The events of American history in the 60s have slowly crept their way into the Mad Men universe. This past season has been wrought with constant reference and acknowledgement of it – the world was changing rapidly then, and everything was inevitably affected in so many ways by the sociopolitical atmosphere. This week’s episode treated the assassination of MLK, Jr. with lots of surprises – both in character, in planting potential plot trajectories, and in its overall pacing and mood. It was, unsurprisingly, emotional, but, surprisingly, also filled with a full range of emotion. I think we can even sum up the overall theme of the episode with surprise, under the umbrella of both tragedy and change.
Instead of going character by character first, I have to examine this episode a little differently. As I said, the pace struck very differently than, say, last week’s. Whereas I noted – with a hint of complaint – the soapy feel of last week’s episode, which really was utilized to stretch out the tension and drama, “The Flood” takes the soapy format of following multiple storylines in a single episode on a different pacing. Everything happens rather rapidly leading up to the point of the announcement of MLK’s death and in the immediate aftermath. We get perfectly timed snippets of the different characters who experience MLK’s death in a unique way that later gets highlighted in the episode: from Peggy looking for an apartment and launching a future with Abe, to Michael Ginsberg playing along with his father’s difficult home dynamic and matchmaking, to Pete learning how to deal with the new terms set by Trudy, to Bobby (the biggest surprise of the episode!) and his stubborn troublemaking, and then to Don and Megan, who meet Arnie and Sylvia in the lobby preparing all for their own celebratory events. We linger as the announcement hits, then take the time to delve more deeply into the psyche of each character, unveiling something new about each.
The smallest piece of the grander puzzle is Michael Ginsberg, someone I felt was neglected for a bit this season, highlighted again in his strained but codependent relationship with his father. Before the news hits, his father insists that Michael go on a date he set up with another Jewish girl’s parents. Michael tries to protest – obviously making quite an anxious performance for the girl – and unleashes his neuroses on this first date. He still comes off with charm, but reveals much more than is expected of where he’s coming from. The date starts to go well, until the radio cuts into the conversation. Michael observes bus boys and staff sitting down in slow anguish, and he immediately reacts with disappointment and hurt. The date is cut short, and he announces to his father, who also reacts with a quiet but overwhelmed hurt. Later, we see Michael and his father discussing Michael’s “flaws” – like not being able to sew – as his father asks to be walked to work. His father, like most of everyone else in the episode, reacts with the thought that working would keep him away from the TV, if only for a moment. We see hints of fear that Michael will wind up alone without a woman – possibly homophobic worries coming from the father. Though this storyline hangs without too much resolution, just the snippet inside Michael’s private life gives us the taste of Ginsberg we haven’t had. We know he is living in rather dissatisfying conditions, living with a disagreeable and traditional father, but I guess the worry that Michael will be alone in this crazy world is one that can easily resonate, especially in the face of national tragedy.
I’d like to not consider this such a small story since its impact is so huge, but Pete’s would be next in line for length of time spent in the episode and magnitude of change. At the New York advertising award ceremony, Pete’s immediate reaction is to try to call Trudy to see if she’s alright. Of course, his conversations with her project his own fears of being alone. His phone call with Trudy from his apartment had the most chemistry and genuineness for these two in a very long time. Both Alison Brie and Vincent Kartheiser played this phone call’s subtleties and subtext so well – Trudy obviously conflicted on whether now was the time for compassion (and choosing to recede and be private and alone), and Pete trying not to outwardly ask for her companionship. He even plays the Tammy card, like he’s realizing the value of the family he’s betrayed. In an incredible turn, which also is turning Harry into a more despicable character in my eyes, Pete lashes out at work. While Harry turns his worries to the business, Pete scolds Harry for thinking selfishly about the money, going so far even to call Harry a racist. Cooper adorably tried to get them to be at peace, but Pete left some strong last words, noting that MLK left behind a wife and four kids. To see that inner concern express itself in this frustrated, angry manner colors Pete in a more sympathetic light than we’re used to seeing.
Moving onto Peggy – the first shot of the episode actually opens with Peggy, again in a position where she can start to taste her success. The shot very cleverly mimics the moment at the end of last season where the five partners of SCDP stood by the windows as they were shot from behind. We see Peggy framed in front of one window, zooming out slowly from the back of her head to show her standing alone in a potential apartment she now can afford to buy on the Upper East Side. (For my fellow New Yorkers, it was definitely fun wordplay listening to Peggy and Abe discuss the woes of the Upper East side and its distance from the train and its relative distance to the highway and river) We expect to continue seeing her rise to success, knowing now that she is the breadwinner between her and Abe, and seeing, at the award ceremony, that she is the only one from her new firm nominated for an award. As the news hits, I suddenly remembered Abe’s profession as a journalism, so of course Peggy is hit by the news in a surprising way where she’s the one left behind by Abe’s call to work. As she’s left alone at the ceremony, she has a brief moment of healing with Don, as he offers to drive her home. At work, she sends home her secretary to be with her family. Of course, she gets the call about her apartment in the midst of the aftermath of the tragedy, where she reluctantly agrees to go forward with the sale. As the events settle down a bit, we see Peggy at home, surrounded instead by Abe’s work. She gets the call that she loses the apartment – again, another missed opportunity for a win for Peggy. But instead gets the surprise interjection from Abe that he hoped to move somewhere in the city more diverse. And lastly, in a final surprise, we see Peggy smiling (perhaps turned on?) by Abe’s motivation and his suggestion for settling down. It’s almost like the look Don had when Megan would make successful pitch ideas.
Bobby’s turn in this episode comes in tandem with Betty and Henry, whose immediate reaction to the tragedy is political office. Henry rushes out to work alongside the mayor to help manage the inevitable riots and reactions in Harlem. Betty sends the kids away to Don’s, scolding him for using MLK’s death as an excuse not to come get the kids. Of course, prior to, we see Bobby in his inexplicable mischief tearing apart the wallpaper (like he’s rejecting the house/lifestyle with his mom, perhaps?) and then saying the wallpaper itself was coming off. He is punished before the kids get to Don’s. When Sally, Megan, and Glen leave to go to a vigil for MLK, Bobby fakes sick, and we’re rewarded with the father-son bonding time I’ve always been curious about in this show. Fitting that in the midst of social chaos and wonder over the state of what can be left of America and the world (we’re still dealing with Vietnam as well), Don and Bobby go see Planet of the Apes in the theaters multiple times over. As a black usher comes by to sweep up popcorn, Bobby strikes conversation, asking if the usher gets to watch for free. He then adds, “People like going to the movies when they’re sad,” in a very manner-of-fact way. This affects the usher and Don in such a surprising way, but let’s get back to that in a bit. The long and short of this is Bobby reveals his own fears and anxieties, though he is initially misunderstood and mischievous.
And then, of course, we have Don and Megan. While I did roll my eyes a bit at how much more worried and obsessed Don was with the news in DC – clearly thinking only of Silvia, the amazing thing to see is Don open up to both Bobby and Megan, in ways that, as he reveals, have never been done before. Perhaps we get a little insight at Don’s resentment of Megan choosing a career as an actress – I’ve been reading some thoughts on this already this season, with commenters and critics alike noting that Don has spent much of his life acting every day, especially since he took on the name Don Draper. The shreds of genuine emotion we’ve ever seen him show come from troubled places, parts of him that are otherwise suffocating from other variables. Taking Bobby to Planet of the Apes and seeing Bobby unabashedly and without prompt act so humanely and profoundly to the usher affects him in a way that even Sally couldn’t. I used to think his relationship with Sally showed this side of his fatherhood that comes from a place of the inner part of his self that he wishes he could be, or from a place where he knows he can be better. As he drinks – the only way he knows how to cope – Megan confronts him, and we see probably his first heart to heart with her since she decided to start acting. His cold but thawing speech is heart-wrenching, listening to the confession of a man who didn’t understand fatherly love finally open up because of his son. I had a small suspicion that his relationship with Bobby would soon become important, especially with Bobby coming of age. It was an incredible surprise to see that this came to fruition. To see Don relate to another male figure intimately – the way he never did with his father, the way he refused to with his brother – is allowing Don to begin some inner healing, it seems. He has a great final moment with Bobby, lying in bed with him as he assures him that everything will be alright, and for the first time, it doesn’t seem like he’s acting like what he thinks (or was told) a father should.
And, some odds and ends:
-As I hinted earlier, I was surprised with some of the humor in this episode. One of the funniest moments was Joan hugging Dawn after she comes into work and insists she stays. For someone who oozes feminine charm and a deep connection with womanhood, it was like she’s never hugged a human being before in her life. Cheers to awkward hugs! And to a random moment of peace between Dawn and Joan, especially after last week’s altercation.
-Am I too TV geeky to read too much into the William Mapother guest role as the random insurance guy? Is a Lost/Mad Men crossover in theme reaching too high? Anyway, William Mapother (Ethan from Lost) played odd and creepy as ever – also providing random but much needed comic relief – as a potential client for SCDP, who introduces himself mysteriously at the award ceremony (with the odd phrasing of “we’ve met before” – again, Lost connections are buzzing in my head, but I’m probably geeking out too much and reading into it too much) and then tries to convey his idea for an ad campaign for his company with as little words as possible, ending with a “famous” Tacumseh saying. (Roger’s reaction to that is so on point) Of course, he leaves the meeting with a very appropriate, hardhitting quote: “The heavens are telling us to change.” I guess one can only wonder what this will mean ultimately for SCDP, and of course wonder if this guy is coming back anytime soon.
-The Ted/Peggy chemistry again is hinted at strongly (and thankfully briefly) in this episode. Ted enters the award dinner late, with his rather mismatched wife (if we’re talking strictly about physical compatibility and being shallow – they look odd together). Ted immediately sits down next to Peggy, kind of ignoring his wife, who also seems to know about Ted’s adoration of Peggy. Ted’s singing praises of Peggy is broken up by the recognition and realization that he has taken Peggy’s date’s seat. Of course, he gets one last look at her before we return to the action. Oy, I kind of want them to hit the resolution of this quickly.
-It seems Betty is about to find her motivation – as Henry returns home fired up about being a power of change and accepting a nomination for a seat in Senate, we see Betty’s eyes light up at the thought of being that political wife. There’s a glimmer of fear as Henry says, “I can’t wait for the people to see you” – cut to Betty holding up a dress to her body from her thinner days. I’m sure Betty will rise to the occasion and thin up for Henry, I’m just curious now what else she will do with that power and glory.
This was an episode all about surprise and change, and every turn of action was filled with so much weight. I can only hope I covered it all while doing it justice! As the social climate continues to change, I wonder what it will mean for the Mad Men universe – we know they’re all getting older, and reacting to change in their own ways, as quickly as they could. Given these new revelations, I am left to wonder till next week how much of it will hold, and how much everyone can continue to keep up as history continues to unfold.