‘Mad Men’ Recap: Fathers, Sons, and Martin Luther King

Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

I have a startling admission to make: Mad Men is no longer my favorite show on Sunday nights. Now, when I sit around in the sunshine on Sunday afternoon, I’m wondering what the hell is going to happen that night on Game of Thrones not with Don Draper and his clan of merry misfits. It’s because Season 6 of Mad Men has been wildly disappointing. There are no surprises, no excitement, and no overaching structure to connect one episode to the next.

Look at last night, most of the really memorable things were nothing but distractions from the main theme. Peggy’s Realtor served no real purpose but to get Peggy to realize she doesn’t want to move to the Upper East Side. Ginsberg’s date really doesn’t go anywhere interesting. Don calls looking for Dr. Rosen instead of Sylvia, who he’s having an affair with, hammering home the point that he’d rather be with Arnie than his wife (something we established three episodes ago). Harry Hamlin is there for no good reason.

Speaking of which, William Mapother, who played Ethan on Lost was there for no reason either. Well, he was playing an insurance guy and Roger’s old drug buddy, Randall, (Roger says, “He talked me off a ledge once” and I can only assume from Randy’s behavior that the two shared some LSD together) who had a crazy idea for an ad campaign with a Molotov cocktail. He was quirky in a way that a Boston Legal character is, just for the sake of being odd. Back in the day we had people like Miss Blankenship, whose quirks commented on the existential crises of those around her. This guy is just a pastiche of tics and jargon with a silly idea no one takes seriously. He’s also an excuse for a silly joke when Roger says, “Make sure this guy doesn’t get lost,” an obvious reference to his past show. Between that, the joke about the Second Avenue subway being finished (New Yorkers know that it still isn’t), and last week’s gratuitous 30 Rock reference, the show seems content being amused at itself rather than working toward some sort of revelation or universal truth. Sure, that still makes it a decent show, but it’s not the layers deep drama that I used to enjoy.

Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

There were actually two themes last night, that of fathers and sons and the political turning personal, both brought out by the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. The assassination was reported at an advertising awards dinner (Megan won!). This shadowed both the award ceremony at the beginning of Season 4 and Roger’s daughter’s wedding in Season 3 that went on even in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. It felt like well-worn territory, that we had seen the pettiness of daily events in the light of historical tragedy before, so this was nothing new. Also the firm’s bad seats and the fact that their only nominations were for work Megan and Peggy did and both are no longer at the firm only points to Don Draper and his decline, something that we have seen repeatedly since last season.

But enough bitching. In the wake of MLK’s death, Don has his children for the weekend and he has a chance to be a spectacularly bad father once again. First he forgets to pick the kids up and then drives them through a riot to get to his house. Finally, when Megan is going to take the kids to a vigil in Central Park, Bobby feigns a stomach ache. He’s not supposed to watch TV because he’s being punished so Don gets around his sentence and takes him to the movies. After a matinee of Planet of the Apes, where Bobby is bowled over by the cruelty that men are able to inflict on each other and their world, he has a touching moment with a black usher, letting him know, in his own little 10-year-old way (he’s supposed to be 10, right?) that “everyone goes to the movies when they’re sad” and that he is sad about King’s death.

Don can’t do anything. He seems to have an inability to connect with his children and he wants to help Bobby, but all he can do is help him get his Milk Duds open. Don can’t deal with Bobby’s feelings and what appears to be like some sort of anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsion, or borderline personality behavior (as evidenced by his ripping down the imperfect wallpaper). When Megan comes home, Don is once again the sad drunk (because we haven’t seen enough of that) and he tells her that he never really loved his kids, he was just acting, but when they did something good like that, his heart wants to explode that he’s so happy. And still, because of his own loveless childhood, he can’t find a way to express it. Boo-freaking-hoo.

When Don sees Bobby awake in the middle of the night (probably picking at scabs or something) he gets into bed with him and tries to make it better. Don is literally on his level and asks Bobby what is wrong, the first step to making some sort of emotional connection. When Bobby says he’s worried that Henry is going to get shot like MLK, Don responds glibly (and hilariously) that Henry is not important enough. A kid doesn’t understand that, and Don takes an opportunity and totally blows it, offering no greater solace. Instead he goes outside and listens to the sirens and the disorder raging below. The night is dark and full of terrors. (Sorry, had to get my favorite GoT in there somewhere.) But Don is in the same position Bobby is and is in at the end of the episode.

Just like MLK had a dream that his son would live in a better world, so does Don, but the world he is giving over to his son is awful and scary. He’s handing him a future where the apes take over and the Statue of Liberty lies in ruins on the beach. He can’t really do anything to change that, but he can try to make Bobby feel better about it and give him some insight no adult ever gave him. But he can’t. Instead he just stands there, anxious and inactive, pondering all the darkness that lurks around the twinkling of the city lights.

Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

While it seemed like Ginsberg’s date was going to be about him meeting a nice Jewish girl and maybe, finally, losing his virginity, it was not. It was about him and his father. His immigrant father set up him on a date and Ginsberg even admits that it feels very old world. That seems to be the dynamic between them, which was hinted at before, but it seemed initially like Ginsberg’s father was somehow mentally deficient or senile. He’s not, he’s just embarrassing to Ginsberg because he has not been able to assimiliate into American culture. The disconnect between the old and new society that this show is steeped in is especially powerful here, because there is an even larger gap between Ginsberg the older’s culture and Ginsberg the younger’s. 

There is no progress or movement in their relationship though. It’s just stagnant. Ginsberg says that he doesn’t want his father meddling and he can meet his own girls, but that is obviously not the case or else, well, a handsome young man such as himself wouldn’t still be a virgin. His father wants Ginsberg to have a better life than him and he seems to be working for it, but the two of them have different definitions of what is important. Ginsbert the son wants to focus on his work and Ginsberg the father wants him to focus on the family. But maybe the old way is the right way? All of this is “tale as old as time” stuff and we didn’t get an interesting spin on it in the episode. Sure there was some excellent banter between Ginsberg and his date but, like so much else in this episode, it was just a distraction from a plot that didn’t have much of a point. 

Pete Campbell was also dealing with his own father issues and took the death of MLK very hard. This had more to do with Pete’s situation than his love of civil rights however. We learn this when he has the hilarious fight with Harry Crane, who is more upset about work than the death, and Pete has an irrationally outrageous reaction. He ends the fight by telling Harry, “Let me put this in terms you can understand, the man had a wife and four kids.”

Pete is really missing the loss of his wife and daughter and, in this time of uncertainty, he wants the love and comfort they bring him. When everything was normal and boring in the suburbs he wanted out, but now that the novelty of the single life has worn off and the only person he has to talk to is the silent Chinese delivery man, he wants back into the fold. Again, this is a story we’ve seen again and again on this show. Pete is just Don Draper from two seasons ago. This isn’t interesting or revelatory. What was interesting was Pete’s fight with Harry and Pete actually not being a jerk about the news. When King was shot, I figured Pete would be the one who would care more about work than his feelings, but he wasn’t. Of course he only cares so much because of his personal situation, but whatever it takes for Pete to do the right thing. And thanks for being the only surprise. 

Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

The women got short shrift this week, especially our lovely Peggy. She starts out wanting to buy a house on the Upper East Side just blocks away from Don Draper, continuing her transformation into the man himself. There is all this drama with her Realtor who is trying to take advantage of the unrest to get Peggy a good deal on her apartment and she ends up losing it. Aw, sad Peggy.

But sad Peggy quickly turns into happy Peggy. Her boyfriend Abe, who is working hard on a story about the riots in Harlem, tells her that he doesn’t want to live there, he wants to raise their children somewhere where there is more diversity. Peggy doesn’t say anything, but she seems to agree and sits on the couch smiling, happy that her man is envisioning their future and excited about the possibility of going out and doing her own thing. That’s the thing about Peggy, she always seems to need a little push. I’m glad that she and Abe are still together. When her boss Ted was giving him dirty looks at the ad dinner I thought for sure she was going to leave him behind in some West Village flat while she moved on up to the east side with the Jeffersons.

Like Pete Campbell, Betty Draper had a bit of redemption last night. She called up and harassed Don in classic Betty harpy mode, but he deserved it. He forgot his kids and didn’t even call, no wonder she’s laying on the guilt extra thick. I like my Betty like I like a hamburger, fat and juicy, but I felt bad for her after Henry’s big announcement that he was going to run for State Senate. “I can’t wait for everyone to meet the real you,” he tells her, but she doesn’t want anyone to meet her. This is what she always wanted, a powerful, rich husband who will raise her profile, but now that it’s happening, her beauty is gone. It’s too late. “This is what I always wanted for you, what I always wanted for us,” she says, but it’s what she’s always wanted for her.

Later she stands in the mirror and holds up a dress she can’t fit into anymore. She plays with her hair that is frizzy from dying it so dark. She’s tried so hard to be her real self and she just can’t. It’s going to be back to “reducing” and pouring herself into those tiny chic outfits once again, polishing the glossy shell of her exterior so her man will have something nice to show off.

It’s the little details like Betty pulling at her hair in the mirror that make this show, and there were some great details. We had Peggy showing genuine compassion when hugging her secretary and Joan showing icy concern about Dawn, which came off as nothing but tokenism. We had Dawn saying to Don, “Getting here, well, took some time,” with a perfect line reading that gave us so much insight into her life and the character. There was Megan, freaking out slightly at Don and Sylvia giving Don the once over with her eyes that said just about everything. That is what keeps me watching Mad Men and will continue to keep it good. Now let’s just work on getting everything else back in order to make it great.

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan

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