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.