by: L.P. Hanners
A “Flood” hits SCDP, as an unimaginable tragedy shocks the nation…..
Mad Men has a way about it. It is at its most triumphant, its most powerful, when it finds a way to capture a pivotal moment in time and then allow us to experience it from the vantage point of the shows myriad, distinctive personalities. We have seen this trick from Matt Weiner and the gang before. In “Crisis Management” the backdrop of the episode was the nail-biting apex of the Cuban Missile Crisis, while in “The Grown Ups” the world was rattled to the core by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This time, in an episode entitled “The Flood”, the story is set against the backdrop of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. ((“The man knew how to talk. I don’t know why, but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing.” – Roger Sterling)) and the ensuing riots, thus bestowing us with the most compelling episode of this young season.
We have been presented with a great deal to digest these past three weeks. The state of affairs 8 episodes from now, when the season concludes, is unimaginable at this point. Thus far, Don has reverted back to his old womanizing ways ((Which is very disappointing given the time he spent grooming a restored commitment to monogamy throughout all of last season.)), Trudy has kicked Pete out of their home and Peggy’s career is booming, poising her to become just as successful as her mentor, Don. The pacing of Mad Men episodes, and its overall story arcs, ensure that all the high points hit hard, and resonate soundly with the audience. For example, it’s easy to see how Lane’s death is still casting a shadow over Don, and how Joan is still so affected by her precarious decision ((Which in many ways has twisted Harry into a darker character.)). The set-up for Season 6 is definitely still in progress, but nonetheless this week’s episode was, by all standards, a typical mid-season masterpiece. “The Flood” dives deep into new territory, all of it barely foreseen or imaginable. It’s a nice breakaway from the (brand of) anxiety the season has already birthed. Beautiful breakdowns create an enthralling backdrop for this episode, all of it brought upon by the show’s passing into the night of April 4th, 1968, MLK’s death.
The tragedy is of course used as an opportunity for us to learn more about the characters we know and (sometimes) love. Don’s concern for Sylvia in Washington, DC hints at deeper feelings he may have, while Pete’s marriage appears permanently crippled. Harry despicably worries about what this means for business while Peggy’s broker tries to take advantage of the situation. Joan hugs Dawn ((A pathetic attempt to relate.)) and Ginsberg’s father, a Holocaust survivor – in a scene stealing moment – berates his son for abandoning his date ((With the very talented Nikki Fink Hayden.)) after news of the assassination begins to spread. “Now’s the time when a man and a woman need to be together the most. In a catastrophe,” he insists, in a speech that gives the episode its name. “In a flood, the animals went two by two.”
The episode begins with a very familiar scene: A lead character staring out a window overlooking Manhattan. Usually, that character is Don, but here it’s Peggy. The MLK assasination has yet to occur and Peggy is shopping for a new apartment ((The real estate broker’s suggestion that the apartment will increase in value when the 2nd Avenue subway line is complete certainly drew a chuckle from all New Yorkers, as this is a promise unfulfilled to this day!)) for her and her “trusted adviser.” We learn a great deal about Peggy and Abe’s relationship in this episode, and we bear witness the intoxicating effect the word children has on Peggy.
“The Flood” allows us to spend time with many of Mad Men’s characters, including someone who has barely existed so far this season: Michael Ginsberg. All of his scenes thus far have presented him as being obnoxious, and solely tolerated for his genius. He is always equipped with great one-liners, much like Roger Sterling, and is gifted with a Woody Allen-esque delivery ((“You’re a sexy girl, and you smell great.”)). He has the potential to be a great character, morally different from the rest of the cast, a role Sally Draper usually owns.
In a particularly tense and enjoyable scene, Pete and Harry get into it. Pete, literally, yells “racist!” at Harry when he starts complaining about television revenue being lost because of the breaking news event (“Only cause it’s costing you!”). It is difficult not to compare Harry directly to Pete. In general, they’re both awful people. In fact most of the characters on Mad Men are awful characters, but they’re charmingly sophisticated in ways that these two aren’t. Pete is constantly unraveling. Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete, might be the best tapped talent on the show. Pete has many layers, but it’s hardly overt as Pete’s slime-potential beats Vincent’s merit to the punch. He’s so simple in many ways that he’s the polar opposite of Don Draper. There’s a presence there, in the vain of a villain. Pete’s berating of Harry stems from his frustration in his current bachelorhood ((“It’s a shameful, shameful day!”)), and how much he misses Trudy, his fellow Democrat. It was so pretentious that it could be hailed as the new ‘classic Pete’ moment, as the civil rights streak he actually has in him shows its face. It is remarkable how two men (Pete and Don) who could rank amongst the most vile creatures on television are continually humanized, and that we can still sympathize with them.
At the core of this episode is a character we have yet to hear much from, young Bobby Draper. Upon our first encounter with him we find him peeling away at the wallpaper in his bedroom, pulling back the layers with with childlike curiosity. Transfixed by an inconsistency, he insatiably starts to peel at it, like a scab. It was such a symbolic scene, that was masked as kids-will-be-kids shenanigans, and breezed past yet hardly forgotten. Later in the episode, when the kids are visiting Don, Bobby plays sick so that he can hang out with his dad. They go to the movies, a beloved place for Don. The movie they see, “Planet of the Apes”, hits home for Bobby. “Jesus” he says to his father as the revelation at the film’s conclude hits him. Mad Men has always portrayed the cinema as a safe haven from stress, a clear reminder of how much cinema has changed/evolved/decayed in the past forty-five years. And it was here, in a theater watching an all-time classic, that something remarkable happens to Don…..
Expectant parents are often pummeled with advice from those who have been down that road. They are told that they will never experience love like they will when their child is born. Don admits ((In John Hamm’s most brilliant scene of Season 6.)) that he played the part when his kids were born, that this wave of love so often spoke about didn’t overcome him ((“But you don’t feel anything.”)). But after spending time with Bobby at the movies and watching him in the world, Don feels that love…so much that it felt like his “heart was going to explode”. Don sees himself in Bobby, sees that he is introspective and a little broken. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and Don realizes, finally, that he loves his son. Beautiful.
It is not going too far to call “The Flood” an instant classic, an episode we will be talking about for some time. It was the most complicated and layered episode thus far, and was adorned with clever symbolism while further developing complex characters through the context of a significant historical event. The arc of the show didn’t move forward all that much, but underlying layers of conflict, vital to the overall story, were revealed with precision. It all goes back to the wallpaper that Bobby was peeling away: Everyone is seeing the imperfections in the world, and they’re going to start peeling away at them.