I saw some grousing on Twitter last night about this episode of Mad Men being a “very special episode” exercise, an accusation that was, I suspect, utterly inevitable should this show ever make race relations the central theme of an episode—no doubt one of the reasons that the writers have shied away. As you’ll see if you watch the video, Marc and I strongly disagree! We think the writers came up with a marvelous metaphor to understand the function of white privilege in the era and they deployed it with artfulness and subtlety.
I joked last night on Twitter that this episode was anti-“The Help”. It’s been clear throughout the series that one of the biggest obstacles for the writers when it comes to race is not falling into the “white savior” trap, which is dishonest and repulsive, of course. One way to get around it, of course, is to simply show the white characters as racists, something they’ve done a couple of times, most notably with Joan being nasty to Kinsey’s girlfriend a few episodes. But this show is set in the world of upper middle class professional New York, and the reality is that most of of them at the time, both Republican and Democratic, would support desegregation efforts, even if they still harbored some racial predjudices. So that means mocking the characters as clueless white liberals who good intentions are undermined by their utter lack of real engagement with the issues that black Americans were struggling with. So, beyond just the general growing sense of unease and sense of an escalation of violence in the world outside of the bubble these characters live in, this was the focal point of the episode: White characters being momentarily reminded of their immense privilege, and finding something to distract them from looking too hard at the realities here. (Megan was something of the exception, insofar as she’s honest about how she really doesn’t know how to feel, but then again, she’s always the exception on this show.)
So, I think Mad Men successfully elided the Very Special Episode problems. The show is about the bubble of privilege that these people live in, and MLK’s assassination and the ensuing riots are witnessed through that bubble lens. If that makes you uneasy, I think that’s clearly the point. It’s not like the writers are unaware that this is all being filtered through a bubble, and not just because nearly every single white character on this show manages to embarrass themselves by being too worried about their own feelings to worry about the larger issues at stake. It’s also clear, as we explain in the video, by the symbolism and scene-setting in the episode—I don’t know that I’ve seen an episode of TV where so much screen time is given over to characters watching TV (or movies, or looking out windows in a way that emphasizes how apart they are from the world below). There’s even a bit of bickering over how much TV one is permitted to watch, in case you didn’t notice.
As usual, I maintain my opinion that the ghost of Richard Nixon hangs over this series. This season takes place in the year where Nixon’s campaign helped shape up the narrative for those who resented hippies, civil rights activists, and feminists: conservative victimhood, the claim that the white man is being abused by all these evil liberals and their demands for a fair and just society. Who will be sucked into that narrative and who will see it for the bullshit that it is? The hints finally came to the surface this episode, which is what I think that Harry vs. Pete fight was about. Harry’s going to be an avid Nixon supporter, with his whining about being called “a racist” in the face of an actual, bona fide tragedy. Pete has, despite his assholery and self-regard, chosen his side, too. Make of that what you will.
What did you think of the episode? Should Joan just generally avoid hugging everyone forever, because whoa? What do you think will happen next?