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Why Did Mad Men Do An Episode About The MLK Assassination?

Submitted by on April 30, 2013 – 10:55 amNo Comment

This week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Flood,” portrayed the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce family (and to some degree, the US) reacting to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Critics are vigorously debating how successful the episode was, but I keep wondering: did portraying this massively important historical tragedy really make sense for Mad Men? Not only is it a fictional show about selfish rich white people in New York, but it’s infamously bad at addressing race.

The importance of Dr. King’s life and death are undeniable. But remember, this show is made up. There’s no rule book. If creator Matthew Weiner wanted to skip to weeks or months after this event, no one could stop him; and he could still portray its aftermath. But Weiner chose to portray the very evening of the assassination, facing it head on.

Mad Men has frequently been criticized for not featuring enough black characters, or worse, treating them two-dimensionally. This seemed to be the case in last week’s episode, when audiences saw Dawn chatting stiltedly with a friend. Maybe race just isn’t Mad Men‘s thing- it’s much better at exploring existential dread and gender roles, and the show can’t be everything to everyone. But the massive importance of race and the civil rights movement seems to be an irresistible challenge for Weiner, who prides himself on historical accuracy and thoroughness.

In some ways, I thought the national trauma threw into relief conflicts we’ve already seen. Peggy tries to use the turmoil to negotiate an apartment, while Abe gets a career bump and drifts away farther; Don is forced to see what (and who) is really important to him; Pete makes the tragedy about himself, of course, while Harry acts weasly. So public events become pragmatic, personal issues. The episode highlighted features, but did it really develop the narratives further?

But the episode wasn’t content to stop there. We see race relations. Peggy is awkward with Phyllis. Joan and Don are awkward with Dawn. Bobby is awkward with an usher. Pete and Harry engage in one of the most didactic exchanges of a series that thrives on nuance and subtlety. It’s almost like Mad Men did this episode to highlight how poorly it (or its characters) address race; how thoroughly it depicts a white, upper-class world. And again, maybe that’s fine; it’s just an honest portrayal of the time and setting depicted.

But even then, the show might have failed. As Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic points out, the level of devotion to MLK exhibited by all of these characters seems forced:

I just didn’t really believe the non-hug between Dawn and Joan. It felt like didactic signaling. I also didn’t believe the widespread sympathy for King and his aims among virtually every white face. It was almost as if King was Elvis Presley, not a man who died fighting for the rights of poor black people and opposing the Vietnam War.

What do you think of this week’s episode?

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