After a slow season six start, “Mad Men” finally hit its stride on Sunday with “The Flood,” which was fully consumed by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the uneasy race relations in its immediate aftermath.
The news breaks at an advertising awards gala, where Megan and Peggy's Heinz campaign is up for an honor. Someone in the crowd interrupts Paul Newman's speech to make the announcement. The organizers want the awards ceremony to go on, but no one is in the mood; attendees are instead scrambling for the payphones to reach out to their families. Peggy's boyfriend, Abe, gets his first plum assignment from the New York Times, who sends him to Harlem to document the expected riots. When Peggy warns him to be careful, Abe says it's too late: “I'm going to Harlem in a tuxedo.”
Unsurprisingly, Megan is the most visibly upset by the news. I'm still not sure if I trust her -- I think she's hiding something -- but, in this case, her grief truly seems genuine. Later, we see a plaque with her name on it tossed carelessly on a couch at chez Draper; it looks like she and Peggy won the award, but it's never mentioned.
The next morning at the office, Pete Campbell assumes the unlikely position of moral indignation, chastising Harry Crane for appearing to care more about preempted TV ad spots than the national tragedy. There seems to be a bit of misplaced anger here: what's really bothering Pete is that Trudy refuses to let him come home and spend time with her and his daughter, where he really wants to be.
Don's secretary, Dawn, whose storyline has begun to expand of late, does not want to be at home. When Don insists she take the rest of the day off from work, she declines, explaining she would rather be in the office. As we saw last week, Dawn is straddling two very different worlds and doesn't seem to quite belong in either. Throughout “The Flood,” we see presumably well-meaning white people offer patronizing sympathy to black people, apparently working from the assumption that African-Americans will be taking the loss of MLK far more personally. This awkward disconnect is perfectly captured with Joan's fumbled attempt to offer Dawn a hug: Dawn's stiff resistance lets Joan know that she is in no position to try and comfort her.
Indeed, the assassination and its social repercussions feels like it only deepens the racial divide among the characters on the show. In addition to the black Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employees being treated like victims, nonspecific "otherness" designators like “they” and “them” are used a handful of times in reference to the African-American communities in NYC and Washington, D.C. There is genuine sadness about the loss of the civil rights leader, but, even more significantly, there is fear of a racial uprising and perhaps that the tenuous amity between white employers and their black employees might be shattered. Remember, it was just last season that widespread race riots sweeping the country reached Madison Avenue.
Don tries to exploit the immediate fear (which, as history tells us, was largely unfounded) to get out of a previously scheduled visit with this children, but Brunette Betty is not having it. “You would crawl on your knees to pick up your girlfriend in Canada,” she spits over the phone.
Don gives in and drives out to get his kids, but he's distracted by anxiety over his girlfriend's well-being. Don and Megan ran into Sylvia and Dr. Rosen the night before as they were on their way to Washington, D.C. By the end of the episode, Don has not reached either of them, and we can almost hear the echoes of Sylvia's earlier words in the lobby: “Come Monday morning, it will all be a dream.”
Detached as ever, Don begs out of joining Megan, Sally and Gene for a vigil in the park; he can barely conceal his relief when Bobby claims to be feeling sick. He's fine, of course -- he'd just rather watch TV. But Don insists that he honor his mother's rules against watching, so instead he takes him to the movies to see “Planet of the Apes.” This is the first time we've heard much of anything from Bobby. Last season, we saw Sally in the throes of terror when the Richard Speck murders were dominating the headlines; Bobby has anxieties of his own, but they manifest in different ways -- ways that Don can appreciate. Not afraid to say what everyone else is thinking (the “previously on 'Mad Men' segment” went back to last season's pilot episode, when Bobby tells Don his father will be dead by the time he reaches 40), Bobby has a brief exchange with a black maintenance worker at the theater, telling him that “people watch movies when they are sad.”
Later, Don is drunk and gives Megan a monologue about his love for his children, which he seems to have just discovered. Jessica Pare is excellent here, almost visibly holding her breath as Don recalls having to forcibly go through the motions of fatherly love when his children were born. We're all relieved (kind of?) when Don confesses to a dramatic change of heart, compliments of his movie theater outing with this son. He tells Megan that he felt like his “heart was going to explode.”
Peggy's reproductive future enters the discussion again, as she's looking to buy an apartment for herself and Abe. Of course, Peggy will be paying for it, and she's upset when Abe barely reacts to the news that she lost the bidding war for a place in the Upper East Side's Yorkville. (It's an apartment Peggy's hilariously vile real estate agent promises will “quadruple in value” when the Second Avenue subway line is finished. Indeed!) But Abe swiftly earns back Peggy's goodwill when he explains that he prefers they raise their children somewhere more diverse, like the Upper West Side. Their children?! The look on Peggy's face tells the whole story, once and for all: She really does want the marriage and the family and the whole nine yards. But does Abe? I'm worried for Peggy. Her eagerness to believe that Abe will ultimately settle down with her recalls his proposal-that-wasn't last season; Peggy swallowed her disappointment and ignored her mother's harsh warnings by convincing herself that she was the quintessential modern woman, unconcerned with bourgeois symbols of domestic bliss. But Abe has a pretty sweet setup right now, and it's too easy to believe that he might go along for the ride until he gets where he really wants to be, which might be somewhere else. Let's hope Peggy convinces him to make it official before she signs any papers.
Much was made about how far the SCDP table was from the stage at the awards banquet. Was this so the producers could get away with not letting us see the person who was supposed to be Paul Newman? Probably, though this would have made much more sense if the advertising awards ceremony was based on something that actually happened. From what we can gather, it was wholly fictionalized (though a 2008 Ad Age article celebrated Newman's marketing genius).
The episode's title, "The Flood," was likely a reference to Noah's Ark, which Michael Ginberg's father mentions in his lecture to his son about finding a nice Jewish girl to settled down with. Everyone boarded the ark in pairs, the elder Ginbserg said, asking: What are you going to do? Get on with your father? (Also, sorry for completely ignoring that storyline; we will talk about it more in the future, as we strongly suspect there will be a second date!)
The writers got the timing right on "Planet of the Apes," though just barely, according to IMDB: The film was released on April 3, 1968, just the day before Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. There is conflicting information, though -- its Google entry says it opened in February 1968. Either way, it was out by then.
It's a stretch, but Don's monologue about his love for his children may have included a nod to Christina Stead's epic novel, “The Man Who Loved Children.” The family drama, which centers on narcissistic, manipulative idealist Sam Pollit, was first published in 1940 but was reissued in 1965. According to Jonathan Franzen's 2010 New York Times essay on the book, Stead, an Australian, set the novel in Washington, D.C., at the urging of her publisher, who didn't think American readers would care about Australians. She wrote the book in 18 months while living in Gramercy Park.