"Mad Men" has a history of following its characters through iconic historical moments of the '60s, with mixed results. The destruction of Penn Station to make way for Madison Square Garden was deftly handled as an advertising subplot, whereas a tribute to the assassination of JFK resulted in a real snoozer of an episode.
And while the showrunners are in large part leftist--the first few episodes of Season 1 clunked along with moments that screamed "Look how backward and politically incorrect these people are!"--I've been surprised how, time and again, the show will pull out a surprising turn of events to keep things fair, if not neutral.
However, Season 5 seems to have tossed that self-restraint aside so far, as best evidenced in last night's episode, "Mystery Date."
Caution: Spoilers Ahead
"Mad Men" has treated the Vietnam War with ominous foreshadowing in seasons past, but last night, the show's writers went full Jane Fonda on the audience. Greg, Joan's (Christina Henricks) husband who's been deployed to Vietnam, returns after a year of service as a combat surgeon, and he's supposed to have a year off to spend with his wife and newborn son (fathered by another man!). It's revealed that Greg has to return to 'Nam for another year deployed at the front lines.
Soon enough, Joan finds out Greg hasn't been called back by the military; he's volunteered. He's portrayed as selfish--that he needs the Army to make him feel like a man. It would've been okay if he had been drafted for another tour, but the fact that he volunteered proves him foolish, short-sighted, and callous towards his family, in the eyes of the showrunners. At the end of the episode, Joan announces to him that their marriage is over.
As a longtime fan of the show, I'm disappointed to see such a profound lack of respect for the military. Greg is neither given the time nor the words to explain whether he supports the mission in Vietnam, to espouse a desire to defend the innocent people of South Vietnam against the indiscriminate murder the NVA desired and would eventually carry out following America's withdrawal.
Instead, the only reason he gives is that serving his country makes him feel like a good man; he's absolving his past sins, which this episode reminds us includes a rape of his then-fiancee. Furthermore, the impetus for him first enlisting in the Army was that he couldn't make it as a surgeon in a regular hospital. Talk about stacking the deck.
We have yet to see whether, as in seasons past, the writers of Mad Men will throw the audience for a loop and find some way to turn this plot development on its head. But with a too-cute gratuitous shot at Mitt Romney and a shoehorned recon of leftism and the civil rights movement already in the can, one can't help but have a grim outlook for where the handling of these political subjects will go.