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Dear TV: 'Mad Men' Season Six: Episode 5

History hits home

Michael Yarish/AMC

Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.

Dear Television,

When the Tet Offensive occurred on “Mad Men” two episodes ago, its presence registered through background radio broadcasts and TV spots. These incidents from Vietnam affected the microcosm of “Mad Men” peripherally. During “The Flood” last night, history hit closer to home, and not just geographically. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. incites racial conflicts that aren’t transatlantic, but rooted in the past—as well as ongoing present—of American life.

Where were you when Dr. King was shot? The “Mad Men” characters were at the awards ceremony for the Ad Club of New York, where leading man Paul Newman was giving a speech at the lectern far, far away at the front of the hall. But this feeling of segregation is interrupted by an event even more distant that, nonetheless, instantly draws the characters together. Unlike with the Tet Offensive, or the assassination of Malcolm X for that matter, Weiner has decided to take the death of King earnestly. Joan, just complaining about needing binoculars to see Newman, immediately starts crying. Everyone attending the ceremony is white, but once the news breaks, they all swarm around payphones, attempting to reach what we presume are their relatives. This outpouring of concern and sorrow concerning the black people community is inconsistent with past narratives in “Mad Men.” If we are skeptical of these character’s reactions, we have cause to be.

It’s Thursday night, April 4, 1968, and Don doesn’t know what else to do but hold Megan when she leans against him. These are, after all, the rituals of mourning after tragedy, and Megan is nothing if not good at following scripts. When Peggy is surprised that the award show goes on, Don’s tells her: “What else are we going to do?” In a sense, he’s right. How else would the Ad Club of New York respond? They had, after all, originally planned to keep the news of King’s assassination until the end of the event, “not wanting to interrupt the festivities.” Instead, attendees are graciously allotted “ten minutes to talk out this terrible event.”

Talking—the notorious talent of advertisers—grows increasingly difficult through “The Flood.” Perhaps it’s due to an escalation in panic or the accumulation of different voices, but this episode contained a significant number of telephone calls, despite none of them being all that productive (that is, if they led to conversations at all). Distance and disconnect (political, historical, domestic) appear in moments of miscommunication, mishearing, or misunderstanding. Pete can’t access a payphone at the awards ceremony, and so goes home to have a torturous phone call with Trudy. Peggy’s multiple conversations with her real estate agent ends in naught—“Try, try again!” she’s finally told. Don misses the Rosens’ announcing their D.C. destination, resulting in this fact being stated three times. Later, Don tries to reach the Rosens in D.C. but misses them there also.

Just after this unsuccessful attempt at communication, Roger enters Don’s office: “Man knew how to talk,” Roger remarks about King. “I don't know why but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing.” It solves very little if others are unwilling to talk or even to hear. Talking can become a way to defer action, or to defer the moment where one must confront actions that require more reciprocation than just words. In the small world of SDCP, too much talk with the same people can result in repetition, in claustrophobic myopia.

This particular catastrophe also forces white ad men and women to face their black coworkers in person, more directly than we’ve seen before in “Mad Men.” Awkward hugs ensue. It’s a script apparently difficult to maneuver. If this is acting, no one’s heart seems very in it. Like Peggy, Don is surprised to find his secretary at work, and implores Dawn to go home (not understanding that Dawn, like Ginsberg’s father or Megan, would rather be anywhere but home). SCDP closes the office for the day, “out of respect,” yet business goes on as usual: There will be a meeting in the afternoon. Sterling’s insurance friend Randall Walsh—supposedly a longtime acquaintance of SCDP—is a creep of Lynchian proportions, and his response to tragedy is as contrived as his drive-by character. “People say they care,” he insists, “I really care.”

Perhaps Weiner fixates on his white characters’ emotional response to the shooting in order to highlight its tenuousness. In a room full of white ad men, Joan immediately starts crying at the news (a moment that uncharacteristically undercuts her usual guardedness around said men), but faced with Dawn, all Joan can muster is an uncomfortable hug and “We’re all so sorry”—an echo of Don’s earlier “What else are we going to do?” The “we” in this episode never vacillates. No more chats between Dawn and her friend in diners. No images of Harlem riots except from television screens. Can these characters drum up appropriate emotion that isn’t actually there? How much does Weiner mean to show their failure to really care?

The commodification of performed feelings travels further than any one telephone call. As Pete tells Harry, upset over the loss of business after King’s shooting: “Don’t worry. I’m sure you can make your money back on some movie-of-the-week next fall about the death of a great man.” Yet, that movie-of-the-week might very well be this episode of “Mad Men”: New York City is burning, and the episode isn’t named “The Flood” for nothing. Instead of a vigil to commemorate, Don takes Bobby to the movies and they watch Planet of the Apes repeatedly. (We see another vision of NYC after the Fall, or Flood, in this case.) As Don’s idea of life—indeed his very notion of history—is both fictional and cyclical, what else would there be to do but to watch the whole film over again? It’s certainly easier than real talk with your son.

The closing scene between Don and Bobby—when they finally do talk—doesn’t exactly bode well for the latter’s development. Talking the talk won’t “solve the whole thing,” and Bobby’s genuine concern for Henry is something Don can’t understand. As Don tries to comfort Bobby, Newman’s performance at the start of the episode comes full circle: “I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids and I’m worried about their future.” Pete understands the power of invoking family, and he suspects Harry must as well—“Let me put this in terms you can understand: that man had a wife and four children”—but it’s a future only significant here in light of “Mad Men”’s white narrative. Maybe Peggy and Abe will move out to a borough with “more different kinds of people,” though, where we might glimpse other futures.

“This is an opportunity,”