Matthew Norman risks drifting into wide-eyed fanboy territory when he admits that forty-five minutes in, Episode 5 becomes something special.
Peggy, her back to the camera, stands looking out the window of an empty apartment while an uppity realtor prattles on about bedrooms, bathrooms, parking spots, and God knows what else. And then we hear the asking price: $28,000.
It’s a perfect example of the elaborate inside joke that we as viewers share with the creators of Mad Men. We know things that the characters don’t, we can see into the future, and the effect of a lovely apartment on the Upper East Side for a price that would today land you a gently used Honda Accord is like a friendly wink to the audience.
And then Peggy’s journalist boyfriend Abe shows up, annoyed that he’s had to trek so far uptown. He’s there for moral support only though, as he readily admits that the decision to buy or not to buy is solely Peggy’s. We’ve watched her grow into Mad Men’s billboard for Women’s Lib, and whether she likes it or not, Peggy is lighting the torch that will be hauled around by generations of women to come, who, like Peggy, will have to deal with being smarter and more capable than the man-children with whom they share their skyline views.
We see other things in the first few minutes, too. Don is reduced to a starry-eyed teenager when he runs into his mistress Sylvia and her husband. Poor, hopelessly neurotic Ginsberg is thrust suddenly into an ambush of a blind date by his Old World father. And we even catch a rare glimpse of Bobby Draper. The boy, Don’s middle child, tugs at some poorly hung wallpaper in his bedroom, picking away at an imperfection, vaguely aware, like kids are, that something just isn’t quite right here.
As compelling as all these things are, they’re really just set up. Years from now, when Mad Men is long gone and we’re all watching television through nanochips installed in our ocular nerve centers, Episode 5 of Season 6 will be remembered as the episode in which Martin Luther King is killed. Our historical inside joke turns against us here, and we find out about the assassination jarringly during a glitzy advertising awards show where Don and Peggy, along with their respective agencies, have been relegated to the cheap seats.
What comes after is less about this horrible event in American history and more about how people and the country react to it. With no Facebook or Twitter to broadcast inner turmoil, they’re forced to process things the old fashioned way, and the results vary widely from person to person.
Peggy begrudgingly makes a low-ball offer on the aforementioned apartment in the sky while her boyfriend charges into the fray to document the story. Joan, not quite sure what to do with herself, gives Don’s African American secretary Dawn the most awkward embrace in the history of recorded television, which demonstrates that whether it’s 1968 or 2013, everything we do feels hopeless and dumb when terrible things happen. Even Henry Francis gets in on the action. He finds himself suddenly inspired to seek higher office and maybe even some decent screen time for a change.
Of everyone though, Pete is the most upset. After trying to parlay the crisis into an invitation home from his estranged wife Trudy, who wisely drop-kicked him out of the house earlier this season, his feelings simmer into snide rage. This culminates into a shouting match with Harry that plays out like an argument between relatives at a Thanksgiving dinner.
“Did you know we’re in the presence of a bona fide racist?!”
“Oh, that’s the latest thing, isn’t it? Everybody’s a racist!”
And then, as always, there’s Don. While Mr. Draper frowns and looks appropriately stricken, and while he comforts those who need comforting and offers Dawn the day off, he remains stoic and, well, boozy. So much so that he forgets to pick up his kids for their shared-custody visit. When he questions the wisdom of bringing children into a rioting city, Betty accuses him of “getting out of every opportunity to see them,” and we get a classic Mad Men moment as Don shouts to Megan “I’m going to get the kids!” and then slams the remains of what can only be a very strong drink.
The next morning, Don wakes to find Megan about to take the kids to a vigil in Central Park, but Bobby saves both himself and his father by faking stomach pains. When Don sends Megan and the other two children away, Don and Bobby find themselves alone. And since Betty has left Bobby with strict instructions not to watch television, there’s only one thing left for them to do: go to the movies.
At the risk of drifting into wide-eyed fanboy territory here, it’s at this moment, forty-five minutes in, according to my DVR, that Episode 5 becomes something special. As much as I love this show, I’ll admit that it rarely moves me emotionally. Maybe it’s because we’re often held at a cool distance from the characters, or maybe it’s because after thirty-six years on earth I’m more guarded than I once was, but I tend to watch Mad Men the way I would a brilliant magician: I ooh and ahh a lot, but I rarely end up feeling more than admiration for a story well told. However, later, when the movie ends and Bobby tells a passing usher, an African American man, that “everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad,” my eyes filled so instantly with tears that my dog got nervous and tried to comfort me by climbing on top of me. He’s a Lab—they do that.
Embarrassed with myself, I reached deep into the reservoir of masculinity I save for occasions like this one, and, after shoving my dog gently back to the foot of the bed, I got ahold of my self.
A few real-time minutes later, Don—drunk, morose, and as startlingly vulnerable as we’ve seen him—admits to Megan that he’s never really loved his children until that evening when he saw Bobby reach out to that sad-looking stranger. Megan hugs him, and Don allows himself to be hugged, and, sad as a statement like that is, it feels like a turning point for Don, one of those optimistic epiphanies that lead to growth and change that we hear so much about.
But don’t be stupid. This is Mad Men, and in Mad Men, optimism—whether brought on by LSD, alcohol, forbidden women, or a lonely little boy turned suddenly wise—is just an illusion. So it makes perfect sense when Don goes into Bobby’s room to check on him and finds the boy awake and anxious. Don climbs into bed beside his son, like a good father would, and asks him why he can’t sleep.
“I’m scared,” Bobby replies.
“Don’t make me sorry for taking you to the movies,” Don says.
“No…I just keep thinking,” says Bobby, and then he pauses. “What if somebody shoots Henry?”
Lying there just inches away from his dad, where he should feel safe and secure, Bobby is scared that someone will take his stepfather away. Don looks away and slowly closes his eyes, because he knows that his epiphany has probably come too late.
Read the rest of the episode recaps for Season 6 by authors such as Greg Olear, Ben Tanzer and Sean Beaudoin.
Matthew Norman is the author of the novel Domestic Violets, which was nominated in the Best Humor category in the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. He blogs sporadically at TheNormanNation.com, and his short story Miss November recently appeared in the fiction anthology Forty Stories from Harper Perennial. Follow him on Twitter @TheNormanNation.