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'Mad Men' Recap: Yep, That's How the Ad Biz Reacted to a 1968 Tragedy

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It's the evening of April 4, 1968, and a ballroom full of New York City advertising executives has just received word that Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot to death. The program they've assembled for, naturally, has ground to a halt. But after just a few minutes, the lights are repeatedly dimmed, beckoning the ad folk back to their tables.

Don and Roger at the Andy Awards -- before the news comes
Michael Yarish/AMC
Don and Roger at the Andy Awards -- before the news comes

Can this depiction on "Mad Men" possibly be how the ad industry really dealt with one of the most horrifying moments of the 20th Century, a murder that threatened to destroy the Civil Rights movement and push an already-fragile country towards the brink? Did they really think it was enough to have a half-assed assassination intermission, as though on a break during "Bye Bye Birdie"?

Actually, yes.

The Advertising Club of New York this morning confirmed the depiction of events in last night's "Mad Men," and there's an old New York Times account of the evening that also shows that this episode hews especially close to history (link here, but subscription required). The Fourth Annual Andy Awards, put on by the Ad Club, were underway that night, with Paul Newman saying a few words about his support for Eugene McCarthy. Then, as Times writer Philip H. Dougherty chronicled it, "A man stood up amid the formally dressed assemblage in the Grand Ballroom and asked, 'Do you know, Mr. Newman, sir, that Martin Luther King is dead, sir? What have you to say?'"

Dougherty continues: "The actor was plainly shocked. He returned to his seat on the dais without a word. The program was halted for about 10 minutes as many people rushed to the phones. When the program resumed, its mood was more somber."

More somber? Well, I guess that's... something. I can just about see the heads in hands and tears rippling the Old Fashioneds as Jack Tinker & Partners took the Andy for a one-minute Alka-Seltzer cartoon featuring a man talking to his stomach.

Why wouldn't there be more sensitivity? Why wouldn't anyone see that continuing on with an event so trite and self-serving during a national tragedy is just flat-out wrong? How could they stand to go up and accept their awards?

Don Draper last night put the answer in the form of a question: "What else are we going to do?"

Sure, brows are furrowed and the sirens are wailing, but the banality must go on -- and it's not just the awards, either. There's Michael Ginsberg's dating troubles and his nagging father. There's Peggy's ill-fated attempt to buy an apartment and even leverage the unrest following the assassination to get the price down. There's Henry Francis seeing an opportunity for a bigger political future and Betty primping herself in preparation.

There's Harry Crane worrying about make-goods -- popular TV shows have been pre-empted by news coverage -- and Pete Campbell screaming "racist" at him. There's Megan fighting long-distance with her French Marxist father, who seems to be of the opinion that we got what we deserved. There's the cartoonishly creepy client who wants to take advantage of the national strife by putting a Molotov cocktail next to his insurance company's logo and, of course, "a coupon at the bottom."

And there's Don, wondering what's become of his current paramour, who had been visiting Washington D.C. with her husband when the city was nearly consumed by riots -- some of the most violent in the country, injuring over 1,000 people. He responds with two of his favorite pastimes: hitting the bottle and taking in a movie. He does some proto-binge-rewatching of "Planet of the Apes" with Bobby, his little-seen son who, we're happy to discover in the episode's final moments, Don has suddenly, kinda sorta come to love -- a little bit.

The episode's version of the King assassination depicts a complex stew of reactions. There's more navel-gazing than soul-searching, characters trotting out their own self-obsessions and neuroses and pettiness in the midst of history. There is a truth to this, sad as it may be.

What's disappointing about this stew, though, is that they are almost wholly the reactions of white people.

I lodge this complaint somewhat lightly -- and, it should be acknowledged, whitely -- because I think the show's depiction of race is quite calculated and generally effective. The 1960's business environment was a white man's -- and increasingly white woman's -- world. So it's been justifiable that what little characterizations we get of black characters are mainly about then reacting to this white world. Kinsey's short-lived girlfriend, the elevator operator in Sterling Cooper's old digs and most notably Carla, the Drapers' housekeeper until Betty so cruelly fired her -- these are all less characters than devices to show just locked out of this world they are.

We never really get a sense of what it was like to live this way -- the stress, the psychological trauma -- much as we might want to. It seemed that this was maybe changing given how Dawn, Don's secretary, was used in last week's episode. In two scenes, rare for featuring none of the principle characters, Dawn was depicted having a meal with a more radical black friend. I remarked in last week's recap that in those moments it almost felt like a different show, with the hope that it signaled the emergence of a more fleshed-out black character, particularly as the looming King assassination providing a dramatic opportunity.

That was just a tease, it turns out. We hardly see Dawn, post-assassination. Her boss is more concerned for the Rosens, and Megan can't even be bothered to utter her name, referring to her as "your secretary" to Don.

When Dawn does finally appear, she's probably the least emotional of all the show's characters. Fighting against Don's attempts to send her home, she says, "I'd really rather be here today."

Separately, we get Peggy hugging and sharing a few words with a Phyllis, a black co-worker who laments the brick-throwers as "fools running through the streets." What's missing is any sense that maybe, at least for a moment, those "fools" just might have been on to something. We're denied any hint of a radical black character at the moment we most want or need her.

This can be interpreted as just a continuation of the "Mad Men" approach to race, an approach that's worked better when it hasn't been dramatized against an event as traumatizing and far-reaching as the King assassination. Not to have deep black characters in that context can't but leave one with the feeling that something -- or rather, someone -- is missing.

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