As many predicted, “Mad Men” looked at the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. For better or worse, it limited its two black characters, Dawn and Phyllis, to a brief appearance to illustrate the disconnect they have with their privileged white employers. Don couldn’t bring himself to do anything, Joan gives Dawn a well-intentioned but awkward hug, and Peggy, who is at least 10 years younger than Don or Joan, gives a much more sympathetic embrace. One could argue that backing away from more difficult subject matter was a cowardly act, but at the same time, it’s hard not to admire the realism with which it portrays the effect on the white workers of SCDP.
“I would characterize ‘Mad Men”s oblique way of handling the MLK assassination as pretty brave, mostly because it’s probably closer to the truth about how white people reacted.”
“It doesn’t hit anyone nearly as hard as one might have expected, except maybe Peggy’s secretary, but we get to learn a lot about a lot of different people.”
“This time around, everyone was upset – but for the wrong reasons. They used King’s death as an excuse to unleash their fury, to avoid their responsibilities, to seize a career opportunity, to save a bit of money.”
That is to say, this was nothing like the Season 3 episode “The Grown Ups,” which depicted the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One of the show’s best moments was when Pete, complaining about being passed over for a promotion, suddenly realized his concerns did not really mean much. The assassination of JFK will always be a definitive moment in U.S. history: The widespread use of TV turned presidents into pop culture celebrities in a way they could never have been before, and that JFK and his family were attractive and charismatic people, representing America at a rare moment of optimism following the Cuban Missile Crisis’ end only compounded it. The privileged white workers of Madison Avenue would never be able to comprehend — or at least feel — the significance of the MLK assassination, and “Mad Men” knew that. So what happened instead was we observed reactions in the wake of tragedy and learned a lot about the characters in the process. In particular, critics were divided on Pete’s handling of the situation.
“Harry is pissed the special reports pre-empted so many of their clients’ commercials, while Pete slams him for his lack of sensitivity, calling him a racist. At least Harry is being honest. Pete is using the assassination as a cover for his frustration that Trudy won’t let him back into the house.”
“You know it’s a world gone terribly awry when Pete Campbell seems like a good guy. Actually, that statement is a bit too facetious. Pete is indeed a world-class jackass much of the time, but he’s always been remarkably forward-thinking and egalitarian when it comes to matters of race.”
“Those who love to hate Pete will say his reaction was annoyingly disingenuous. To me, his rage underscores what makes him one of the show’s most riveting characters (and it reminds us, at a particularly moralistic moment in “Mad Men’s” trajectory, that the show’s moralism is never all that easily delineated).”
Also receiving lots of critical attention was Peggy, who may be on her way to happiness, or possibly only to contentment.
“Peggy, meanwhile, continues to show how she’s different from her mentor. With Abe, she’s building the life that she wants, not the one she’s expected to have…Peggy radiates relief and joy. Where Don’s marriage was a makeshift thing thrown together over a vacation to Disneyland, Peggy’s will be one constructed slowly, brick-by-brick.”
“It’s hard not to have my heart tied up in knots when Peggy looks as hopeful as she did after Abe mentioned the prospect of children. I desperately want Peggy to have hope in her life…In my view, Peggy is settling for this guy, and because she’s awesome, I want more for her than she wants for herself. But experience has been a harsh teacher, as evidenced by Peggy’s intermittent desire to tamp down her exuberant smile.”
“The episode’s opening scene of Peggy in the apartment was the show’s clearest nod yet to her becoming Don, kicking off with the camera lingering on the back of her head, the signature angle from which we often observe her former mentor.”
But it wouldn’t be “Mad Men” with Don drama, and critics were overwhelming in their praise for the scene he shared with his neglected son. The two went to see “Planet of the Apes” together, but it was Bobby’s empathetic words to a black usher that almost caused Don’s heart to explode.
“…a storyline that found Don taking his son to see “Planet of the Apes” and led to a rare and telling instance of vulnerability and openness from our typically aloof hero…Don, for all his doubts, turns out to be a real boy after all, and for someone who works in advertising, a world of artifice and calculated appeal, his understanding that the way you’re supposed to feel and the way you actually do is a gradient along which you can shift comes surprisingly late in life.”
“Don is finally getting a clue that his actions have consequences not just for others, but for himself. At this point, sympathy for the charming devil is pretty much out of the question, but it’s still possible to pity him.”
That said, not all critics were pleased with the episode. While admitting the difficulty of having to write such an episode, the approach, while realistic, may have been a bit too simplistic:
“The show’s oversimplified battle lines — between blacks and whites, between unfeeling older characters and passionate younger characters sometimes dull the impact of big events instead of amplifying them.”
All in all, “The Flood” was an insightful take on difficult subject matter.
Meanwhile, Sunday night’s other must-watch, “Game of Thrones,” has come down to earth after two strong episodes. Not to say that “Kissed By Fire” was a bad episode, but it was more uneventful — nobody lost their hand, for instance — but it certainly didn’t lose anyone’s interest. On the contrary, there were a couple surprising developments and anticipation continues to soar.
“The bigger plot shockers in this installment — Tywin Lannister’s betrothal announcements — are offered to us in a great scene with triangulated killer glances, but they are actually upstaged by the gratifying spectacle of characters going beyond what we expect of them, for better and for worse…”
“All in all, while relatively low on real action, this is a strong, densely plotted episode with many story elements and twists, reminding us about some of the more magical and supernatural elements of this world, and setting things up for a massive clash of armies in short order.”
Of particular note, Jaime and Brienne develop a genuine friendship by sharing a story that tugs at the heart strings.
“A touching relationship of dawning mutual respect has developed between the freshly dismembered Jaimie Lannister and his bodyguard Brienne, and 3.5 builds on it. Watching and listening to him as she does, we are getting his side of the king-slaying story for the first time, and it turns out to be a heartbreaker.”
“Jaime Lannister continues to make himself more human to us every week, as well as add depth to the relationship between himself and Brienne. Their conversation in the bath started as being more awkward than anything else, but as Jaime begin to tell his story about the Mad King it was easy to forget the uncomfortableness of the situation…[it was a] surprisingly intimate scene between the two of them.”
All that said, the series premiere of “Rectify” may have stolen the show, at least for some critics. The six-episode series, about a man adjusting to a new life after being exonerated after nineteen years of charges for raping and murdering his girlfriend, has been hailed by critics.
“It isn’t just good TV, it’s revelatory TV. The genre’s biggest potential game changer since AMC debuted the one-two punch of ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad.'”
“Sundance Channel’s ‘Rectify’ joins a short list of potentially all-time great newcomers.”
Critics were especially appreciative of the performances. Ellen Grey of the Philadelphia Daily News said that “there’s not a bad performance” on the show and highlighted Aden Young, who plays the show’s protagonist, Daniel Holden, who “carries every scene he’s in.” RedEye’s Curt Wagner agreed, saying that the supporting cast “fills every moment with interesting, unexpected choices” and highlighted a wordless cameo from Hal Holbrook as “mesmerizing.”
“Rectify” is characterized largely by its slow pace, however, so it has its detractors. In a three star (out of five) review, David Hinckley of New York Daily News twice took note of the show’s “measured” pace, but said that pop culture references (his stepbrother “catches him up” by showing him “Dazed and Confused”) keep it just active enough. Indeed, many other critics, detractors and supporters both, took note of the pace.
“Watching the premiere on Monday night you will think Sundance has found a winner in its first wholly owned drama series…But almost as soon as the second episode starts the qualities of surprise and humanity seem to fade and the series takes a turn into gassiness and obscurity.”
“A story that’s going to be told this slowly needs multiple layers of characterization to be pulled back, and so far there’s little indication of that in ‘Rectify.'”
“‘Rectify’ is a meditative work that allows for long silences and far-away stares as part of its storytelling, which means it’s not for everyone.”
The meditative pace, mystery, strong acting and especially the cinematography and overall beauty of the show led many to compare it to Sundance’s recently-concluded series, Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake.” That “Rectify” is taking the time-slot of “Top of the Lake” only fed comparisons, comparisons that Hank Steuver took further in his review for The Washington Post.
“Both dramas suggest real potential for a new genre in post-idiot-box television, a category I’d call movie-of-the-many-weeks.”
Comparing a miniseries with an independent film is not new in and of itself, but for Sundance to provide two successful examples the same television season that will feature two HBO movies at the Cannes Film Festival only makes the prospect of the mini-series as the new independent and mid-budget film increasingly strong. Indeed, McNamara’s LA Times review already engages with the episode in much the same way critics engage with the best films, and the show has already been compared to the Sundance Film Festival’s best films.
“Everything, the writing, the directing, the cinematography, the sound editing, works to bring this character to life. Shots linger on the green wonderland of an ordinary backyard or the crowded silence of an empty morning kitchen. The scrape of a fork on a plate, the opening and closing of a door, all force the viewer to look again, look anew, as if we too had been separated from reality for all those years.”
With four and five times the duration, the Sundance Channel may have tapped into a long-overdue market.