Retrolicious–Mad Men 6.5: “The Flood”

Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid

Well, Mad Men fans and critics wondered how the show would handle the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hosts Tami Winfrey Harris, along with Renee Martin from Womanist Musings and Fangs for the Fantasy and Racialicious staffer Joe Lamour, chat about how Weiner and Co. does, as well as how plaids mark a character and why white hipsters wouldn’t live in Brooklyn yet–“yet” being the operative word.

You know the drill: spoilers. And here we go…

Tami: Before we get into this Mad Men episode that deals with MLK, Jr.’s assassination and the racial unrest of the late 1960s, I have to ask: Where does the group stand on Matt Weiner’s treatment of race in Mad Men up until now?

I’m on record as thinking he has done well, despite the absence of many characters of color in the show. I know at the very least Renee disagrees with me. What say you, roundtablers?

Andrea: I feel like a broken record saying this, but perhaps I do need to repeat it, if nothing else, for the record. As I said in our Downton Abbey/Mad Men post:

…I also know that folks get deeeeeeep in their feelings about Weiner pushing people of color, specifically Black people, to the margins (while he completely erases other PoCs) in his vision of the 50s and 60s when the history of that time states that the Civil Rights Movement  increasingly moved into the popular consciousness and conversations right about this time. So, the critics figure, there should be, at least, more Black people on Mad Men increasingly, if not regularly–and not just a Black woman who either disappears after a couple of episodes (e.g. Lane’s Black Playboy Bunny mistress) or a couple of seasons (Carla, the Drapers’ maid). So, the accusation could easily be that though Weiner may be cognizant, if not sensitive, to the characterization of some marginalized people, he’s not quite as much with others.

The rub about that is, according to the folks who lived during that time, Mad Men isn’t that far off as far as showing how marginalized people occupied social spaces overall during that period. So, yes, white non-Jewish women moved and grooved in a certain way (Betty, Joan, and Peggy, for example); gay men like Sal moved and grooved a certain way; upper-class Jewish women like Rachel moved and grooved a certain way.

And Black people moved through this particular time and space a certain way in this particular part of US society: so, yes, we may have owned our own advertising agencies in NYC at that time, but more than likely that agency may not have interacted with a place like Sterling Cooper Draper Price (that “old (white) boys’ club” was a far tighter scene than it is now). Yes, though the woman who created the Playboy Club costume is Black, that may not have translated into the club hiring Black women commensurate to the population, which tends to be a goal of the “diversity hiring” that we think of today, even though Hugh Hefner did hire Black women for his club back in the 60s. So, our seeing an African-American Playboy Bunny–that particular woman at that point in time in that particular place–wouldn’t be that unusual. (Someone had to be a “first,” right?) In fact, I’d argue that Lane’s introducing her to his dad would be a rarer situation that her working there.

Not that we Black folks didn’t live these incredible, active, advocating business, professional, and personal lives (think of the PBS classic I’ll Fly Away, which centers on the life of a Black maid living in the South who eventually becomes a writer), but our lives didn’t become an unavoidable visible force of humanity to be reckoned with in larger contemporary public conversations until about the mid- to late 60s–and, as seen on Mad Men, that reckoning is still mediated a certain way in this “white” world, like the drips and drabs of seeing us and our struggles on that show…”

And we’re seeing that mitigated white space in this episode–again, white people and Black people (and other people of color) were not as integrated during this time we think we remember. We were more integrated than, say the early 60s when the show takes place, but it wasn’t like the floodgates opened, and we people of color occupied every social strata and moved wholesale into the neighborhoods of our choosing during the late 60s. Remember, Star Trek just came on–and off–the air at this time. The era of the “First Black (fill in the blank)” began in earnest, thanks to the implementation of the Civil Rights-born laws and policies in various sectors of the society. Yet and still, our presence in the world of Mad Men is still mediated a certain way in this rather “white” world–as impatient as we may be about that living in societies where, though we’re still fighting about recognition of our humanity, we’re used to occupying a certain presence in them.

And I think that impatience is coming through in some of the critiques I’m reading about Mad Men and how Weiner and Co. deal with the issue of race and racism on this show.

Joe: I think the problem I have is that he’s portraying this world from a white perspective too accurately. As Tom and Lorenzo said in their coverage of “The Flood”:

“Mad Men is a lily-white world, seeing as how it’s almost entirely focused on the Manhattan creative class and the upper-middle to upper classes on the east coast, starting in 1960. These characters do not inhabit an integrated society and for many of them, as we’ve seen, the only black people they ever regularly come into contact with are the ones who are waiting on them hand and foot, silently. People get angry at Weiner & Co. for not including more African-Americans in the story, but we’ve always felt that when it comes to the topic of racism in the period, that IS the story, at least for these characters. They are largely sheltered and removed from the African-American experience of the time.”

The same can be said for other people of color as well; we saw The Drapers’ maid, well, only when she was cleaning and getting fired. Sal only was a big part of the plot when Don caught him in the midst of getting down with a bellboy. I’m not saying we should give the maid a storyline or bring Sal back. At its heart, Mad Men is about Don and how he never changes even though the world is changing. If the episode with Dawn hadn’t happened last week, a plot with her is probably what I would have (angrily) suggested. So at least different perspectives are starting to be represented.

But… why in the world did we not see Dawn’s family or even her commute to work the morning after? Or anything involving Peggy’s assistant? Especially during this episode? It’s decisions like that that leave me wondering. Did Weiner just want to show everyone how white people reacted to such a historic civil rights event?

Tami: In this episode, I think Weiner was pretty deft in the way he portrayed different responses to King’s death. He captured black and white people not really knowing how to be with each other–this awkwardness. Black folks navigating their grief in majority-white spaces, unsure how much to show to white colleagues.

Once again, the Christian Side Hug goes horribly awry
Once again, the Christian Side Hug goes horribly awry.

White people feeling the event on different levels: From Pete’s display of passion to Joan and Peggy’s awkward hugs with secretaries and Harry’s…ugh. Very few of the main characters, save Pete, convinced me that the death meant much personally to them, rather they saw the killing as bad for black folks not bad for America. And that seems about right. There are still those that see anti-racism as a fight people of color own. Lots of uncomfortable displays of real and faux empathy; little real personal emotion.

 And speaking of Pete Campbell, Weiner also illustrated another truism about race and bias: Likeability does not equal racial enlightenment. The positioning of people with racial biases as monsters rather than humans does equality no good. The truth is, weasely Pete can be anti-racist (in his way–we’ve seen him display racial privilege before), while likeable Peggy can be racially clueless.

Renee: I tend to agree with your assessment, Tami.  I think that people forget that at the time of Dr. King’s death he had a very low approval rating.  I think that people look back on his life with a sense of false nostalgia because it makes them feel good.  Just look at how his words continue to be appropriated by Whiteness today to silence people of colour when we bring up the subject of race.  They are however always careful to quote King before 1963.  At the time of his death, though his message was about peace and equality, White people still saw him as an uppity negro trying to change the status quo.  Many could not relate to either his message or his agenda and this is why it was seen as a loss for Black people and not the United States.  Score one for Weiner.

Andrea: See, I don’t see Pete as anti-racist so much as “racially savvy.” He “gets” some aspects of how race and racism works, as witnessed when he suggested advertising TVs to Black people because he understood the buying power of some Black communities. As maybe he indeed felt emotional about King’s assassination. But more than being racially savvy, Pete is always for grandstanding. Harry’s garden-variety racist reaction of it being worse to be called a racist than to actually behave in a racist manner gave Pete the perfect opportunity to grandstand under the guise of his grief over King’s death and us wronged Negroes.

As for the white people’s reaction to King’s death: you know, I thought it was refreshing to see the various reactions to the assassination. Nowadays, if you ask a white person of a certain age, they are just about dying to tell you that they “marched with King”–even though, if you knew their age and calculated that with the years of the marches, you’d know they were an itch in their parents’ pants or were gestating. But the real answer is people felt positive and negative emotions–and feelings in between–about the man himself and his message.

Tami: I think Pete does find the sort of blatant racism typical in the 60s abhorrent. Recall, also, that he was the only one at Roger’s blackface party to be turned off by Sterling’s shenanigans. And he called the water balloon-throwing Young & Rubicam guys “bigots.” That said, I wouldn’t confuse that sentiment with him being a 60’s-era Tim Wise. I can’t recall in what recap I read this (maybe T and Lo, Joe), but the writer described Pete as being typical of a certain sort of moneyed Democrat at the time. That is likely true. I imagine his views of racial equality have strict limits. But at that one moment with Harry, he was on the side of the angels.

Joe: The whole fight between Pete and Harry, I was shouting “Give it up for Pete!” That being said, I know half of Pete’s fervor was racial enlightenment- you can’t be that articulate when you’re passionately angry unless you really feel it, but the other half was to highlight his true feelings about Trudy. It hit home for him when the King family lost a father, since he believes that because of this separation, the Campbells lost their father too. It’s really just a classic case of projection.

Tami: Be strong, Trudy! However Pete might feel about Dr. King, his desire to be back in the bosom of his wife and child was less about their physical and emotional safety and security, and more about him needed comfort after a terrible national tragedy. You will not use Dr. King to weasel your way home, Pete!

Renee: This made me think of the cliche the grass is always greener on the other side.  Pete saw his family as stifling his man on the make life he wanted to have.  He didn’t appreciate what they offered him.  This was highlighted with his attempted conversation with the delivery guy and the ever so empty apartment.

Pete Campbell grandstands for MLK...and is met with pin-drop silence from The Black Community ™.
Pete Campbell grandstands for MLK…and is met with pin-drop silence from The Black Community ™.

I remember in an earlier season that Pete wanted to advertise to African-Americans because he realised that their spending power had increased and that they could provide a market for an advertisers product.  His idea was firmly shot down though.  At the time, I didn’t see it as a statement about Pete’s racial consciousness, rather a statement regarding his practicality.  There is also the issue that Pete wasn’t exactly welcoming when Black people showed up to interview for a position at the firm.  I found it hypocritical that he could call Harry a racist because he is not better.  He just wanted to hurt Harry because he was hurting and what he said had nothing to do with the death of MLK.

If anything, the scene screamed of Weiner trying to pacify the critiques about the Whiteness of Mad Men.  For me, it only showed the degree to which he does not get it. Tokenism is not what people of colour want to see in the media.  If anything it makes me believe even more firmly that the writers and producers need to own the White utopia they have created.

Tami: It is striking the difference between how Dawn and Peggy’s secretary related to their bosses in this episode. I think Peggy’s secretary feels more comfortable explicitly acknowledging that MLK’s assassination impacted her African American family, while Dawn approaches the issue more gingerly.

At least Peggy bothered to check on her Harlemite secretary’s well-being. Don was more concerned about his mistress, who was with her husband in D.C.

Joe: I also agree with the assessment the wardrobes of Dawn and Peggy’s secretary that Tom and Lorenzo mentioned earlier this week. (By the way, for those who aren’t aware, Tom and Lorenzo offer a fantastic look into the mind of Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant. The way she ties wardrobe to plot is genius, frankly. As is T & L’s take.) Peggy’s secretary was much more open about her feelings toward King’s assassination in her mostly white workplace, and that reflected in the frenetic pattern of her plaid dress. Over at SCDP, Dawn also wore plaids–two, in fact. However, hers were more subdued, and this always reflects in her choices in outfits. She clearly didn’t want any sympathy–the look she gave Joan during that hug was priceless–Dawn even said she “just wants to work” when Don tried to send her home.

Tami: I’m curious how Bobby Kennedy’s assassination will be handled. I think one reason this cultural event was more integrated into the lives of the main characters than others, such as JFK and Medgar Evers’ assassinations, is that the civil unrest that attended MLK’s death brought black inequality more keenly to the attention of people like Peggy and Pete and Dawn. They could see neighborhoods burning.

Also, I think JFK’s death marked the open of a tumultuous decade (even though it happened in 1963), while this assassination comes after five years of cultural upheaval and war and ugliness…

“Henry’s not that important.” You’re a shady one, Don Draper!

After Don’s absolutely stunning monologue, admitting he felt something for his son for the first time, it must sting to hear Bobby speak lovingly of Henry, who is likely more father to him than Don.

“I only ever wanted to be the man who loves children. But from the moment they’re born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars. But you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. [Sigh.] Then one day they get older, and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.”

I don’t begrudge Don his demons. His childhood was enough to fuck anyone up. And many men of his era were distant fathers. But, the thing is, your children’s development doesn’t stop while you are working out your shit. Those kids are already, no doubt, affected by the shortcomings of their mother and father in a way that their better-adjusted step-parents can’t fix alone. The damage could be undone, but I doubt Don (or Betty) have the capacity to recognize the problem or fix it.

Renee: I think that scene with Don was reflective of his messed-up childhood but it was also about gender roles.  He has never really had to care or nurture his children.  This is something that was socially acceptable for Betty to do and when he married Megan, it was easy for her to slip into this role. It’s impossible to bond with anyone, when you don’t spend any real quality time with them.

He knew from the beginning that Bobby was faking his stomach pains. When Don took Bobby to the movies, they were coconspirators. They followed the letter of Betty’s instructions but found a way around it.  I think this is something that fathers do with their children to this day.  I know that my unhusband has his own secrets with our boys and I see this as keeping them close.

Tami: Odd duck Bobby Draper is gonna be like his daddy for sure. He’ll just be, maybe, a 80s-era Wall St. asshole, instead of a 60’s-era Madison Ave. one. His “Jesus!” at the ending of Planet of the Apes was pure Don.

Speaking of parental relationships. I listened to a podcast recap of Mad Men and one of the participants–a Jewish man–encouraged us to view Ginsberg’s dad’s meddling through the lens of a Jewish family post-Holocaust, feeling the need to strengthen their culture and the numbers of strong, Jewish families.

...and, once again, another Mad Men character fails to need Tami's advice.
…and, once again, another Mad Men character fails to heed Tami’s advice.

(Ginsberg, no! Don’t announce your virginity on a first date, dude.)

Renee: I actually saw that scene as very othering. They have already made the point that, though his work is better, he won’t get recognition because he is Jewish.  This scene was to purposefully emasculate him. See, he’s not smooth like all of the other men on the show.  Even Pete, the creepy peanut-offering rapist, can get women to sleep with him.

Andrea: Yes, Renee! All I got from Ginsberg is stereotyped nebbish New York Jewish guy that Woody Allen partly built his career on. I just gritted my teeth during the date scene.

Tami: I felt for Daddy Ginsburg, burying his head at the news of MLK’s death. For a man who has already survived so much inhumanity, this must feel like part of a never-ending horror…

Aw, Peggy and Abe. I like that dirty hippie journalist! I think he is good for Peggy. He pushes her to be more progressive, more aware. And he’s totally cool with her success and with her having the money and making the home-buying decisions. And he thinks about their babies!

Unfortunately, I spied how Peggy’s boss looks at her. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

Joe: Cosign, Tami. When Ted (Peggy’s Boss) looked at her, I pulled a Cece from New Girl. Trouble is a’ brewin’! I used to like Abe near the beginning of their relationship, but the way he was practically foaming at the mouth to cover the assassination was two parts sincere and one part TMZ. Like Harry, I feel like the powers-that-be are painting Abe with the Asshat Brush before his eventual booting.

Tami: What on Earth was Roger Sterling’s insurance guy friend on? He was fried and also a hipster racist (Carmen Van KerckhoveTM) before being a hipster racist was “cool.” Running an insurance ad featuring a Molotov cocktail–an ad that would capitalize on growing white fear? Claiming that Martin Luther King’s ghost came to him with said horrific creative idea? Allegedly quoting Tecumseh with faux Native-sounding gibberish? He was like one part clueless white progressive and one part bad acid trip.

I wonder where in Brooklyn he lives?

Joe: I hear Bushwick is becoming popular.

Andrea: Hee, Tami! He wouldn’t be living in Brooklyn at all. Brooklyn became a nationally known hipster haven in the late late 20th century into the 21st century. Mad Men is still in the mid-20th century. (Let’s not rush the drive of the hipster hoardes, hear? 😀 ) So, he may be living his culturally appropriative fantasies in the Lower East Side, maybe the Village. But soooo not in Brooklyn…at least not yet. And more than likely, if he was around nowadays, he’d be living in these up-and-coming NYC neighborhoods.

Renee: This was yet another scene which stands as proof of the writers’ limited attempt to confront race and racism.  I know that there was cheering about Pete calling out Harry for being a racist, but it was this scene where the label would have been for more appropriate for making that statement. Instead, Weiner chose to have the man dismissed as simply “crazy,” which btw is ableist as hell, rather than deal with the issues presented in the scene itself. There was no rage simply because no character could appropriate what he said to their only personal narrative the way that Pete did with Harry.

Tami: The “next on Mad Men” was typically cryptic, though it seems the silver fox may get some lovin’.

Andrea: *raises hand* I’ll do…wait, I forgot we’re talking about Roger Sterling, not John Slattery. Nevermind…



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  • Patricia Cox

    I didn’t think it was odd, I thought it was interesting. It is interesting to show a character who is good on one thing but terrible on another, and not able to see their own internal contradiction. It’s realistic.