Watching “Man Men,” always a disquieting experience, was more unsettling than usual on April 28, coming so soon after the Boston Marathon bombing. The episode in question (“The Flood”) revolved around the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a case study in how people react to national tragedies.
As occurred with many real-life ad executives at the time, Don Draper and his fictional colleagues learned about the King assassination at the New York Advertising Club annual ANDY Awards dinner. The organizers apparently became aware of the shooting at some point during the festivities and their hopes to delay the announcement until the end of the evening were thwarted when someone shouted out the news during a speech by Paul Newman (see http://bit.ly/10OptjG for The New York Times write-up the next day). The rest of the episode dealt with the assassination’s aftershocks as the characters tried to find meaning in this tragedy.
Watching this through the prism of the Boston bombing gave a somewhat different perspective than would have been the case if our emotions had been less raw from our own recent shock. It gave the show more depth and resonance, making it seem more real and universal. At the same time it undermined some of the period-specific lessons that showrunner Matt Weiner appeared to be trying to make.
At first glance the differences between then and now are huge, beginning with the primitive communications of the “Mad Men” era. In April 1968 it was still possible for event organizers to think they could withhold major news from a ballroom full of high-powered ad executives. That would be inconceivable today since contemporary attendees, sitting with their smartphones on the table, would all have learned the news simultaneously from tweets, New York Times news alerts, emails or texts.
But the world has not really changed so much in 45 years. Then, as now, people rushed to get in touch with each other and find out more news. On “The Flood,” the award show attendees raced to the hotel lobby payphones to call family or business associates; in the following days, televisions were a constant background presence, with the news networks providing updates and specials. All of this was a painful reminder of how, just days earlier in our own lives, people had been obsessively trying to discover if anyone they knew was at the Marathon and then tried to stay current in the quest to identify the bombers.
In “The Flood,” only three TV networks, a few radio stations and the daily newspapers delivered the news, and they all seemed to be serious and authoritative. Boston, on the other hand, provoked a massive outpouring of social media communication as well as frenzied and hyper-competitive TV reporting, resulting in a great deal of misinformation across all platforms. You couldn’t help but wonder if the “Mad Men” characters who passively received information from a small group of sources weren’t better off than modern consumers, who were frantically jumping back and forth from cable news to online news sites to mobile-based social media.
“Mad Men” is too sophisticated to have didactic morals, lessons and themes, but it seems clear that Weiner wanted “The Flood” to illustrate the divide between white and black America. The white characters fumble their expressions of sympathy to their black associates. “It could have been worse,” Peggy says to her secretary. “We’re all so sorry,” Joan says after awkwardly trying to hug Dawn, the firm’s one black employee, implying that she is not part of the “we,” that she’s somehow apart from them, a token.
Yet, having just seen the massive outpouring of sympathy after the Boston bombing, I wonder if we should all give Peggy and Joan a little bit of a break. When New Yorkers said to Bostonians, “We’re all so sorry,” no one thought it was gauche. Boston reminds us that it’s human nature to show empathy after a tragedy, regardless of race or geography, and that it’s not easy to come up with the right words.
Then there’s the scene where Pete, the office liberal, calls Harry Crane, the firm’s media buyer, a racist because he seems insufficiently distraught over King’s death and too concerned with the revenue impact of the networks pre-empting “Bewitched,” “Merv” and maybe even the Stanley Cup! Harry has always been kind of a joke on the show, never quite saying the right thing, but maybe we should give him a break, too. Is there any question that network and agency representatives similarly jostled over “make goods” and other financial issues after the Boston bombing? It doesn’t make them racist or unusually insensitive; it makes them businessmen.
The great thing about “Mad Men” is the way is uses the events of the past to help us understand the present. The Boston bombing, on the other hand, turned out to be one of those rare events of the present that helped us to better understand the show. And yet, the effect is fleeting. Memory fades. In just a few months, people will watch “The Flood” without thinking once about Boston -- and the show will be finally viewed as Matt Weiner had originally intended it to be.