Mad Men is, obviously, a period piece – but creator Matthew Weiner has been careful to prevent the series from ever feeling like That ’60s Show. Throughout its run, Weiner and his team of writers have made a habit of referencing then-current events coyly rather than using them to catalyze plots. See, for example, the way season 3’s “Wee Small Hours” mentions 1963’s March on Washington, but focuses much more on trouble at the office than that civil rights milestone.
Then again, some events are too big for Mad Men to tackle obliquely – which is why nearly every season has featured one episode that revolves around a certain historical watershed and, more specifically, how it affects the lives of every one of the show’s characters.
That tradition has flagged a bit in recent years. Season 5, which aired in 2012 after a two-year hiatus and took place between the spring of 1966 and the spring of 1967, didn’t feature any episodes focused solely on one monumental historical happening – though smaller events like the Richard Speck murders and Charles Whitman’s mass murder at the University of Texas in Austin did earn passing mentions.
But the show’s current season is set in 1968, a tumultuous year stuffed with events too big to ignore – and last night, the series faced one of those events head-on by structuring an entire hour around the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In honor of the tradition’s return, let’s take a look back at the other historical moments that earned the full-episode treatment – from a game-changing election to one of the most shocking victories in sports history.
Season 1: Nixon vs. Kennedy (November 8, 1960)
Sterling Cooper’s drunken employees spend the penultimate episode of season 1 celebrating at (and recovering from) a wild Election Day party, using Nixon’s presumed victory as an excuse to throw a bacchanal and vomit in each other’s waste baskets. The morning after, they find out that the election’s results were inconclusive – inserting a note of uncertainty into the old firm’s conservative atmosphere. Eventually, Kennedy’s victory will usher in a new, progressive era – meaning that this raucous celebration also served as a sort of goodbye party for the staid ’50s. (Also in this episode: We learn how Dick Whitman stole Don Draper’s identity, and that Bert Cooper doesn’t give a hoot about it. Man, there used to be a lot of plot on Mad Men!)
Season 2: The Cuban Missile Crisis (October 14-28, 1962)
“Nixon vs. Kennedy” was a debauched blowout that ended with a sudden record scratch. Season 2’s finale, “Meditations in an Emergency,” was an exercise in impending doom, all caused by the specter of nuclear war. As the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. stood on the brink of all-out battle, Mad Men’s characters respond by acting on their impulses: Listless, pregnant Betty cheats on Don, while Pete declares his love to Peggy. Peggy responds in turn by telling him that she’d given his baby away – a confession she never may have made if she didn’t think the end of the world might be nigh.
Season 3: Kennedy’s assassination (November 22, 1963)
In a way, all of Mad Men’s first three seasons were building up to “The Grown-Ups,” which showed how the president’s death – and the sudden death of Lee Harvey Oswald, murdered himself before he could stand trial – paralyzed the nation on both a macro level and a micro level.
Betty spends the episode glued to her TV, watching events unfold with growing horror; Don’s nonchalant reaction to what’s happening pushes her to finally end their marriage. Pete uses the assassination as an excuse to avoid his co-workers after Ken gets a promotion. Roger tries to assert normalcy by holding his daughter’s wedding in spite of everything, only to be faced with half-filled tables and sour-faced guests. And in the scene that may ring truest of all, Duck hears that Kennedy has been shot, then turns off the TV so that he can sleep with Peggy. Who cares about history in the making when there’s sexin’ to be done?
Season 4: Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston (May 25, 1965)
The biggest political event that occurred during this time period – Malcolm X’s assassination on February 21, 1965 – barely earned a passing mention in the season’s fourth episode. But the highly anticipated fight that would lead to one of the most controversial moments in sports history was at the center of “The Suitcase,” an episode that largely boils down to a two-person, one-act play starring Don and Peggy. As their colleagues watch Ali down Liston with just one punch, the ad man and his protegee open up to one another as they never have before. By the morning, they’ve entered a new stage in their relationship – and Ali vs. Liston has inspired Don to write a truly great ad for Samsonite suitcases.
Season 6: MLK’s assassination (April 4, 1968)
Kennedy’s death seemed to stop the entire world in its tracks. Martin Luther King Jr’s own assassination doesn’t have quite the same effect on Mad Men’s largely white characters – whose sadness at King’s death is compounded by their worries about impending race riots. News of the fallen civil rights leader isn’t enough to stop the ANDY Awards, or to cancel work the next day. (Even Dawn, the show’s only major-ish African-American character, shows up, though that’s largely because she doesn’t know what else to do.) It does, however, give Don an excuse to escape to the movies – hey, just like we predicted before season 6 began! Do we get a cookie (or a glass of Scotch), Weiner?
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