How ‘Mad Men’ Handled Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination With An Exploration Of White Privilege

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"How ‘Mad Men’ Handled Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination With An Exploration Of White Privilege"

This post discusses plot points from the April 28 episode of Mad Men.

During last night’s episode of Mad Men, the most hotly-contested point between viewers I saw discussing the show on social media was whether the show’s white characters would have reacted to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. the way they did, experiencing emotions from Peggy’s anxiety about how riots might affect the value of her first apartment to Pete’s outraged expression of grief. But what struck me about the episode was less the idea that it was an illustration of the relative goodness and racial progressivism of the characters we’ve come to know over the years, and more that it was about those characters adjusting to changing standards of whiteness. Rather than treating the civil rights movement as something rather distant, and perhaps something to get involved in only if you have personal reasons to do so, as was the case with Paul Kinsey’s Freedom Ride, Mad Men‘s core characters sensed that King’s death wasn’t an event confined to the black community, and not just because of the riots that it inspired. His murder was something they were supposed to have a reaction to if they were to be seen as compassionate people. But unaccustomed to honest discussions with black coworkers and wholly unfamiliar with the idea of genuine cross-racial solidarity, their reactions to King’s death ended up coming across as awkward and contrived, because, of course, they were. Opposition to racism, and genuine comfort with people who don’t share your race, it turns out, are things that take practice.

Many of the white characters on Mad Men treated King’s murder as if it were personal to their black coworkers, a death in the direct, rather than extended, family. “You should go home,” Peggy told her secretary Phyllis. “In fact, none of us should be working.” Don encouraged Dawn to go home, too, and only accepted that she would prefer to be at work, her persistence and dependability a deliberate counterexample to the rioters Phyllis called “these fools, running in the streets” whether Don recognizes it or not, when Dawn told him firmly “I’d really rather be here today.”

The decision that black employees should be allowed time to grieve, whether they wanted it or not, also inspired some of the first physical familiarity between Joan and Peggy and their African-American coworkers, though their hugs were markedly different affairs. Peggy and Phyllis, we know, have at least some sort of relationship other than a simple employer-employee one. Phyllis has told Peggy to be as encouraging to the men in the office as Peggy has been to her, though it’s not clear whether Peggy is encouraging Phyllis to try copywriting, or simply being a good boss. She feels comfortable enough with Peggy to watch the television in her office. They’re capable of talking about King’s death, at least a little bit, Peggy offering up Abe’s assessment that the riots “could have been a lot worse,” and Phyllis tearfully telling her boss, “I knew it was going to happen. He knew it was going to happen. But it’s not going to stop anything.” And when they hug, it’s a direct, if slightly brittle embrace. There is real feeling there, even if Peggy isn’t capable of being as open with Phyllis as Phyllis is being with her.

At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Joan and Dawn have a rather different relationship—when we last saw them together, Joan was giving Dawn the keys to the time cards and the supply closet both to test her capability for responsibility, and to separate her from the other secretaries in the office. Dawn proves her commitment when, despite her longer commute through an area of New York disrupted by rioting, she shows up at SCDP, unlike the white secretaries (including Scarlett, the secretary who got Dawn in trouble earlier), who are taking advantage of the general atmosphere of grief to claim a day off no one is likely to contest later. And when Joan hugs her, approaching Dawn from the side, Joan’s own bust making it hard for her to really embrace the younger woman, it’s a touch between women who are unequal, and seems inspired as much by Dawn’s repaying Joan’s confidence in her as by racial feeling.

The men’s reactions to King’s death are more florid, and more personally revealing. “Man knew how to talk. I don’t know why, but I thought that would save him. Thought that would solve the whole thing,” Roger muses, enamored as usual with the power of charm, and aloof to the larger structures that brace up any given conflict. When Megan asks Don “Do you think your secretary is okay?” thinking of the riots in Harlem, Don responds, “Sylvia and Arnold are in DC,” and spends a significant amount of the rest of the episode posing as a concerned neighbor inquiring after Arnold, rather than a man more worried about his mistress than his secretary and kids. Don’s decision to switch dog tages in Korea doesn’t really seem like a one-time act: in a crisis, he digs deeper into deception.

And Pete, who was the first member of the firm to discern the emergence of a distinct black market and to recognize black purchasing power, seizes on King’s death as a chance to gain an advantage over Harry in the office, and to try to reconnect with Trudy at home. “I don’t want you and Tammy to be alone. I could sleep there tonight,” Pete tells Trudy hopefully, only to be told that not only does he not have to come home tonight, he shouldn’t come home that coming weekend, either. At the end of the episode he tries to talk to the Asian delivery man who brings him his food in his sad-looking New York bachelor pad, but gets very little response back, whether because of a language barrier, or because he can’t connect with the man whose job requires him to take risks to keep men like Pete comfortable.

When Harry, clueless as every to the larger currents, complaints about “All these special broadcasts interrupting the primetime schedule,” Pete jumps on him, bellowing “It’s a shameful, shameful day!” and asking Bert Cooper “Did you know we were in the presence of a bonafide racist?” The idea that he has some sort of dramatic edge on Harry is laughable, but Pete’s calculation that it’s better to be seen as griefstricken than to keep calm, carry on, and worry about the clients may be a canny, cynical reading of emergent history. But it’s nowhere as self-indulgent as that of a very odd potential new client, an insurance executive who pitches Don on his own idea, telling the SCDP staff “This is a coded message that came to me when I was visited by the spirit of Doctor King last night. He told me I should question the whole property thing.” Harry is genuinely taken aback by Pete’s reaction, asking him “You don’t think I’m upset about that man being shot?” And when Pete’s broadside continues, he melts down under his own confusion and the fire he’s taking. “It’s the latest thing, isn’t it?” he finally asks. “Everybody’s a racist!” It’s less an expression of malice than of profound confusion. Nobody in SCDP, except maybe Dawn, actually has enough knowledge about racial issues, or penetrating awareness of their own privilege, to really parse what does or doesn’t make behavior racist. But they know, at minimum, that they don’t want to be seen as racist, whether or not they’re able to distinguish not being labeled bigoted from the very different ability to actually be comfortable with and supportive to people of color. Harry, and many of his coworkers, just have absolutely no idea how to get there.

Even little Bobby Draper steps wrong after he and Don sit through showing after showing of Planet of the Apes, while Megan takes Sally and Gene to a vigil for King. “Did you see this movie?” he asks the black usher at the theater, who’s cleaning up the detritus moviegoers like the Drapers have left behind. “It’s really good. Do you get to see it for free?” The man responds graciously to Bobby in explaining that he does. But he shuts down after Bobby tells him “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” In that moment, Bobby’s attempt to be sympathetic misfired. He moved from treating the man as particular, someone with a distinct job that conferred an advantage Bobby was interested in, to a generic black man. And his attempt to tell the man that he, too, is sad, and that’s why he’s taking such comfort in the film, is a kind impulse with poor execution. Bobby Draper can’t possibly understand what the promise of Martin Luther King Jr. would mean to a black movie usher, because Bobby is a child, because he grew up in the suburbs, because he’ll grow up to have opportunities far beyond cleaning up candy boxes and pop corn, because he can sit through a movie without heading out to get another ticket without worry about the consequences because his father can always pay for another fare if they’re asked for it.

Mad Men‘s white characters may not have reacted organically and in keeping with their past behavior to an extraordinary event. But what the show got right was the gap between their emergent desire to be seen as non-racist, and their total lack of understanding of what that might actually mean.

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