Tragedy and race in real time.
Last week, Brian Phillips, a writer much better than I am, wrote a piece about the Boston Marathon Bombing.
In his article, Phillips focused on our tendency as individuals and as a
society to ceaselessly seek out “the facts” in the moments in the
immediate wake of a tragedy. At the end of the article, Phillips
explains why he feels the need to focus on how we experience a tragedy:
because this is what we all are, at any given moment: threads of
half-remembered images and fragments of ideas and intentions that we
will or will not carry out, and if we come to a tragedy and are lucky
enough not to be its victims, then this is how we come to it. And if we
are unlucky and do become its victims, then this is what is most
immediately taken away — feelings about horse fights and memories of
electrocuted art teachers, angles of sunlight, whatever our experience
comprises in that moment, whatever is uniquely in our heads…
flight to fact following a disaster can sometimes feel, and can
sometimes be, brave, but I think it can also be a way to sever the
trauma from our own points of contact with it, to construct a world
where real life encircles but does not quite touch the tragedy. But real
life's tendrils go everywhere, and the disaster will never be separate
from your experience of the disaster. And knowing that, being conscious
of that, may be the key to the empathy without which it is impossible to
imagine, much less to honor, the dead.”
The day of
the Boston Marathon Bombing, I was at work just like almost everybody
else in the world. During that afternoon and the rest of the week, I
relentlessly followed the news. I followed every reporting gaffe, every
bit of misinformation about the suspects, every story of bravery and
courage. I also went running each day and cooked dinner and watched
sports and listened to albums that I love and thanked God that I had not
had the misfortune to lose a limb. And here we are over two weeks later
and now the first active NBA player has announced he’s gay. I was at work when that happened too.
I see my parents now, I have a habit of picking their brains about
current events and pieces of pop culture that they have lived through.
I’ll ask my dad what his experience of living through Prince at his peak
was like; or I’ll ask my mom about the Iranian hostage crisis or her
early impressions of David Letterman. When I ask my mom about an album I
love from the 80’s, she’ll think back on it and say, “I wasn’t really
paying attention, I was too busy with you kids.” I’m not saying that an album by Prince
is anything like living through a tragedy, but what I’m saying is that,
as Phillips wrote, we only experience pop culture and current events by
what is currently going on in our lives. “I remember when that happened. I was working at…”
remember what our lives were like when something terrible happens
because we were able to keep going—to see what happened next.
After the latest episode of Mad Men, “The Flood,” ended I tweeted
that the episode was perfect fodder for people who do not like the show
to make their case as to why, just as the episode was yet another
example of the show’s excellence for those who love it.
I still love Mad Men,
but I will admit that Season Six has been slower than usual and that I
am still very uncertain where the narrative thrust of the show (no jokes
about Don and his proclivity for fucking, alright?) currently lies. The
show is no longer about what it once was about (Who is Don Draper?);
and it is now about something much deeper, darker and brooding—dealing
with time, death and happiness.
For me, this is perfect
because those ideas are usually only things I usually ever want to watch
a television show about or read a book about. However, for viewers that
actually want to know where Don’s arc is going, or don’t want to go
through another cycle of his bad decisions or behavior, I understand
that this can be frustrating. McNulty constantly made mistakes and
reverted to his old, bad habits on The Wire, but he wasn’t the
main character on that show and, besides, there was always a Barksdale, a
Stanfield, Sobotka or Greek to keep the plot riveting.
“The Flood” dealt with death, specifically in the case of Martin Luther King’s assassination. This is the second episode of Mad Men
that has outrightly dealt with assassination—the first being Season
Three’s “The Grown Ups,” which saw the Sterling Cooper (pre-SCDP!)
universe reeling in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
That episode was generally received poorly, as many felt that the show
spent too much time on characters watching TV, listening to the radio
and generally just reacting to the news rather than continue the
storyline of Season Three, which, the episode being the penultimate one
of that season, was in a very important place.
This latest episode has received criticism because it exploited Mad Men’s
tendency to avoid racial issues or add a truly prominent black
character to its cast until Dawn became Don’s secretary last season.
Sure, we had a certain 1960’s African American experience through Carla
and though she was a great character in the time she received, Carla
wasn’t fully written and was hastily fired by Betty at the end of Season
Arguments have been made supporting Matt Weiner’s decision not put more focus on African American characters (the Mad Men
depiction of race is more realistic because integration didn’t happen
overnight; Madison Avenue in the 1960’s was not a diverse place; you
can’t just gratuitously add a minority character) and opposing it (those
first two arguments are completely B.S.). I personally do not mind the
way Mad Men handles the race issue. Of course, I’m not black,
but Weiner seems to have made a firm decision as to his stance on how
his version of this reality operates in relation to actual reality
and has stuck with it. The African American characters that were
featured in “The Flood” (Dawn, Phyllis, the movie theater usher) all had
reactions that felt natural within the confines of the show and within
the confines of everyday life: Don fatherly told Dawn to go home like he
would with all of his secretaries, but Dawn wanted to stay, not only to
avoid facing the tragedy, but also because she has become accustomed to
the masochistic and martyrish way a person is supposed to work
at a Madison Avenue office (or really any office nowadays); Joan tries
to console Dawn, but awkwardly hugs her in the wake of their tense
interaction from last week; Peggy is kind and unassuming towards Phyllis
because she in some way doesn’t see color and only sees tragedy; Bobby
Draper talks to the usher in the simple language of a child, but a
phrase like “everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad” takes
on an extra resonance to the usher (and to Don)—even though Bobby most
likely wasn’t trying to console the usher or take some stance on race.
It was just something a slightly melancholy rich kid said.
Flood” felt like real life in a tragedy. You continue on and you act
selfish in your own ways. You get drunk and avoid your real problems.
Sometimes, like Don, you prey on the emotions of those that love you by
giving speeches about your deep-seated fears and shortcomings that you
may or may not be able to change. And then that moment will pass and
you’ll wake up and wish you hadn’t revealed that kernel of truth or
pushed some kind of emotional brutality onto someone who loves you,
because, Jesus, a peaceful man was murdered—or an 8-year old kid was
killed by two reckless guys who knew how to build bombs. Or, maybe, a
small argument between you and your loved one will turn into some kind
of epiphany as to how intimate you and your significant other actually are;
your entire relationship taking on a new depth that was perhaps under
your nose the whole time.
I thought “The Flood” was great. I loved Don’s speech to Megan. I loved Peggy’s face on the couch behind Abe. I loved the woman
that Ginsberg went out with and just Ginsberg himself. I enjoyed Roger’s
brief allusion to being “talked off a ledge” on some kind of acid trip; I loved how beautiful Trudy looked when she spoke to Pete on the phone; I
loved Betty’s scene with Henry. I love the depth and breadth of
emotional interaction and currency that this show has built and
continues to build and that can make your head dizzy sometimes as you
try to wade through it all.
As an emotional crutch and a
way to avoid true intimacy with others, I tend to bury myself in the
cultural items I love: songs, albums, movies, novels and television
shows. Maybe I’m doing that again here. Maybe I’m just a dumb white guy
who isn’t critical enough of race relations on a TV show or is too
sheltered and soft to truly understand a tragedy. Or maybe Pete Campbell
would call me a racist.
But if you need me, tomorrow I’ll
be at work by 9:30. And if it’s not raining, I’ll probably go for a run
before I head to the office.