Mad Men and the Assasination of Dr. King

Mad Men

“Why am I on this show again?”

While watching the most recent episode of Mad Men on the dvr last night I quipped on Facebook that I found it “odd that everyone on Mad Men seems so upset about Martin Luther King’s assassination… [as] five seasons in, I had no idea he existed in the Mad Men universe”. A couple of literalist friends wrote in to point out some of the occasions on which Martin Luther King was in fact mentioned on the show. To which I responded as follows: “Of course, I’m exaggerating. My point is that for a show so peripherally (if that) interested in race, despite being set in the civil rights era, to suddenly have all the major characters so moved by Dr. King’s assassination is a bit of a cheap out.”

Later, I finished the episode and had to concede the point made by Hanna Rosin in Slate’s ongoing TV Club discussion of the show about the responses of the characters: that what we are shown is in fact not the characters being genuinely moved by the news but responding to it in ways that both elaborate fundamental character traits and illustrate the relative marginality of civil rights in the lives of bourgeois white Americans in the period. I think this is a much better reading of the episode than my initial quip or follow-up implied. And even though I don’t really have any basis for knowing if the self-centered responses of most of the characters are, in fact, representative of mainstream attitudes at the time, it seems like a nice antidote to the usual rhetoric that emanates from at least some subset of white Americans who were alive in the 50s and 60s: to wit, that some sort of virtue and/or insight re race relations in America accrues to them simply on account of having been alive in the 50s and 60s.

But I think the Slate writers are letting the show off the hook a little too easily. If the show had in fact done what I’d initially thought it was doing (randomly making race and civil rights important to characters who had shown no meaningful interest in these subjects before) that would have been cheap and shallow. But using the assassination of Dr. King as yet another way of demonstrating the shallowness of (many of) these characters is also cheap and shallow. For the problem is that the show itself over the last five seasons (and counting) has done what its lead characters do: i.e show little interest in race and civil rights. In other words, there’s no critical distance between the show’s handling of race and its main characters’ lack of interest in race. Indeed, the politics of the one character who was moved to action by civil rights–Paul Kinsey–were portrayed as inauthentic and he himself became a pathetic buffoon before departing the show.

And Mad Men remains as uninterested in black characters as it’s ever been–Don Draper’s secretary Dawn only seems to have gotten air time in last week’s episode as build-up to the events in this week’s episode and to function as a screen on which the attitudes of the white characters can be thrown into relief (Don’s disengaged empathy, Joan’s patronizing non-hug). And as a plot point Dr. King’s assassination functions pretty much just as the news of a serial killer on the loose in New York did in an earlier season: to make characters uneasy and emphasize particular traits (the confirmation of Harry Crane’s absolute lack of depth, indications that Henry Francis’ rectitude is not all it appears to be etc.).

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Mad Men needs to centrally be about civil rights (and I am using the term here to stand in for the larger structural and cultural transformations in race relations in the period) or even foreground those issues as much as it foregrounds, say, transformations in gender relations. It’s the degree to which it is uninterested in race that is striking: consider that the problems of an expatriate English ad executive (r.i.p Lane Pryce) formed a long and empathetic arc on the show, whereas there is yet to be a single black character of any importance; consider that the striking visual hook of the first part of the current season has been hippie haircuts and facial hair and “groovy threads”, whereas there is almost no mention of black popular culture at any point in the series–it’s as though Motown and its 110 top 10 hits between 1961 and 1971 never happened.

Am I being unfair? Am I misremembering or forgetting things that would weaken this critique?


6 thoughts on “Mad Men and the Assasination of Dr. King

  1. I didn’t see Mad Men, so I’m relying on your description, and I can’t speak for the States in 1968. But I was nine years old and living in the UK when MLK was assassinated, and I think you might be underestimating what a huge news story it was. Huge. And of course people were sad about it. So (from your description) it doesn’t seem the show was portraying anything strange.

    Active involvement in civil rights campaigns is something else, of course.


    • It is not the fact that the assassination is referenced at all that I am referring to–it would be odd if it weren’t. The show references all the major political events of the 60s–the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the assassination of J.F.K. etc.. It’s what the show is doing with it in this episode that I am wondering about: it doesn’t portray it as just another big thing happening in the background. If the shock of the event is meant to mean something for the show then it would be more effective if civil rights or MLK or race in general had been to shown to mean anything at all in the five seasons previous (where it seems to be a relatively minor thing in the background–used for minor plot purposes but not really as an important “structure of feeling” ). But it comes out of nowhere–not the assassination itself (though that too) but the idea that any sort of response to anything to do with MLK should be one of the lenses through which we understand the characters. And if the self-absorbed to disengaged responses of many of those characters functions as a critique then it’s a critique the show itself is susceptible to (and if the show means to critique itself, it would do far better to instead actually include some black characters and/or make the striking overhauls in race relations in the period a larger part of what it portrays).


    • I only just started watching it less than a year ago, and watched most of it over a couple of weeks on Netflix (they have the first five seasons available to stream). It may well be that because I watched it all in such a compressed manner that I’m not remembering things well. And in any case I’m sure my critique is not particularly novel or original. I didn’t start reading the commentary on the show till I began watching it.

      But just to reiterate the point about the lack of critical distance between the characters’ attitude to race and the show’s attitude to race: in response to the civil rights movement the agency the show centers on hires one black secretary–this is, in fact, an accurate representation of the industry’s response (as the chapter I link to below outlines); but the show likewise only has one recurring black character (this secretary). There’s no reason it can’t follow her home from time to time (as it does with a number of the supporting cast) and show us more fully the world its protagonists have little connection with. And it’s not as though issues of race were peripheral to the world of advertising. See this, for instance. Who knows, maybe in the last season we’ll actually get glimpses of the black-owned agencies that were around by the late-60s.


  2. Like you “I don’t really have any basis for knowing if the self-centered responses of most of the characters are, in fact, representative of mainstream attitudes at the time”.

    Unlike you, I did not binge Mad Men, rather spent much time watching and following the series on the “graduate class” conducted at Basket of Kisses:

    I thus have a basis to know beyond doubt that all of the main and recurring (and most of the guest) charcters are self-centered in general.

    It’s been quite awhile since I saw that scene, but my recollection was that perhaps the crowd generally “protested too much” (over-reacted) – thus struck a rare false note (by my lights).

    A very consistent talking point by Creator Weiner is that he tries to keep it real from the characters’ POV – tries to portray their contemporaneous reactions and to avoid injecting our after-the-fact mythologizing of historical watersheds.

    Weiner also mostly succeeds in not having the characters carry water for his own liberal sensibilities (as, say, with Sorkin’s West Wing or The Newsroom).

    Mad Men remains as uninterested in black characters as it’s ever been (they seem to have gotten air time) to function as a screen on which the attitudes of the white characters can be thrown into relief

    This is correct. Black men (and certainly not Black women) were peripheral to the Ad Biz 1960-1971, thus the disinterest. The black secretaries and the earlier elevator operator are indeed such screens. But so are other peripheral characters.

    See the first espisode where Peggy’s doctor (realistically) moralizes as he writes her a scrip for The Pill – or the entire first season, where general office misogyny is explicit. Thus “attitudes of the male characters are thown into relief” – over and over again.

    (Don Draper about his future wealthy mistress: “I’m not going to Let a woman talk to me like that!” – as he’s storms out of the conference)

    Mad Men remained blithely disinterested in blue-collar workers, rural folk (except as Don Draper childhood flashbacks), the religious (except as Peggy became estranged from the Church and other Don Draper flashbacks), the emergent technocracy (except the IBM computer vendor ca. 1969), etc. etc. etc.

    All of those classes of people were “marginalized” either through outright neglect or peripherality (being placed as window dressing). Weiner maintained a narrow focus on what was important to the characters – one of the many reasons the show got critical raves – it just seemed authentic to it’s points-of-view.

    So I’d say you ARE “being unfair” – mostly as function of that binge.


    • Yes, except that in the case of race the assassination of Dr. King randomly plays a huge emotional role out of the blue for all of one episode. And see my last paragraph as well.

      But frankly, the show has receded from my consciousness very swiftly post its sign-off and I’m in no position to continue a debate about it on a subject that I found interesting two years ago. I am glad though that someone is still reading these posts!


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