Set on April 4th, 1968, the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, tonight’s episode of Mad Men puts its characters into a moment of American history when everything was uncertain, while they simultaneously dealt with both knowns and unknowns in their own lives. The death of the inspirational leader of the Civil Rights Movement was another reminder to a generation that the age of innocence, when they could feel safe and secure, had ended abruptly with the shooting of President Kennedy in 1963. Less than five years later, the US was embroiled in a prolonged conflict that many of its citizens did not believe in and were in the midst of an election campaign that would ultimately see the incumbent in the White House not have enough support within his own party to seek a second full term. This is alluded to in The Flood as Paul Newman speaks out in support of Eugene McCarthy – who later beat President Johnson in the New Hampshire Primary, forcing him to drop out of the race – at an advertising awards ceremony, only to be interrupted by news of the murder of Dr. King. With the perspective of history on our side, we know that things will not get any better in the ensuing months – especially from a liberal’s perspective – as Robert Kennedy is assassinated two months and two days after MLK. Nevertheless, while the real-life events form the backdrop to the storyline on Mad Men, it is the effect they have on the characters lives that continues to take centre stage.
The most pressing concern for all is that there will be full-scale riots as a reaction to the tragedy – which did happen across the country, but were averted in New York City, something that Henry Francis’s boss, Mayor John Lindsay was given credit for – but Don is particularly concerned about the well-being of Sylvia Rosen, the neighbor with whom he has been having an affair, as she and her Doctor husband were in Washington D.C. for the weekend (the assassination took place on a Thursday night). As Draper tries to distract himself with both work and drink, he is forced to go upstate to pick up his kids at Betty’s insistence, despite the fact he will have to drive through Harlem, where there is tension and unrest, with the children. Being a father is not something Don has shown much interest in at the best of times, but with his mind on Sylvia’s safety, he drinks and sleeps while Megan takes care of his offspring. However, when his latest wife takes Sally and Gene to a vigil in the park, Draper is forced to look after his other son, Bobby, who had feigned illness to avoid going with his siblings and step-mother.
Rarely have we been given the chance to see Don form any sort of bond with his sons – he did connect to a small degree with Sally last season – and, as his ex-wife is always ready to tell him, he takes any opportunity he can to get out of seeing his kids. In order to avoid doing any parenting – but not wanting to negate the television ban that was inflicted by Betty, due to his tearing of some misaligned wallpaper – Draper takes Bobby to the movies to see Planet of the Apes, which leads to a moment where Don finally has an amazing revelation – he loves his son! Earlier, he had witnessed socially adept Joan give the most awkward hug in history to Dawn, his African-American secretary, in an attempt to comfort her; but now Don sees Bobby show much better empathy to a cleaner at the theatre, telling him that he should watch the movie as it’s what people do when they are sad. Draper’s conversation with Megan, where he confesses that he had to pretend to have feelings for his children and feared that his own father felt the same way about him, was a brilliant performance by Jon Hamm and showed the anguish and internal strife that the character deals with, in a large part due to his own troubled youth. To be fair to Don, I think every new parent worries about whether or not they will be able to love their child – though for most, myself included, this evaporates the moment you see and hold your newborn baby, whereas it has taken him more than a decade to figure out he should not need to fake it. Continue reading