In the intentionally dull world of academic writing, the descriptive word of choice for a thorny issue about race or sexuality is 'problematic.' As in: "Sal only serving as a gay prop this season is problematic." And it was, though not for any kind of politically correct reasons-how eye-rollingly boring would that critique be-but because it makes for crappy drama. Sal's tragic situation and Carla's steely silence during the Birmingham news report was a clumsy plot gimmick. It felt as though the writers were grabbing hold of us by the shirt collars and screaming, "CAN'T YOU SEE? THESE PEOPLE ARE OPPRESSED?!" Well, perhaps we needed reminding. But in this instance, the writers of Mad Men sacrificed their usual elegant nuance for some ham-fisted 'social message.' Fortunately, though some elegance was found in other places-like Disneyland! Yay.
§ The Russians! They can be so problematic. Like shoebanger Nikita Kruschev, who threw a tantrum when he was barred from visiting Disneyland. This snub, according to capitalist stalwart Conrad Hilton, is what cinched our victory in the Cold War.
During a diplomatically fraught visit to the states in 1957, Kruschev announced that he wanted to spend some time in Anaheim's Magic Kingdom. Neither the LAPD nor the suits at Disney, they said, could guarantee Kruschev's safety. So during a dinner hosted by MGM (with Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe cavorting around with some Russians from the politburo), General Secretary Kruschev was informed that the trip would have to be canceled. Kruschev, who had already taken a fair amount of razzing about from studio heads and senators, was upset by the denial and left Los Angeles the next day.
It's unsurprising that Connie would regard with such pleasure seeing the desires of a wily dictator snuffed out by a cartoon mouse. Conrad Hilton and Walt Disney shared similar views about their role in American culture: while the rest of the country rumbled with social turmoil, both men believed that their particular blend of folksiness and modern efficiency could secure social harmony. They both built their empires on the notion that respect for traditional values could establish (or reestablish) order among a diverse and unruly public. Conrad's vision for moon hotels, as expressed to Don, echoes Disney's homespun vision of Tomorrowland: the terrifying solitude of space made orderly, sanitized and comfortable, with a bible in every bureau.
§ Let's slip out of the climate-controlled moon room into the sultry and prickly arena of gay sex. Specifically, let's look at the super homo-erotic imagery of the 1963 Lucky Strike Print campaign. Recognize the imagery?
The 'It's Toasted' slogan, from Season 1, seems to be a 1954 print campaign (Also? Kind of girly!). Starting in 1961, the thrust of the Lucky Strike advertisements were more along the lines of "SMOKING, IT'S WHAT MANLY MEN DO."
§ Speaking of staring into oblivion, though the (newly) coral-colored walls of the Draper home barricade the family from outside events, still the rushing tide of history does find a way to seep in. Burning monks, election results and political addresses intrude from the radio, TV-and via the tortured do-gooder conscience of Don's newest school-teacher fling (that was unnecessarily catty, I'm just envious. Of a fictional character. Christ).
§ As Carla solemnly helped Betty prepare dinner, a funeral service streamed on the radio. Four little girls had been killed in a firebombing of a black church, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a gathering place for civil rights activists in Alabama. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy three days later.
The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.
This is the speech that Teacher Lady told Don she would read to her second graders and the same speech that caused Betty to question the fast-paced civil rights movement to Carla. (But do you see what I'm saying about overstating the drama? Wouldn't it have been richer to just let the eulogy play rather than walloping the viewer with it?)
The reverend of the church, who was giving a sermon as the bomb ripped through the building on a Sunday afternoon, told a local newspaper that it sounded as though "the whole world was shaking."
Doesn't it feel that way now, though? Like it's all crumbling? Perhaps that's why the overt use of white callousness and human dread as narrative felt excessive, ill-handled, suspect.
For more Footnotes of Mad Men, Natasha Vargas-Cooper is always on duty here.