Soap operas both real and fictional continue on a strong episode of “Mad Men” as the differences between Peggy and Abe reflect an important divide over crime that emerged in the country during the late 1960s. Police sirens blare in the background throughout “The Better Half” as “law and order” became a dominant issue in American politics.
Previously, Abe had resisted Peggy’s desire to live on the tony Upper East Side, saying he saw them “raising our kids in a place with more different kinds of people.” The growing crime in their neighborhood, however, is straining Peggy’s patience, especially after Abe is attacked while getting off of the subway. The police officer dealing with the case is frustrated by Abe’s unwillingness to give more details about the incident, asking, “Were they colored or Puerto Rican?” “Or white!” shoots back Abe, yelling “fascist pigs” after the cop leaves.
Peggy is furious that Abe won’t provide more information to the authorities, but he says, “I’m not going to give them an excuse to shake down every kid that walks through this neighborhood,” adding, “This is a fucking police state and we’re going to have to fight, OK. They did it in Paris and they did it in Prague and believe it or not we’re going to have to do it here, too,” referring to the student revolts in those countries in 1968. “That doesn’t mean protecting criminals!” Peggy responds. “Those kids have no other recourse in this system,” declares Abe, seemingly sympathizing with his assailants.
As crime grew in the late 1960s, it moved beyond its traditional status as a state and local issue and became the subject of intense national debate. While New Leftists like Abe and many liberals talked about the need to address the “root causes” of crime and the importance of addressing poverty and the underlying issues of American cities, Republicans forcefully called for tougher penalties on offenders and “law and order,” which was key to the party’s resurgence after LBJ’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Richard Nixon made the cry central to his 1968 presidential campaign as he attacked Democrats and liberals as “soft on crime.” In particular, Nixon focused his ire on the “activist” Supreme Court, which had made decisions enhancing protections for criminal defendants, such as the famous Miranda vs. Arizona case of 1966, which brought about the warnings we have heard police read to accused criminals in every police drama since.
As Abe suggests, many liberals saw the “tough on crime” rhetoric as little more than code words for bigotry. With explicit appeals to racism no longer acceptable in the aftermath of the civil rights victories of the mid-1960s, they saw it as a new and more sophisticated way to appeal to racial prejudice. While no doubt racism played a role in the success of such language, many Americans were simply worried about their personal safety in the late 1960s and uninterested in broader discussions of the rise in crime and its “root causes.” Indeed, Peggy responds to Abe’ understanding of his attackers’ plight by saying, “They’re animals.”
Calls for “law and order” were essential to Nixon’s narrow win over Hubert Humphrey in the fall of 1968, as well as George Wallace’s strong third-party showing in the election. “Tough on crime” rhetoric would become a central part of the GOP strategy from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, when crime finally began to fall. Even in liberal New York City, a Democrat like Ed Koch touted his support for the death penalty during his mayoral campaigns in the 1970s as support for capital punishment rose in Gotham’s outer boroughs as well as across the nation as a whole.
Fearing for her safety, Peggy accidentally stabs Abe when she hears noises toward the end of the episode. While en route to the hospital, Abe ends the relationship because he believes her work in advertising is antithetical to his values, adding, “you will always be the enemy.” Quite a unique break-up. This episode was much better than most of this season’s fare, perhaps because the history was in the background as opposed to the foreground.