This week’s Mad Men episode “The Flood” dealt with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The topic will remind viewers of the third season episode that detailed the characters’ reaction to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For those expecting a satisfying “very special episode” will disappointed, but “The Flood” showed Mad Men at its best: showing complicated, messy people dealing badly with events surrounding them.
The terrible news of Dr. King’s death interrupts a swanky awards ceremony for Madison Avenue ad agencies. Despite being retired from advertising, Megan Draper’s work during her tenure at SCDP is nominated; and even though she’s no longer with the agency, Peggy’s work for SCDP is also nominated – in fact Megan and Peggy are the only ones nominated for ads by SCDP – an interesting detail, given that Peggy’s road to success was so hard-won, and Megan’s talent was underestimated.
But there was no gloating from these two ladies – in fact, it’s all a bit strange for them – Megan’s no longer interested in ad work, devoting her time to being a soap actress. Meanwhile, Peggy’s grown exponentially – in fact, the episode opens with her looking at buying a place for herself.
One would assume that the tragedy of Dr. King’s death and the ensuing riots that follow would make these characters feel some kind of perspective. Well, one would be wrong. In fact, save some notable exceptions, these characters are as self-involved as ever. And some of the reactions of these characters are downright dis-gus-ting.
Take Harry Crane for example. He’s a bore at this point, throwing temper tantrums whenever something doesn’t go his way: and he manages to find himself inconvenienced by the news coverage of Dr. King’s death – he’s angry that the firm will lose advertising revenue because shows like Bewitched are being preempted. And he’s fuming only to be rebuffed by Pete Campbell.
And that’s what I found to be most surprising – I know that Pete always had a somewhat nuanced view of African-Americans, unwilling to indulge in the garden variety racism that his colleagues are so casual about. But his fury at Harry’s small-minded complaints is admirable. It’s a sincere feeling of outrage that is surprising because he’s terrible weasely all the time, so when he rallies like this, it’s hard to write him off – of course, I’m sure the writers will provide him ample opportunity to act like a jackass in a future episode, and disdain will be restored.
But Pete’s angst and sorrow was unmatched by anyone else in the show – in fact, despite our affection and interest in these characters, as well as our investment in their lives, none of the characters rise to the occasion, so to speak. Joan’s a little M.I.A. in this episode, though she does appear ill-at-ease about the whole situation, even offering Dawn a really awkward and stilted hug – for the normally preternaturally self-possessed Joan, this fractured embrace is a telling sign of her growth (she wants to reach out to Dawn), but also her limits (she simply can’t cross socio and racial boundaries). I would love to have seen more Joan in this episode and the quick bit that we see of her composure slipping is a great variation on the perennially cool Joan.
Peggy, on the other hand, seems disturbed but only to a certain limit. She’s willing to use the violence and the riots to have her real estate agent lowball the price of the place. And though her concern for her secretary, Phyllis, was sincere, Peggy’s very much a self-involved character, motivated by only her needs and desires. In this respect, she’s very much Don’s protegé; she can be ruthless, cunning and devastatingly curt – behavior she’s exhibited throughout this season. And her interaction with Phyllis recalled her awkward night with Dawn when the two had to spend the night together and Peggy clumsily betrayed a silly fear that Dawn was planning on stealing her purse. In terms of a socially conscious individual, Peggy’s growth is a bit like a board game – she’ll take a couple of steps forward, but then have to move a few steps back. And Peggy’s place in the feminist movement is interesting because she doesn’t seem all that interested in aligning herself with any kind of movement that requires solidarity and community – instead, she wants to move ahead on her own terms. With all this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that Dr. King’s death doesn’t have a mighty impact on Peggy.
Betty, meanwhile, true to form, reacts like a self-centered, pampered, and spoiled aristocrat, resentful of having her bubble of serenity and upper middle class wealth intruded upon with real world events. She’s worried about Henry canvassing the riot-strewn streets. He comes home after a particularly exhilarating march through Harlem and reveals that he wants to run for the state senate. Because he’s a Republican, the seat’s pretty much his – Betty’s of course thrilled, and you can see images of her cast as Jackie Kennedy immediately flood her brain, until she understands that her recent weight gain will be a problem. I know it’s a sport to hate on January Jones’ acting, but I think she does a fantastic job in the few moments where she goes from pride, excitement, happiness and then consternation in the space of a few minutes.
Of course the central story – the most intriguing one is that of Don. Despite Dr. King’s death looming heavily over the proceedings, this is more about his relationship with his children – particularly Bobby. I always thought Bobby was a cipher, badly underwritten. The writers gift him with some incisive and quirky traits that help mend the gap in his relationship with his dad. And even though Kiernan Shipka’s Sally Draper is far more interesting and compelling – in fact, she’s one of the most interesting characters in the show, though like Joan, she’s given little to do so far – Bobby fills his plot rather nicely.
Don and Bobby skip out on an vigil for Dr. King that Megan takes Gene and Sally to, and instead they go to see Planet of the Apes. I found the choice of the film rather heavy-handed – it’s an obvious allegory of racism and human cruelty. I also forgot how hammy Charlton Heston’s final scene before the reveal of the Statue of Liberty is – his writhing, emoting and teeth-gnashing is laughably over-the-top, though it doesn’t rob the scene its potency when we see the destroyed remains of Lady Liberty; Bobby’s suitable impressed, exhaling an awed “Jesus” at the end of it – this tickles Don a bit, because he sees a bit of himself in the little boy.
But his paternal pride is short-lived. In a sad, mopey, drunken state he admits to a tearful Megan that he never really loved his kids – he just went through the motions. I found the statement to be shocking in its candor, but after evaluating the parenting job he did with his tots, I can’t say he’s wrong; in fact I’m a little surprised at how mild-mannered Bobby is, given that his parents are probably two of the worst parents in the world. But Bobby’s showing a sensitivity that’s lovely – towards the end of the episode, Don crawls into bed with Bobby because the little kid couldn’t sleep, worrying about the events and chaos around him. When Don prods his son about what his fears are, he’s devastated to hear that Bobby’s scared for his stepdad. Ouch.
Over all, I found this episode to be excellent – another home run for Matthew Weiner and company.
Some things I noticed:
- Michael Ginsberg’s story was decent, but his father is getting very Fiddler on the Roof for my taste and he’s getting way too “Old World” charm for my taste.
- Does anyone but me think that Betty’s on her way to some serious eating disorders?
- Peggy wanting kids – that gave me pause for thought
- I wish Dawn would have more to do than just be a composite of race attitudes of those around her