, as Betty defines it, leads to Don and Bobby watching “Planet of the Apes,” a story about the destruction and enslavement of America. The story of the Great Flood, referenced earlier, tells of destruction as punishment, a generous second change gifted by an angry, but merciful (if you are Noah), Old Testament God. Harry, in an ideological fight with Pete in the office, even yells, “No one will be happy until they turn the most beautiful city in the world into a shithole,” referencing, in this case the rioters (mostly black), but echoing the theme of decay that has framed the season. Even Roger’s odd friend, clearly tripping his balls off in Don’s office, mentions Tecumseh, a Native-American general that fought the spread of white settlers—a warrior defending his homeland against invaders.
In talking about this season, I’ve heard from a few people that they don’t love all the talk of Don’s origin story. Does it really matter what shaped us? Do the origins of our sins provide any excuse for our inability to control them? A half-drunk Don, in an on-the-bed monologue, references his harsh childhood as possible reason for his, shall we say, distant parenting strategies. Don confesses that he didn’t feel much emotion, other than fear, when his children were born. Even as they grew up, Don realizes that he felt nothing, not pride, not love, nothing, for his own children. And yet, when they do make him proud, when his son Bobby attempts to comfort an African-American usher at the movie theater, Don confesses to Megan that it feels as if his heart might explode. It’s a brilliantly personal moment in an episode filled with broad cultural themes. We see, maybe for the first time, shame breaking through Don’s carefully crafted veneer. In Don’s eyes, weakness is the greatest sin and he just confessed (to Megan, not to Sylvia) a mortal one.
Much of this season has dealt with death and sin and this episode is no exception. Offering a dark view of 1968 America, I can’t help but think that the cultural decay is foreshadowing the characters’ decay, and not the other way around. The Flood wiped out an Earth so filled with sin that God could not let it continue. Is a similar fate in store for Don? What flood will wipe out his sins and whom will he take with him on the ark? The question asked of Don at the end of Season 5, “Are you alone?” still lingers in the air. History is a fickle mistress, playing sleight of hand games behind her back, but, well, at least she’s always there.