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Mad Men: When Bad Parents Want Good Kids

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Bobby Draper (Mason Vale Cotton) - Mad Men - Season 6, Episode 5.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Bobby Draper (Mason Vale Cotton) - Mad Men - Season 6, Episode 5. Photo: Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

During Ginsberg’s forced blind date on Sunday’s Mad Men, he asks his companion, “Do you like kids?” Oh, Ginsberg, you weird, undateable, virginal, soup-ordering mess. She’s a teacher — well, student teacher, she says — and yes, she likes kids. And that makes her a real anomaly in the Mad Men universe, where virtually no one likes children (or babies, who are similar to children but even worse). This week’s Mad Men was about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but it used that event as a lens for examining child-rearing and parenthood. Do you like children? By that, don’t you mean Do you like progress?

Peggy is elated when Abe casually mentions his plans for their future family. Don has a shocking (to him) moment of discovering that he loves his son. “That man had a wife and four children,” Pete spits at Harry. We rarely hear Pete talk about his daughter, yet there he was, asking Trudy when he could see her. Kids, kids, kids, kids. Megan calls her dad and is disgusted. Dawn comes to work because her mother said to.

“The Flood” has so far mostly been compared to the season-three episode “The Grown-Ups,” where the characters react to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But “The Flood” also resonates with a different season-three episode, “Wee Small Hours.” That one also acknowledged King’s existence, though in a more minor way than “Flood” does. We saw Don and Suzanne, Sally’s free-spirited teacher, listen to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which Suzanne vowed she would teach to her students when school starts in the fall. Later, we saw Don and Betty’s housekeeper Carla listening to King’s eulogy for three of the little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

“These children — unoffending, innocent, and beautiful — were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” we heard King’s voice say over the radio. Kids, kids, kids, kids.

One of Mad Men’s central themes is how we become who we are, the ways in which being our parents’ children shapes how we become our children’s parents. Think of Roger trying to give Margaret that jar of water earlier this season: That shaping isn’t always in the direction we’d hope. Don’s father (and father figures) shaped him into a pretty terrible human, who’s amazed and relieved to discover he has a compassionate, empathetic son. Abe wants to raise his and Peggy’s kids in a diverse neighborhood because he thinks the world will be better for them if he does. We see so many terrible behaviors passed down generation to generation on Mad Men, be it Joan’s mother’s disapproval leaving Joan unable to accept healthy affection (in full force last week) or something as silly as Sally making French toast with rum.

We have every reason to believe Abe is totally authentic in his lefty beliefs, but he knows he’s doing something vaguely outrageous by “going to Harlem in a tuxedo.” Maybe his children, growing up in the area he imagines, won’t feel so constrained by segregated neighborhoods. Don is proud of his son’s effortless sympathy, but he himself has no idea how to nurture or encouarage it. (Maybe watching Planet of the Apes is a better call than McHale’s Navy.) Pete declares it a “shameful, shameful day,” but he’s behaved shamefully an awful lot — enough that he can’t be with his wife and child. Phyllis’s mother wanted to be with her family, but there Phyllis is at Peggy’s side. “The Flood” was one of the few times we’ve seen characters acknowledge that they want something better for their kids — a better world, a better society, a better heart.

Mad Men: When Bad Parents Want Good Kids