By far my least favorite episode of Mad Men is “The Grown-Ups,” the third season hour all about how the characters react to the John F. Kennedy assassination. It’s an episode that has some good moments and potent scenes in it—particularly all of the action at Roger’s daughter’s wedding and the continued dissolution of the Draper marriage—but it’s also an episode where a good portion of the story involves people sitting and watching tragic events play out on television. Though this is most assuredly realistic to the way that people consumed the news coverage of the assassination, it doesn’t make for terribly compelling television. “The Flood” provides the show with a chance to pull off a bit of a do-over, and it’s fairly terrific, easily the best episode of the young season so far and a good indication that a season I was enjoying but didn’t yet feel terribly passionate about might have a few more tricks left up its sleeve.
The centerpiece of the episode is the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tenn., an event that’s notable both for everybody’s sorrow—or lack thereof—at the death of a great man and for the way everybody starts to worry about African Americans having race riots out in the streets. In 1968, race riots became one of the biggest topics of the day and were one of the things that Richard Nixon rode to victory in the fall’s election. (Spoilers, I guess?) Nixon ran on a promise of safety and security at home and abroad, on a very strange platform of finding a solution to the Vietnam problem to bring America’s boys home, while also doing everything but turning the armed forces themselves loose on the streets of American cities to keep the violence tamped down. The change that swirled throughout the ‘60s had grown threatening enough to enough people that they were retaliating through violence and bigotry; the responses wouldn’t have been what Dr. King would have wanted, but they were, at the least, understandable on the level of motivation.
The way the show announces the death of King is one of those things it gets just right. Up front at an advertising award ceremony, Paul Newman is talking to the gathered advertisers about why he’s supporting Eugene McCarthy for the Democratic presidential nomination over Robert F. Kennedy. (If I’m not mistaken, Lyndon B. Johnson had already announced he was dropping his bid for re-election.) At that point, someone shouts, from the back of the hall, that King has been killed, and the room erupts into shock and chaos. Some people are sad. Some people are scared. Everybody wants to use the phones. What happens next is a rough mirror to what happened in “The Grown-Ups,” only things have progressed to a point where, say, Pete and Trudy who watched the Kennedy coverage together are living very separate lives, where Betty is with another man entirely but has a much healthier marriage than she ever could have hoped for with serial philanderer Don. Only Don seems really at sea, worried about his lover, who’s in Washington, D.C., home of the largest riots, and going to see Planet Of The Apes with his son.
What makes “The Flood” work where “The Grown-Ups” didn’t is that the characters have become so inured to such shocking violence—sadly, from their point-of-view—that it’s possible for real life to peek around the edges of the television coverage. And, predictably, all of these people take this mass tragedy and make it all about themselves. Pete chooses the moment to try to get back into Trudy’s good graces. Don shuts down and shuts out his wife and children. Megan squabbles with her dad on the phone. (He’s entirely too happy about the “escalation of decay.”) Peggy puts in an offer on an apartment that she hopes will succeed, because the chaos erupting around the country may drive down property values. (Tony Soprano’s quoting of the old maxim “When there’s blood in the streets, buy property,” seems particularly relevant here, especially given this show's connection to The Sopranos.) Abe sees the story of a lifetime and a chance to work with the Times. Bobby pretends to have a stomach ache. Henry decides to further his political ambitions. The characters all react to the assassination in at least somewhat appropriate ways—Harry, who just wants regular programming to resume, aside—but they also almost immediately start trying to think of ways to turn the chaos to their benefits.
Who I keep coming back to is Ginsberg’s father, lying on the couch, taking a nap, when his son comes in from a date set up by his own father. Ginsberg tells his pop that King has been assassinated, and that’s why his date’s been cut short. And, honestly, Ginsberg’s dad might have the most rational reaction to the news: He pulls the blanket up over his head, and he goes back to sleep. He’s been established as a Holocaust survivor, and for a man who’s lived that horrible and tragic of a life, another chapter in the horror and tragedy must be too much to bear. He has to live in this world, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean he can’t opt out of it every once in a while. He’s old enough to have earned the honor, at least. Yet the rest of the characters—the rest of us, really—don’t have that luxury. This is the world we have to live in and engage with every day.
So work resumes at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Things aren’t back to normal, as nobody knows what to do, but everybody comes into the office, not sure to what degree this tragedy should be mourned. Eventually, Bert Cooper calls for the office to be shut down, shortly after Pete and Harry nearly come to blows, but we see just enough of these characters (and Peggy, over at her office) whirling around like automatons to know that no one can quite figure out what to do. There’s an expectation that Dawn won’t make the potentially dangerous trek in from Harlem, but she does. She doesn’t know what else to do. Everybody goes through the motions. Where Kennedy stopped the office flat, this tragedy has become just another sad fact of American life. Somebody was a great speaker, as Roger would have it, and he died for what he believed in. That’s the world these characters live in.
Tellingly, the characters do spend a lot of time watching television, Don especially. But what sets this episode apart from “The Grown-Ups” is that that television watching most often has an added layer of depth to it. When Don can’t tear his eyes away from the Washington, D.C. reports long enough to go pick up his kids (affording us a wonderfully, casually catty phone conversation between Don and Betty), it’s an entirely rational reaction to an awful event, but it’s also something he’s doing because he’s worried about the woman he’s having sex with, almost in spite of himself. (I can’t imagine that quote from Sylvia about not wanting to fall in love made it into the “previously on” for any other reason.) Similarly, when Pete and Trudy each watch the same Walter Cronkite report while Pete makes a strained attempt at reconciliation, it becomes a kind of soundtrack to the fissures tearing apart their marriage. It’s a place they can look so they don’t have to look too long at the pain at their centers. It’s a distraction, not a thing they feel in their guts.
However, the characters are surrounded by people who do feel those emotions palpably, and while I can’t say the show did a tremendous job of capturing the emotions of the African-American characters at its periphery—just as Dawn’s storyline last week seemed a little on-the-nose—it does an excellent job of capturing how the regular, white characters understand they need to say or do something but don’t know what, precisely. Peggy gives her secretary a hug, and that turns out to be the right thing to do, but when Joan gives Dawn a hug, it ends up feeling incredibly awkward. Nobody believes Dawn when she says she’d rather be at work until she’s quite insistent about it, and even Bobby suggests to the African-American usher at the movie theater that when you’re sad, you should go to the movies. It’s all well-meaning and good and indicative of the way that race relations had proceeded across the course of the decade that these gestures feel necessary. But it all still feels very calculated and careful. There’s nothing genuine in it, because the few moments of genuine emotion could lead to far worse things.
Take, for instance, the near-fistfight between Pete and Harry. Pete’s an interesting character, because though he’s a complete lout on a personal level, he’s much more progressive and traditionally liberal than the other characters. He, alone, understood the appeal of demographic research back in the day, and he’s also usually seemed to be at least somewhat sympathetic to the youth culture swirling around the country at this point in time. (Though you just know that if he tried to go to Woodstock or something, he would be laughed off the grounds.) Pete, because of his need to belong or his upbringing or something, has this intuitive sense of what it’s like to have a majority stepping down on you at every turn. When he barks that King’s assassination made for a “shameful, shameful day,” it’s a laughline, sure, because Pete rarely gets so serious, but then you immediately realize he really means it, and it becomes one of the more empathetic moments for the character in the run of the show.
Harry, meanwhile, just wants TV to get back on track. Not having Bewitched and The Merv Griffin Show on is killing the company’s bottom line, because the networks are running with constant news reports that don’t have advertising in them. (CBS president William S. Paley famously complained around this time about how much special coverage of major news events cost him, and very few of his fellow businessmen took it as particularly ghoulish to think that way.) There have been moments of coded racism throughout the hour, but they’ve mostly been shut down very quickly, stopped by the fact that nobody wants to behave like an overt racist anymore (perhaps the most noteworthy success of the civil rights movement for someone like Don, who’s far removed from segregation and probably doesn’t encounter too many African Americans in his day-to-day life). Yet Harry plunges right in, talking about how things are just going to get worse, because you know how “they” will react. It’s a horrifying moment, and Pete is right to be horrified. Yet it’s also when Bert makes sure everything gets calmed down. These people still need to work together, even if Harry seems an increasingly unstable powder keg.
And, like it or not, both of Harry’s points-of-view would fasten in the American psyche across 1968. When Don comes out to see that Megan is taking his kids to a vigil in the park, the TV is showing a sitcom. Regular programming has returned; the status quo is reasserting itself. Yet when the group meets with a very strange insurance man (played by William Mapother like he just wandered in from the set of Lost) about potentially creating ads for his company, the ad he proposes—while obviously high on something—is one he says the dead Dr. King gave to him in a dream. A window, a Molotov cocktail, and the name of his insurance company. That’s it. Don rejects it, doesn’t want to feed the national paranoia. But, Roger says, someone will buy it. There’s an audience out there for that sort of thing, a great, nameless dread that’s building in the body politic, that even the characters can’t quite speak of in anything other than intangibles. Regular programming may resume, but now, everybody’s waiting for the next horrors to spread across their television sets or, worse, on their doorsteps. Change often only comes once people are scared, and the fear is settling in deep. The escalation of decay ever increases.
- There’s a lot of beautiful dialogue in this episode, but I’m particularly taken by Don’s monologue about how he didn’t love his kids when they were born, but once they did something he couldn’t have understood or predicted them to do when they were so dependent on him, the feeling he’d been pretending to have became real. It’s lovely stuff, and it’s well-delivered by Hamm, who’s been a bit of an (intentional) cipher all season long.
- Some casting notes: In addition to Mapother, that’s Harry Hamlin as one of the owners of Peggy’s agency, while Lennon Parham (late of the enjoyable Best Friends Forever) pops up as Peggy’s real estate agent, who isn’t able to close the deal on the apartment for her client. (Also: Nicole Hayden, who plays Ginsberg’s date, Beverly, has a voice that’s so similar to Elisabeth Moss’ that I had to constantly check that it wasn’t Moss.)
- “The Flood” of the title refers to the Biblical flood. Ginsberg’s dad suggests that when the cataclysm comes, it’s no good to be marching into the ark with your father. Instead, a young man like Ginsberg needs a young woman like Beverly to cling to. The season keeps coming back to the idea of people finding others to pair off with in order to find some sort of completion, even though they know this to be impossible.
- I can honestly say I didn’t really need a Bobby Draper storyline, but I thought it went about as well as one could have hoped, particularly because it brought in lots of great Planet Of The Apes moments. Also, I can feel him. Having wallpaper that didn’t line up like that would drive me a little nuts, too.
- Check out Moss in that scene where she finally gets some contributions from Abe about the apartment hunt. Her face goes through about 15 emotions in the space of five or six seconds. I know she gets Emmy nominations and stuff, but Moss just might be TV’s most underrated performer at this point, capable of complex, subtle work that rarely calls too much attention to itself. Just wonderful stuff.
- Forgotten in the chaos: Megan wins an advertising award, but nobody cares about it. It’s just a reminder that she may have given up her true calling to pursue one that she simply wants more. (And, hey, she was pretty good in the soap opera scenes last week.)
- There was some speculation about this in comments last week, but, man, I think it’s obvious that Ted’s nursing a crush on Peggy at this point.
- The coded language Don and Sylvia speak in in that initial scene seems so obvious that I’m surprised neither of their spouses pick up on it, but they’re probably not looking.
- Great facial expressions of American television: Roger’s amusement at Paul Newman turning the advertising club meeting into an excuse to make a political speech; Stan’s utter glee at the pitch from the insurance guy.
- Next week on Mad Men: Roger makes a face!