Monday, April 29, 2013

On the Ark

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Five, "The Flood"

"This is an emotional story," Abe tells Peggy as he types (two-fingered!) his news article on Harlem's reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King. This episode was also an emotional story, but in it, we see how King's murder hit the powerful and privileged White men very differently than it did New York's Black residents. While some, like Harry Crane and Henry Francis, focus on the impact on their business/work enterprises: Harry's upset at news shows pre-empting the sitcoms that his clients pay money to advertise on and Henry has to accompany Mayor Lindsay to Harlem since "they're going to burn the city down," others, like Raymond (Roger's acid-dropping companion?), seek to capitalize on the tragedy by dreaming up new ad campaigns that will prey on property-owners' fears of rioters. Henry, too, benefits from his belief--after watching how Lindsay staves off a full-blown riot--that he could have handled the situation better, without fostering "police corruption, disrespect for authority, and negotiating with hoodlums." He will now accept the latest in a long line of invitations to take a state senate seat vacated by a Republican who has died. Betty is happy about this and responds to his earnest declaration that he can't wait for people to meet her by holding up a dress from her thinner days in the mirror and, I expect, seeing more visits to Weight Watchers in her future. The TVs and radios discussing King's death are on as background to other things these men are doing because the Civil Rights Movement was not central to their lives. Yet, some are genuinely upset. And--after the last few episodes, in which Don and Pete came off looking extra bad--they gain more of my sympathy, as this episode becomes one about fatherhood and loss.

Pete brings the connection out explicitly. He's enraged that Harry is worrying about lost revenues on such a "shameful, shameful day." (I think the last time I had a twinge of sort-of liking Pete was in the Kennedy assassination episode. What is it about slain leaders that brings out the best in him?) His parting, yelled shot to Harry--as he tries to get him to understand why business isn't appropriate to worry about at the moment--is, "Let me put this in terms you can understand. That man had a wife and four children!" I was just seven when King and Bobby Kennedy were killed. I have vague memories of watching both funerals on TV with my mother and her saying something each time about how sad it was that the children we saw on screen had lost their fathers. Indeed, King spent much time and ink in his speaking and writing to develop emotional appeals--attempts to generate empathy for the situation of Blacks from White listeners and readers. In 1963's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he specifically attempts to engage the emotions of parents for their children in this cause: "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' But . . . when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television . . . when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?'...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." On April 4, 1968, Coretta Scott King had to find a way to concoct answers for her children, who would wonder why their daddy was never coming home. For all of Pete's myriad flaws, sins, and crimes, he has always been the most forward-thinking member of SCDP on race issues. He seems to get this painful situation of King's family--and be disturbed by it--and all the more because his relationship with his own family is so imperiled. He calls Trudy to suggest that he could go sleep at the house with them the night of the news: "I don't want you and Tammy to be alone." She won't let him come over, so he tells her, "I want to see Tammy." He cannot see Tammy, though, his own thoughtless and selfish behavior having destroyed his marriage and Trudy's fragile sense of trust in him. So, he stays in the city, and at the end of the show is seen in his quiet, dark, small apartment, alone with a bag of Chinese carry-out. He, like King, is a man with a wife and child--fortunate to be a man alive with a wife and a child--yet he is alone.

And, then there's Don. He's been such a supreme shit the last two episodes, I'd nearly given up on him. But, as Mad Men often does, the writers took many of us just to the brink of complete and hopeless frustration with his repetitive hurtful behavior and lack of self-awareness and then dangled that last set of scenes in this episode in front of us. Don revealed that he truly can be self-reflective, and, when he is--aided by Jon Hamm's supreme, understated acting--he's as good at it as he is at anything else he does. But, is he too much like the Tin Man, who--although he always had a heart--didn't realize it until that heart was breaking? Like Pete's, Don's reflections on fatherhood and loss also come in the context created by the King assassination. Betty charges him with repeated avoidance of his children. That phone call comes while Don is glued to TV images of a burning D.C. where he knows Sylvia is. Worry for his mistress wipes all memory that he's supposed to be spending time with the kids. Though in ways different from Pete's situation, Don also lets his philandering--which he does to avoid and cover up old wounds--get in the way of his relationship with his children. But, Betty forces him not only to spend time with the kids, but to drive through the violent aftermath of King's murder. With all three kids smushed into the front seat with him, Don drives through the streets of the city where sirens and fire cut through the sounds of the radio news broadcast. While Megan tries to face and work through her feelings about the tragedy by taking Sally and Gene to a vigil in the park, Don escapes with Bobby to the movies. They can't escape, though. What's playing is "Planet of the Apes," so Don and Bobby are thrust into a sci-fi/fantasy reflection on the destructiveness of human beings. They listen to one of the apes say, "Man has no understanding. He can be taught a few tricks--that's all" and watch as Charleton Heston falls to the sand of the beach where the head and arm of the Statue of Liberty stick out of the sand: "You maniacs. You blew it up. Damn you! Goddam you!" Bobby stares in shock--"The people destroyed New York?" "All of America," Don replies. "Jesus!" Too obvious? Perhaps. But, fantasy has always served as a way to deal with trauma and tragedy from a removed distance. But, it's Bobby's sweetness with the sad, Black theater employee that triggers Don's love. This show is about White people, with Blacks only ever playing a peripheral role, so we only got their reactions to King's death peripherally, but in that one brief exchange: ("Everybody likes to go to the movies when they're sad," and the look on the man's face as he truly looks at Bobby for the first time), we get the most genuine White/Black interaction of the night. (Peggy was better with her secretary, but Joan's attempt at sympathy for Dawn was painful to watch.)

It's thanks to Megan--who really is good for Don in a lot of ways--that Don is forced to express what he's thinking. "Who knows what you're feeling?" she asks him as he's hiding in the bedroom, drinking, while she puts the kids to bed. "You're better with them," he says. "Is this really what you want to be to them when they need you?" And then came one of the saddest confessions of paternal inadequacy--of human failure or inability to love--complete with awareness of how it probably started: "You want to love them, but you don't. And the fact that you're faking that feeling makes you wonder if your father had the same problem." He's partially evading full responsibility for his feelings with his use of the second person 'you,' but this is still so much more forthcoming than Don has been since--perhaps--he wrote in that journal in Season Four. "And then one day you see them do something. And you have that feeling you pretended to have. And then your heart explodes." Like the country around him. And, though in the final scene, we're back to not knowing exactly what he's feeling, Don's heart must have exploded again when Bobby revealed that it's Henry he's worried about getting shot, not Don. And, like Pete, Don ends up alone at night--on his balcony, sirens blaring, looking out over an endangered urban landscape.

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