These somber episodes of Mad Men are always difficult to watch. This season’s premiere, which was all about death, left me feeling isolated, alienated, and totally lost; the episode which dealt with the assassination of President Kennedy several seasons ago was also incredibly disconcerting; and now, similar feelings bubbled to the surface on Sunday when we saw the cast responding to the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was, in a word, depressing. It was meant to be—and that is, of course, one of the great strengths of Mad Men; that it can evoke such feelings and make us feel what the characters feel speaks profoundly about the quality of the writing and the production overall.
At first, I thought it had been Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy that had been assassinated. Something about the way the announcement went out made it sound to me like they said the name Kennedy; it wasn’t, of course, but it is a reminder that yet another major assassination draws near, and it’s a safe bet that we’ll see it addressed on the show in a manner similar to this. I’ve seen plenty of reaction to this episode suggesting that the entire event was mishandled—that the writing staff should have done more to evoke the feeling of the time, or that characters like Dawn were underutilized in telling this particular story. Just as an aside, I’ll say that I thought the writers handled it as they should have. They showed the event from the perspective of the main characters, and how those characters responded certainly provided us a window into their mindset. If they had centered the story on Dawn, it would have felt artificial—she barely registers on the show’s radar as is.
Rather than focus on the assassination itself, the episode instead was like a highlight reel of each character’s responses to the event. Some of them had revelations about themselves (like Don and Pete), others crassly focused on business (Harry), while everyone else reacted as we would expect them to: with a respectful expression of sorrow, and a vow to continue going about their lives.
Don took center stage again. Though his role in the episode was fairly major—he had one meaty monolog—I don’t think we learned anything new about him. Rather, it was interesting to see him take that step and express his feelings aloud, especially to someone who it would seem he doesn’t feel especially close to. This was, of course, the scene where he admitted to Megan that he didn’t love his children in the way he thought a father should. Knowing Don’s past, we would expect him to feel this way. His childhood was supremely chaotic; his father died while Don was still young; and he was subsequently raised by a patchwork of other men and women, some of them unrelated to him. He never experienced that parental love, and so he doesn’t know how to give it to his children. These are hardly revelations, but what caught me out about the scene was that he was earnestly confessing to Megan. Perhaps I’m getting a bad read of their relationship, but I thought he’d essentially checked out and didn’t care too much for her. That he would continue to be open like this might suggest otherwise—or maybe he just really needed someone to talk to, and just about anyone would do.
We haven’t seen much of Don’s children this season, and as far as the whole series goes we don’t really know a lot about Bobby and Gene, so this, the first time Bobby has had any extended screen time, was certainly welcome. We learned that home life isn’t going too well for him—he’s fiddling with the house by tearing at the wallpaper, “destroying” the place as Betty put it. He seems unhappy, and my feeling was that the root of the problem was his relationship (or lack thereof) with Don. Their interactions throughout the episode were incredibly awkward—at points it was like the two were strangers that didn’t know what to do with each other—and the real impact moment came when Bobby revealed he was worried about Henry getting shot. Don can’t have liked the fact that his kid thinks more about Henry than him, and his comeback (“Henry’s not that important”) was venomous enough that Betty might have crafted it.
The most interesting little blip in the show was the Pete and Harry fracas over Harry’s insensitivity and (perceived) racism. One of Pete’s few redeeming qualities is that he seems to legitimately care about civil rights issues (it’s come up in past episodes also), but I suspect his outburst here arose for two reasons not directly connected to what Harry said: first, it’s sort of apparent that Pete and Harry don’t get along too well—Harry doesn’t seem to really get along with anyone, which was the point of last episode where he delivered an ultimatum to the partners—and second, Pete’s lack of connection with Trudy was probably playing on his mind. Pete made a special point of noting that King had a wife and children. Just as King lost his family, Pete has also lost his—certainly not in the mortal way as King, but in an allegorical sense. The flare-up seemed to be more him realizing what he’s lost in life than it was about Harry’s impropriety.
Of all the stories in the episode, only the one involving Ginsberg and his blind date felt particularly off-key. After giving it some thought I think that, at least on a superficial level, the inclusion of Ginsberg might have been to demonstrate that our ordinary day-to-day life can so easily be disrupted and is so trifling and banal when matched against an event of such gravity. That statement alone is very self-evident, but it’s about all I can get out of Ginsberg’s one-on-one time. I’m not sure what to make of it other than that, and if the writers were trying to use Ginsberg as some allusion or metaphor, then it’s either gone lost on me or it was simply too opaque to pick up.
And as a small note to end on, how about the awkwardness between Joan and Dawn when Joan was trying to issue Dawn a sympathetic embrace? It was incredibly phony and everybody in the room knew it. Dawn wasn’t even about to pretend to accept it, which was what made it for me. It was a great little moment—the ribbon on what was a disconcerting and depressing episode, but still a good one overall.