A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I go to Harlem in a tuxedo…
“This is an opportunity. The heavens are telling us to change.” -Randall Walsh
Matt Weiner often says that “Mad Men” is a character story and not a history lesson, but there are certain events of the 1960s that are so sociologically enormous that they can’t help but overtake the usual narrative for the week – even as they demonstrate why Weiner has that reluctant attitude about history. “The Grown-Ups,” the season 3 episode about the (first) Kennedy assassination, was my least favorite episode of that year, feeling too much like a rehash of every prior pop culture take on JFK’s death.
And for a while during “The Flood,” I feared it was going to turn into a remake of “The Grown-Ups,” with characters gawking at their televisions (or listening to their radios), struggling to make sense of the news of Martin Luther King’s violent death. But as we shifted from the tragic, terrifying night of April 4th into the more uncertain light of April 5th, things picked up a bit, and “The Flood” felt like an episode of “Mad Men,” focusing on what’s going on with these specific people as they go through this infamous moment in time.
But how I judge “The Flood” is ultimately going to depend on what follows it.
Cryptic insurance man Randall Walsh whom we learn is revealed to be an acid-dropping pal of Roger’s, and the show last season treated LSD usage as an opportunity for complete clarity. When he tells Don and the others about the opportunity provided by this tragedy, it comes on the heels of a horrific ad campaign proposal, and Roger and Stan both treat him as a ridiculous person(*), but the line about change has great import in a season that’s simultaneously seen so much and so little of it.
(*) Ginsberg’s so strange that it’s hard to tell if he’s mocking Randall’s talk of a visitation from MLK’s ghost or if he genuinely wants to hear more about it. He could be doing both at once.
On the one hand, you have the American horror show of 1968, and the enormous shift in the culture over the latter half of that decade, as evidenced in the fashions, Peggy’s ascendancy, the hiring of Dawn, and more. On the other, you have characters stuck in the same old patterns – or, in Don’s case, retreating to a familiar pattern after a prolonged attempt to break out of it.
I’ve found Don’s backsliding an interesting and in-character direction for him, but I’ve also encountered resistance to it from fans and other critics – not because they don’t believe Don would go back to being Don, or don’t want to dislike him, but because it feels like the show running in circles with its leading man. And if the show is going to simply have Don revert to old habits and make the same mistakes again and again, then perhaps we’ve seen all we really need to of his story. (So far this season, Peggy’s tale has been the more compelling one.)
But “The Flood” suggests the potential for transformation by Don and others, even if that change doesn’t come easily to them all – particularly in this time when the world feels mad enough that the last-minute twist of “Planet of the Apes” doesn’t feel too far-fetched.
Bobby Draper begins the episode ripping at the seam in his bedroom wallpaper, unhappy that it doesn’t fit together the way it’s supposed to. And as his father and the other characters move through a world that seams to be tearing apart like the wallpaper, Bobby surprises Don with his empathetic line to the black theater usher about the power of going to the movies when you’re sad. Don’s taken Bobby to the movies to get away from the insanity outside (and to spite Betty by honoring the letter but not spirit of her punishment), but in that moment he’s reminded of the feeling that he later describes to Megan – of realizing that the emotions he once pretended to have about his children are real, “And it feels like your heart is going to explode.” And though he returns from the movies and resumes drinking and smoking while letting Megan deal with the children, he’s able to go into Bobby’s bedroom and find words of comfort for the boy. Given that he spends much of the night and the next day being concerned about Sylvia, I don’t think we should expect a “Summer Man”-style transformation for Don, but even a slight shift in attitude might be welcome at this point.
Pete is touched by the event to reach out to an appreciative but still distant Trudy, and the next day explodes at Harry for being concerned only with how the assassination will hurt SCDP’s bottom line. Pete’s liberalism (he comes from a family of wealthy Democrats) and (relative) empathy for the plight of blacks are ingrained parts of the character, and ones that felt right boiling to the surface in that moment.
Harry isn’t the only person less concerned with the tragedy than with how it directly affects him. Peggy’s realtor tries to exploit the unrest in Harlem to get her a cheaper price for a condo at 84th & York, and winds up losing her the place in the process. (The original bid would’ve gotten Peggy the apartment.) But this turns out to be for the best, as Abe – distracted by another news story about the fragile state of the city – lets out that he didn’t want the place, because he imagined that he and Peggy would raise their kids in a more multi-cultural part of town. Peggy has, like most of the characters, been affected by the larger story happening around her this week,(**) but when Abe says the words – not even realizing just what he’s revealed – all she can understandably think about is how happy it makes her feel.(***)
(**) I got a kick out of the parallel hugs involving black secretaries, where Phyllis welcomes Peggy’s embrace, where Dawn has no earthly idea why Joan has wrapped her arms around her, and doesn’t even bother to reciprocate.
(***) Presumably, while I’ve been writing this review, the internet has made many GIFs of Peggy smiling on the couch.
For some, like the organizers of the advertising awards banquet (where SCDP wins for the Heinz bean campaign Raymond loved so much), life simply carries on. For others, King’s death is an opportunity for reflection, like Ginsberg’s father pushing him once again to find a girl and settle down; or for action, like Henry’s decision to run for state senate. (Which in turn reminds Betty of how much she’s changed physically, now that she’s about to be on display for the first time in a while.)
The show, though, is ultimately about Don, and we close with him standing on his balcony, not long after King was murdered standing on his down in Memphis. What’s he thinking? What’s he going to do? A few scenes earlier, Megan complains that she has no idea what he’s feeling. Don’s more of an open book to us than he is to her, but even after he confesses his complicated feelings about his children (and his father), we don’t know what’s running through his mind as he looks at the skyline and listens to the sirens below.
What he does next won’t retroactively make “The Flood” into a great episode, but it might make it a more pivotal one.
Some other thoughts:
* After being so important last season, Ginsberg’s been fairly marginalized so far (in part because of Don’s renewed focus on work, perhaps in part because Don doesn’t want to let the kid continue outdoing him), but the surprise blind date with Beverly the student teacher offered us some more insight into our strange visitor from another planet, including the fact that he remains a virgin even in this era of free love.
* Before all the chaos with MLK, we open the episode with a classic Don Draper back of the head shot – only it’s the back of Peggy’s head as she surveys her potential new apartment in Don’s part of Manhattan.
* The realtor boasts that “the 2nd Avenue subway” will be coming in soon, to make the place more desirable. 45 years later, that subway line still does not exist, though occasional construction still happens. But Abe has the right idea about buying in the West ’80s.
* Alison Brie was listed in last week’s guest credits but did not appear, which was either an error (in episode that also had the gaffe about Le Cirque) or a case of Brie filming a scene that was cut, and SAG rules requiring the show to list her, anyway. Either way, her name wasn’t a tease tonight, as Trudy got to turn down Pete’s offer to provide some company for her and Tammy. The fight with Harry was the more memorable Pete moment, but I really liked the understated sincerity Vincent Kartheiser was projecting in that phone call. Pete Campbell has humanity, even if we don’t see it all that often.
* Meanwhile, lots of notable guest stars in this one, including Harry Hamlin as Cutler, Gleason and Chaough head of accounts Jim Cutler, William Mapother (Ethan from “Lost”) as Randall Walsh and comedienne Lennon Parham (who starred in the short-lived “Best Friends Forever” on NBC last season) as Peggy’s pushy realtor Ginny.
* And as good as things are with Peggy and Abe at the moment, clearly Ted’s interest in Peggy goes beyond the professional. He sits in her boyfriend’s chair, and they share a meaningful look before the awards begin.
* Here’s a thorough account of what was happening in New York the night of the assassination, including Mayor Lindsay’s stroll through Harlem.
* Always happy to see Joan bust out her glasses, even if they didn’t do much good at helping her see Paul Newman.
* Though Roger hasn’t had much to do since the premiere, John Slattery is just a delight to watch as he reacts to the lunacy around him. His reaction to Randall’s attempt to quote Tecumseh was priceless.
* “You would go to Canada on your knees to pick up your girlfriend.” Yeah, Betty’s not in any way bitter about The Second Mrs. Draper. I also liked how Don’s explanation to Bobby that “Henry’s not that important” simultaneously worked as reassurance and a dig at him – especially right after Bobby has expressed his fear that Henry (more of a father to him these days) might get shot, rather than Don.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org