TV Club

Mad Men review: The Flood, Martin Luther King episode.

Don Draper is slowly being erased.   

Michael Yarish/AMC

Seth and Hanna,

Ginsberg, right? One day he’s telling Peggy he was a child of the Holocaust adopted; the next day he’s confessing his virginity (“not even once”) to a nice lady (“you smell great”) with schtick that feels like lost early Woody. And his father is saying: “In the flood, the animals went two by two.” The title of the episode was, of course, “The Flood,” in this case the flood of violence that starts with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.

We’ve discussed the way this show plays around with visibility, and this was a doozy: King’s nonviolent movement sought to make the situation of black people in America visible, impossible to ignore. And now that he has been assassinated that situation is unavoidable—it must be seen. The television is on, everywhere, and even somewhat loud as the characters talk. That the focus stayed on the characters—their agendas, their sympathies—was a merit of the episode. We are going to suffer through this day with the people we know, without the easy ability to take the wider view. We are not in Memphis; we are not even in a newsroom. We’re stumbling around New York trying to make sense of yet another violent act.

At which point Harry Crane and Pete Campbell get into a fight. Harry is upset that the assassination is costing him business, and Pete, rebuffed by Trudy, is spoiling for an argument. This is consistent with the characters, for Pete has always had a sort of civil rights streak to him, in those moments when his be-sideburned head isn’t planted up his own ass. Up pops old Bert Cooper, who’s been in the business since the 1920s. “I urge you to shake hands in the spirit of erasing these remarks,” he says, like something out of an old Vaudeville routine. But Harry and Pete keep fighting. It doesn’t come to fisticuffs, a la Lane Pryce/Pete Campbell, but Bert, his gentlemanly behavior, his sense of propriety—none of it matters. Note that Bert has never been a fan of civil rights. And so he is adrift. The angers of the new era have entirely subsumed the old order here; he has never been less powerful. Zoom out, though, and we see that a secretary has been sitting there the entire time, watching this ridiculous display of capitalist pugnacity. Bert is ignored, but she remains invisible, essentially anonymous.

The most excruciating moment of the day was Joan’s forced hug of Don’s secretary Dawn. Joan is trying her damnedest to be a person but she drops the ball utterly. “We’re all so sorry,” she says, unintentionally emphasizing that Dawn is not yet a member of “we.” We’d already seen Peggy hugging her African-American secretary, after a second of awkward hesitation (Elizabeth Moss has the hardest-working face in TV). There aren’t a lot of nice hugs on this show, and two hugs so close together are clearly meant to be contrasted. Peggy continues to navigate, however tentatively, the actual events that surround her; she continues to see as she is seen, you might say, and is able to perceive the emotions of her secretary and decide on a good course of action. “You should go home,” she says. “In fact none of us should be working.” Good hug, Peggy!

But now Joan. Who is so used to being observed, at least neck down, that being seen—being a real person—remains her greatest struggle. And here she is uncomfortably like Bert Cooper; her system of yore just isn’t working. She’s having such trouble adapting, and while you can sympathize, she really did screw up with that hug. She made it worse.

The assassination broke, in the show, in the middle of an ad awards banquet; Peggy and Megan—the key women in Don’s life, mirrored by Betty and Sylvia—both nominated. Don is avoiding his former protégée; he goes so far as to tell Megan to tell Peggy that “her laxative radio spot is the sentimental favorite,” and Megan instead retreats to the back of the room (where Peggy is seated, a sure sign that she has not won) and they banter about how, while no longer employed at SCDP, they are the ones up for awards. They see each other, amid all the very literal jockeying for position in that room.

Later we see that Megan won; the award is on the sofa. Mid-riots Don, drunk, has to fetch the kids. Betty is her annoying best. “I guarantee you’d go to Canada on your knees to pick up your girlfriend,” she says. But she’s right! Hasn’t Don been trying to get through to Sylvia in Washington, D.C.? And more importantly, doesn’t he have a girlfriend? And what the hell is wrong with him that he forgets his kids? We get his soliloquy (which Seth pointed out has Larkinesque overtones). I transcribed it for posterity:

“I only ever wanted to be the man who loves children. But from the moment they’re born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars. But you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. [Sigh.] Then one day they get older, and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.”

Don, exploding with love at his son’s innocent expression of sadness. Don, at the movie theater—where the world has literally ended in Planet of the Apes. Staying to watch the world end again. Don sneaking into a bedroom—but it’s his son’s room. “I just keep thinking, what if somebody shoots Henry?”

Can you see him, here, slowly being erased from the picture? Rubbed out. The award is not his. The mistress is gone. His son’s most primal fears—the loss of the father—are about another man. Riots in the street; Charlton Heston railing at the deluged and empty earth. And yet Don Draper’s drunken heart bursts with love. Another kind of flood. The strange property-insurance man who shows up to amuse the staff, with his cosmic ranting, says: “But there is a tear and in that tear are all the tears in the world. All the animals crying.” All the animals, two by two.

You, you gonna get on the ark with your father?