There were several points during season 5 of Mad Men where the gradual deterioration of New York City met with the rapidly changing cultural climate, and while that alteration made for some truly great stories, there was a lingering thought that eventually the series would have to tackle the dreadfulness of 1968 and the events that forever marred it.
While the series makes a point not to simply rehash history as a sort of televised, pseudo-scholarly lecture, Mad Men does occasionally find itself having to address major events that are simply too big not to be the focal point of an episode. And in peeking in on Don Draper and the rest of SCDP following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the episode found itself trying to examine the lives of several different characters as the events of April 4, 1968 swirled around them.
It’s reminiscent in many ways of ‘The Grown-Ups’ during season 3, in which the characters – particularly Betty – are violently taken out of their sleepy idyll and presented with graphic images (such as the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald) that leave them shaken and unsure of the world around them. Here, Matthew Weiner and co-writer Tom Smuts manage to throw in a little reference to that episode: as Betty, Sally and Bobby listen to the radio, Henry wonders why they’re not in front of the television, to which Betty replies one never knows what horrible images the news might be showing.
But ‘The Flood’ isn’t a rehash of ‘The Grown-Ups’ anymore than Mad Men is looking to replace a textbook on American history. As a tragic sign of the shifting moods of a generation, the shock and disbelief that followed the Kennedy assassination has made room for an additional sense of beleaguered familiarity – almost as though this event was inevitable. “They had to do it,” exclaims Ginsberg who is informed of the news while on an arranged date that may or may not be going too well.
The rest of SCDP and even Peggy Olson find out nearly simultaneously as the awards dinner they’re attending – in which Megan is up for, and eventually wins an award – is interrupted as the news breaks. And in a bit of foreshadowing, the guest of the awards dinner, Paul Newman, mentions Robert Kennedy who will likely fit into the narrative of another episode this season.
And that’s where the divide comes into play during ‘The Flood.’ Even though there’s a commotion and a rush to use the payphones, the awards dinner continues – although Abe leaves to cover the turmoil the city is experiencing and Pete just leaves. There seems to be some confusion in these characters as to what is the appropriate reaction for them to have, which is in keeping with their relatively distanced position from the significance of the situation. This is made somewhat evident as Peggy hugs her secretary in what feels like a heartfelt embrace, while Joan attempts the same with Dawn, only to be given a look of bewilderment.
Pete places a sincere phone call to Trudy that seems to be appreciated, but does little to repair the damage in their marriage. The next day, he gets into a row over Harry’s self-centered concern over the event and how the company is losing revenue over all the preempted broadcasts. The show has previously established Pete – despite his many faults – as a well-meaning and socially progressive guy, and while there were some who thought his outburst at Harry was out of character, it really was in keeping with his character.
Meanwhile, Peggy’s realtor attempts to use the event to get her client a lower price on an apartment and winds up losing the deal for her. In the end, however, it turns out Abe didn’t want to live there anyway, preferring instead to raise their children in a more culturally diverse section of the city. It’s a sweet moment that shows just how much emotion Elisabeth Moss can convey without uttering a single word, as she quietly basks in the information Abe probably doesn’t even realize he’s revealed.
And that’s one of three references to children in the episode (the other belonging to Ginsberg as he questions his date whether or not she likes kids, on account of her being a teacher). The final reference belongs to Don, who after taking Bobby out to see ‘Planet of the Apes‘ (twice) experiences a moment when his son speaks to a black theater usher about how going to the movies can sometimes help when you’re feeling sad. Later, after Megan admonishes him for ditching her, Sally and Gene to go to the movies and to get drunk, Don slowly reveals his incredibly complex thoughts regarding his feelings toward his children, and his own father. It’s a sign of change that, from his words, Don seems to have been waiting for, and in that moment when the emotion makes “it feel like [his] heart is going to explode,” Don finds his way to Bobby’s room to comfort his son as he drifts to sleep.
Ultimately, Don is left on his balcony, looking out and listening to the late night din of the city. The series has always been about those on the inside looking out as the world they were at the top of rapidly changes beneath them. And as much as they lock themselves away in their apartments or office buildings, pretending not to notice the proverbial flood that is the rapidly changing landscape of the late-’60s, occasionally, the real world manages to seep in.
Mad Men continues next Sunday @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview of the episode below: