“They just had to do it…”
Failing fathers. Is it always their fault when their children act up? And is it an onlooker’s fault when they don’t know how to react to said rambunctious children? Mad Men presents an important episode (one that deals with subject matter I have personally been looking forward to) that follows the confused feelings and distortion after the assassination of one of the world’s most influential civil rights martyrs and fathers: Martin Luther King Jr. When a father is taken away from his children under dramatic and sometimes lethal circumstances, things are bound to be shaken up in some quite extraordinary ways. Losing a father under these predicaments–in the midst of earth-shattering change–it leaves our Mad Men and women in a state of catastrophe…in one way or another. How does one move on with life after something so big?
More awards for the men and women in advertising! Everyone is gathered tight together in the same room and the nerves are ringing, sophisticated as usual. SCDP (and Megan) as well as CGC sit waiting to get a good glimpse at Paul Newman more than they are anticipating the winners of said awards. It’s another fun scene that features the entire ensemble together while gearing up for the good. While Don’s mind no doubt lingers on how Sylvia’s doing on her trip with her husband, Peggy’s boss continues to shamelessly flirt with her. His subtlety in front of his wife is staggering–almost to the point of hilarity. Roger even presents a possible new client, who seems more than a little off. All of this elegant “normalcy” soon takes a dramatic turn however…
At this point in the episode, the tone shifts to operating on a strange frequency and just like this series does so well, it organically delivers a little surprise in the form of an announcement that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. The date is sometime late on April 4th 1968. From this point on, the episode takes a profound stir–like a quiet, stoic thunderstorm with a light breeze. Slightly unsettling and ambiguous in its intentions. Everyone’s preparing for a flood, but they aren’t sure of the ramifications of this horrific event. And yet everyone is going through some kind of feeling(s). Surely, nothing can or will ever be the same after this. And yet life still goes on contrary to disaster. Awards are won, but no one is really celebrating. There’s no way to fix a disaster and make it feel like something good. It can’t be made good. The air changes and panic murmurs at a low erratic hum. Worry, worry.
It’s quite surprising to watch everyone’s reactions to this devastating bit of news. What does it mean for them and their personal/work lives. Do consequences of the past matter now that this has happened? Life moves on, sure. But how? These questions are tackled in many ways throughout the episode. Most are tasteful, save for Megan’s cold father and the new jackass of the office, Harry. I swear the guy gets more and more despicable as the episodes go on. And others barely choose to acknowledge the event‘s relevance–keeping their heads down and going on about their lives. SCDP even has a meeting with aforementioned potential new client Roger has been courting. A client I am almost certain that Roger met at some sort of LSD party. This client believes MLK came to him in his sleep speaking words of wisdom, which no one really can decipher. Peggy continues moving on too, as she attempts to close a deal on a new apartment that goes through some back and forth in value due to recent events. It proves as a certain plot device that moves Peggy and Abe’s relationship in some sort of significant way.
Also attempting to move along with life is Ginsberg. It’s about time we caught up with the snarky Jewish creative mind, who just so happens to be a neurotic virgin. Somehow I wasn’t that surprised by this reveal. Ginsberg is a thoroughly interesting character and a bit of a mystery, even beyond the developments made in Season 5. Ginsberg’s father gives ideal advice in this time of national panic: Be with someone and enjoy life with them. But Ginsberg seems to be…stunted in some kind of way. There’s a point where his father even question’s his sexuality. That might be a bit of a stretch, but I think there is some kind neuroticism behind Michael’s personal life–a personal life he barely seems to have or realize. He continues to be a mystery, although a little less so. And then there is the master of avoidance (amongst other things): Don Draper, who couldn’t be bothered to deal with his kids at this time.
Betty deals with Henry gallivanting off to play the white knight of the city–attempting to keep the peace in such a rapidly changing world. It’s almost not so surprising when Henry returns home one night revealing that he’ll be running for Republican Senate. All the while Betty continues to seem rather dissatisfied with her life in general. Even with her hair dyed a different, darker tone. God only knows what she’ll do next. I still can’t stand Henry and Betty’s home. It’s so dark and dim–like a dismal castle that is likely to be haunted. No wonder young Bobby gets himself in trouble by altering the awful wallpaper in his room. When the child acts out, Betty sends him and his siblings to their father. Good thing he’s still available to take them and care for them, if that is indeed what Don does in this installment. To Don’s credit, he tries–but he can’t quite get to “that feeling” for his children. It’s not like Don had a great father. He’s less of a presence in Bobby’s life, unlike Henry, which is even more evident when Bobby later expresses some concern for his not-father.
Megan and Don’s children (all of a noticeably young and more affected generation) even try to reach out to Don in order to get some sort of emotion out of him in this frightening MLK situation, for her and his kid‘s sake. Some sort of grieving. But it takes so much for Don to express a single thing that what comes out is just as disheartening as the latest assassination, if not more emotionally damaging. Don’s disinterest in his kids–his lack of love is troubling and unlike that of MLK who loved all of his children and expected better of them in the future. Better than riots that cause destruction and chaos–leaving everyone viewing them as monsters who have gained enough power to possibly overthrow society as they know it.
To take their mind of things complex and unhappy, from a dramatic assassination to a housemother’s punishments, Don and Bobby venture out to the movies, where they view the original “Planet of the Apes”. Will these the Negroes destroy the city–the country–the world? Can they? Is it really possible that something like that can happen in the (near) future due to this kind of insanity–an event this big? Flood in and take over and destroy like in “Planet of the Apes”? Seems like a truly dramatic ideal, but one that must come across someone’s mind at this point. Social upheaval is at the forefront and everyone’s nervous and/or dumbfounded. Order has already been tested with such an iconic figure shot dead like a dog in the street and many of his followers angrily seeking retribution and justice for his death.
With the father of the civil rights movement dead, where does society go from here? The episode continues to surprise as many of our characters are somehow pushed together–bonded in some sort of almost bleak way that doesn’t see color as much as usual. Joan hugging Dawn (awkwardly) is something I didn’t think we’d see so soon. But it happens. There is a general air of empathy as our characters interact with the black workers and acquaintances in their world. They actually acknowledge them in a time of distressing change. The point that is very poignant is when Bobby tells the black sweeper in the movie theater that “Everyone goes to the movies when they’re sad.” The sweeper is surprised as though someone in his position–his color and his age–can acknowledge the severity of the situation for him and his people. But in reality, Bobby is clearly “sad” about something completely different. But it’s all the same in the general matter. And even more so for Don, the innocent advice given from his son to this man from a different world is perplexing and affecting. He has “that feeling” for his son as we reach the end of the episode. It’s a feeling Don isn’t sure what to do with. It’s new and weirdly futuristic, but to his surprise it’s not awful–like he expects the world to be. The flood he was probably preparing for in the future was nothing near a storm. Just a gray cloud, passing by. Nerving, but in the end there was little to really worry about. At least not right at this moment. Don just gets to be a father, and his son doesn’t fail him.
Mad Men continues to present winning storytelling that is surprising, emotionally relevant and thoroughly involving. The many reactions to such an iconic event make for an excellent episode that gave this Mad viewer just what he’s been asking for since probably the show’s inception. The MLK episode is so far the best of the season thematically and writing wise. The fathers get the surprise of stoicism in the face of dramatic and generally catastrophic change. Affective change moves each of our characters in various manners, many of which are pleasantly surprising and full of empathy. A little drizzle does not make for a flood, but even if it did, one would hope their father would be there to protect them in some way, shape of fashion. “The Flood” gets 5 out of 5 stars!
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© Patrick Broadnax 2013