Sunday’s episode of Mad Men reminded us, as every season does at about this point, both where we are temporally and where our characters are developmentally. The United States was collectively shocked and awed repeatedly in the 1960s as political figures fell before their very eyes. In Sunday’s episode, which took place on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. The world kept on keepin’ on, but it was tough going for a bit. As far as our characters’ developmental progress, this is the first episode this season to remind us just how awful most of these people actually are. The opportunistic, greedy nature of the ad business is what Mad Men is all about – but sometimes we manage to forget. Sunday’s episode is a stark reminder.
Peggy Olsen is nervously searching for an apartment of her very own. In the opening scene, she stands in the middle of an ugly, plain apartment on the Upper East Side. A realtor, a woman with a voice like a bored auctioneer, lists the stats: 1,290 square feet (let’s call it 1,300 with the balcony), two bedrooms, one and a half baths. Peggy, in her sunny yellow work suit, appears out of place and fidgety until Abe arrives, late as usual. When he complains about the doorman’s suspicion (not a lot of longhaired hippie types living on the Upper East Side in 1968), Peggy, not understanding his reticence, whispers excitedly, “We could have a doorman!” When the realtor turns to Abe, the man of the house, and asks whether they’ll buy, he shrugs and says, well, it’s certainly not up to him. “I’m more her trusted advisor.”
The Drapers head out on the town, but in the lobby they run into Sylvia and Arnie, who are going on a short trip to Washington, D.C. As Sylvia and Don exchange uncomfortable glances over their spouses’ shoulders, Don makes an ass of himself repeating questions and explaining that Megan is up for a copywriting award. Sylvia looks every inch the good Italian Catholic in her crimson suit – it’s another costuming nod to her role in Don’s life. (Basically, red = hooker.)
Last episode we got a hefty dose of Joan Holloway (Harris? Has she changed her name back?), and in this episode we got a little more of Michael Ginsberg. Ginsberg, every bit the outspoken, talented ad man by day, still resides in a tenement with his father, who’s every bit the outspoken Jewish gentleman. When Ginsberg arrives home, he finds Pop has set him up on a nice date with Beverly Farber, Chaim Farber’s daughter. The fathers play chess together. It’s all very “old world,” as Ginsberg notes grumpily. Tricked into a date by your ole dad, that’s rough.
At the advertising awards ceremony, Don avoids Peggy. Megan, chastising him gently, seeks out Don’s old protege and current rival. Peggy introduces Megan to Cutler (of Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough), played by none other than Harry Hamlin. Cutler, in a nose-wrinkling moment, tells Megan admiringly that “they didn’t make copywriters like you in my day.” Peggy, slightly embarrassed by this behavior, informs Megan conspiratorially, “He’s like Roger with bad breath.” Peggy and Megan make pleasing foils for one another – although they were rivals for Don’s attention in the office, they remain the two women he respects the most. They’re wearing dresses that shimmer with every movement, and Megan’s wealth and grace provides an interesting contrast to Peggy’s continuing awkwardness in dress and mannerism. Peggy still dresses ever so slightly like a teenage girl – you can still see her inner secretary cowering beneath the outwardly confident ad exec.
At Peggy’s table, Ted Chaough makes himself quite comfortable in Abe’s seat. Ted’s snarky wife repeats his name as he babbles excitedly at Peggy, until he gets up to let the longhair have his intended place at the table. Ted and Peggy exchange smiles over their own partners’ place settings. In this scene, Ted literally replaced Abe next to Peggy until his wife made him move. Foreshadowing of an affair, perhaps?
At the awards dinner, William Mapother is a creeper. (Then again, anyone releated to Tom Cruise just seems…off to me.) With distant eyes and a standoffish stance, he tells Don knowingly, “We’ve already met, and we’ve already had this meeting.” Don, needless to say, is confused. Roger takes it all in stride, as Roger is prone to do.
Paul Newman, the presenter at the advertising awards, gets political in his opening speech. Roger chuckles as Joan squints through her glasses and complains she needs binoculars. It’s a clever way to handle a scene filmed in 2013 that features a real actor as he would have looked in 1968. Everyone is uncomfortable with Newman’s political discourse. “I know Bobby Kennedy, but I’m supporting Gene McCarthy for president,” he says, and there’s awkward shifting and sparse claps. Commotion erupts as someone hollers that King was shot. As Abe yells indignantly, people trade stunned glances and Joan and Megan start to cry. Abe realizes this is a story – a good one – and takes off for Harlem in a tuxedo. It’s brave, I suppose…but more than anything else it’s opportunistic.
Abe’s only the first to show his true colors in this episode…and hardly the worst. Everyone’s a terrible person, more or less.
Ginsberg can’t handle his shit on a date with a pretty girl, which is unsurprising. “I’ve never had sex, not even once,” he says, and continues to babble nervously. I just wanted to reach through the screen and pat his head. In a clever sequence, the din of the diner slowly fades from the soundtrack as the sound of a news announcer grows louder until the crash of a dish signals the fact of King’s assassination. It compounds the idea that, truly, the whole world stopped for a moment.
In the ‘burbs, the Draper kids are worrisome little creatures. Bobby is peeling off the blue wallpaper in his bedroom. When Betty catches him, she becomes truly distraught. “Why are you destroying this house!?” she cries. Once a child, always a child. As usual, when the kids are annoying her, she hands them to Don…even when it’s probably dangerous to do so. Don, along with most of New York City, is drinking and watching the riots in D.C. on the TV. You can see his anxiety, his worry for Sylvia, that woman he “can’t fall in love” with. Betty calls on the phone to accuse him of using King’s assassination as an excuse not to see his kids. “She’s a piece of work,” says Megan…and she certainly is. Don begrudgingly puts down his whiskey (!) and drives his very young children through downtown New York as riots threaten to erupt.
The greatest national tragedy in the last few decades was, by far, the 9/11 attacks. Everyone in America who was old enough to understand remembers that day; what you were doing, how you found out, how you responded. It was a terrifying violation, and the whole country paused to watch as further tragedy unfolded. More importantly, though, when something so earth-shaking happens, something that seems to tear at the very fabric of America, people need to connect with one another. Don wants to see his kids, even if he isn’t aware of it at first. Pete Campbell, rightfully forced out of his comfortable home in the suburbs by his cuckolded wife, also wants to see his daughter. Trudy understandably wants nothing to do with Pete anymore, and although she has tears in her eyes, she tells him she’ll handle everything on her own. You lost your chance, Pete.
The whole episode is permeated with sirens, flashing lights, and blaring radios and televisions. Megan, with no kids of her own, calls her horrible parents, and tearfully tells her father repeatedly in French that she doesn’t agree with him. Hanging up, she incredulously, angrily tells Don, “He applauded the ‘escalation of decay.’ I’m so sick of that Marxist bullshit. He hides behind his intellect. He doesn’t want to feel any emotions.” Megan dear, are you beginning to realize that in some ways you actually married your dear father?
From a shot of Megan’s purse and belongings, plopped carelessly on the couch upon entering the apartment, we find out Megan won the copywriting award, for what it’s worth. Which isn’t much.
While Megan takes Sally and Gene to a vigil in the park, Don first tries to reach Sylvia by calling for Arnold in D.C. A tragedy truly does cause one to reach out – but the stupidity of this move is very un-Don-Draper. Trying to contact his mistress by calling her husband with no real reason for it? What’s happening in his head? Did he fall in love when he shouldn’t have?
In the office of Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough the next morning, Peggy comforts her secretary despite not exactly knowing how to do so. “It’s not gonna stop anything,” says Peggy’s girl. “And these fools running in the streets, it’s exactly what he didn’t want.” It’s prescient and graceful. Peggy tells her to go home because “none of us should be working.”
Meanwhile at SCDP, two assholes are screaming at each other (surprise!). Harry Crane is a truly terrible person, and even Pete Campbell calls him out on it. Harry somehow thinks it’s appropriate to bitch about losing ad money because the channels are interrupting regularly scheduled programming to report on King’s assasssination. “How dare you?” asks Pete, his face a mask of complete disgust. “This cannot be made good! It’s shameful. It’s a shameful day!” Harry, momentarily ruffled, tries to recover some dignity – but Pete only responds by calling him a pig. “We’re in the presence of a bona fide racist!” Pete yells. Bert Cooper, SCDP’s benevolent father figure, tells them to shake and make up. The two men, both of them deplorable humans, wear variations on this season’s color scheme of blue and green. Their argument is gorgeously shot, meticulously framed and beautifully symmetrical. The office, almost always bustling, is nearly empty because as Peggy said, “none of us should be working.”
However, Dawn arrives late, looking worse for the wear. She’s distraught and upset, tired and anxious…and one can’t help but wonder what Harlem looks like, even in the daylight. When Joan and Don try to send her home, she says repeatedly, with wide eyes, “I’d really rather be here today.” Her mom told her to go into work, one assumes to protect her safety. Mirroring Peggy’s interaction with her own secretary, Joan puts a very awkward set of arms around Dawn and tells her how sorry she is. Dawn has no idea what to do with that. These bougie Manhattan Caucasians don’t have any idea how the other half live – and they can’t see that Dawn feels unsafe in her own home right now, because they all live far away, or far above, the chaos and commotion. A day of mourning, for them, is likely a day of riots, fires, and looting where Dawn lives.
Peggy, of course, stays in the empty office, fielding her own calls in lieu of her secretary. Her realtor phones to suggest that they take advantage of this national tragedy to score Peggy’s dream home under cost (of course she does). By virtue of silence, Peggy agrees, allowing her hope to get the better of her despite the fact that there are riots surrounding the likely purchase.
Don, Roger, Stan, and Ginsberg also remain in the SCDP offices to meet with Creeper McGee, the gentleman Don met at the awards dinner. He, of course, also offers an opportunistic deal. Let’s hit the American public while they’re feeling vulnerable – yes, that’s just brilliant. He tells them softly, “I was visited by the spirit of Dr. King last night…he said I should question the whole property thing, man.” Don, for once an actual upstanding citizen, tells him it’s in poor taste. “The heavens are telling us to change,” he says. Well, on that point you are correct, sir. Nonetheless, Don refuses the business.
Because of his wallpaper peeling habit, Bobby is grounded from the television for a week. When he feigns a sick stomach to avoid a vigil in the park, Megan takes Gene and Sally while Don takes Bobby to see Planet of the Apes instead. He tells Don he’s being punished “because the wallpaper didn’t line up.” A little liar, he is – however, Betty is exactly the type to punish her child for some perceived offense, and this explanation makes total sense to Don. In the iconic final scene of Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston screams in the surf, and the camera pans out to the Statue of Liberty buried in eons of sand. Bobby turns to Don and asks him for confirmation on the movie’s apocalyptic ending. “The humans blew up New York?” “All of America.” “So he came back to here?” “The future.” Don, amused at his son’s quiet exclamation of “Jesus,” leans back to watch Planet of the Apes again with his son. Between shows (how interesting, the differences between theaters in 1968 and 2013), Bobby says to the black usher sweeping the floor, “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” This is absolutely the truth – and part of the reason I chose to write about them – but Bobby doesn’t understand the privilege of being able to go to the movies because you’re sad. He also doesn’t catch the slightly hurt and confused look on the usher’s face as he turns away.
Peggy finds out she lost the apartment to someone else in the hustle – more New Yorkers taking advantage of a national tragedy to further themselves. Abe can’t really muster much sadness over Peggy’s failure to obtain status quo. “I don’t feel right expressing an opinion,” he says, sitting down to finish his article. When she presses him, he says, “I saw us raising our kids in a place with more different kinds of people.” In the West 80s, maybe. Peggy, for what it’s worth, breathes a sigh of relief and kisses him softly. She wants to provide. Abe is, perhaps, her anchor, her reminder that she doesn’t have to be part of the establishment. Unfortunately, Peggy is becoming increasingly establishment as Abe draws away from her. This also, perhaps, foreshadows an affair and Peggy’s eventual acceptance of her role in the world.
Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, Henry Francis is having an existential crisis. He’d have handled all of this better, of course, and as a result he’s going to run for a Senate seat. “I can’t wait for people to meet you. You know? Really meet you.” And he leans into Betty and kisses her passionately. Yet another person who uses a national tragedy to further himself.
In another beautifully arranged shot, we get a last glimpse at the new Mr. and Mrs. Draper. Megan clutches herself in the doorway as, in a mirror behind her, a sweaty, downtrodden Don clutches a drink on their bed. She’s intensely angry with him for not trying to be a father to his children in their time of need – which we also realize is Megan’s time of need. She has an unnerving tendency to project her daddy issues onto her husband…but then again, her husband has an unnerving tendency to project his mommy issues onto, well, every woman ever. In this case, though, Don actually opens himself to her. He has never really loved his children. “Especially if you had a difficult childhood, you want to love them but you…don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem.” Then suddenly, as when Bobby exclaimed, “Jesus!” about Planet of the Apes, “you feel…that feeling you were pretending to have…It feels like your heart is going to explode.” Megan can’t resist Don’s sad tale, told because he’s drunk and missing his secret mistress. Other bloggers are certain their marriage is now doomed. I’m not so sure. I think Megan, more than almost anyone else in Don’s life besides maybe Peggy, knew exactly what she was getting with him. Only the future will tell.
The end of the episode features the few characters who were unable to or didn’t want to make connections. Pete tries to have a conversation with the Chinese deliveryman, but the language barrier prevents it. He’s very lonely, sequestered in his dingy little bachelor pad. He did it to himself, but nonetheless it’s the first time I’ve felt sorry for Pete in a few seasons. Betty Francis examines herself in the mirror, her appearance so utterly different from when she was married to Don. She’s still chubby and newly brunette. The idea of “really meeting” people is terrifying to her. Unsurprisingly, I don’t feel sorry for Betty Francis. Her son, though, evokes some sympathy. With those parents, the kid is basically doomed. As of now, he’s scared. When Don tries to comfort him, Bobby says exactly the wrong thing. “I just keep thinking, what if somebody shoots Henry?” Don, who’d just confessed to loving his son for the first time ever, takes that blow as gracefully as he can. “That won’t happen,” he says, tight-lipped. “Henry’s not that important.” As they often do, the episode ends with an intoxicated Don Draper, all by himself, unable to truly connect with anyone.
Harry complained about losing money; Betty accused Don of using King’s assassination for personal gain; Peggy tried to use the tragedy to acquire a new apartment; Pete tried to use it to get in good with his wife again; the William Mapother character strove to use it to make himself some more cash; Henry used it as an excuse to run for Senate, thus empowering himself and Betty. Everyone tried to connect, and almost no one succeeded. It was a sad and ugly episode, the kind that’ll make you want to yell at the screen. One hopes we get a pick-me-up next week, but the world of Mad Men is marching on, leaving its out-of-touch Manhattanites in the dust.
What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!