Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Flood" (season 6, episode 5)

Mad Men - "The Flood" (season 6, episode 5)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 28, 2013/written by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner; directed by Christopher Manley): In an authentic historical moment that Weiner must have had in mind when originally conceiving this series, Paul Newman makes an appearance at the fourth annual Andy advertising awards and shakes the night out of its insular complacency - just before he in turn experiences an even more shocking interruption. Using the Madison Avenue platform as an excuse to promote his favored presidential candidate, the Hollywood mega-star launches into an impassioned speech for Eugene McCarthy. Admiring his early opposition to the Vietnam War and bold campaign against Lyndon B. Johnson when the president seemed insurmountable, Newman admonishes Robert Kennedy and his supporters for trying to ride McCarthy's coattails after the fact. Already we are in the thick of '68 drama - the antiwar movement, the presidential race, and the legacy of JFK's assassination all intertwined in this moment - although the writers place the small agencies (including both SCDP and CGC) far to the back of the crowd so that they have to squint to even see Newman in the distance. And then comes the big news from someone shouting out a question in the crowd: Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot and killed. By the time the shell-shocked Drapers return to their apartment, Megan's unexpected award (SCDP's only scoop, for a long-departed employee and recently-departed client) is barely even an afterthought, caught in close-up cutaway on the couch.

"The Flood" is certainly the episode most defined by a single news event since "The Grown-Ups" (and I suspect we won't have to wait long until the next one) but the two episodes deal with epoch-defining assassinations in a different manner. This is partly a function of the show's own narrative evolution: in contrast to the tighter ensemble dynamics of season three, Mad Men's focus has become more diffuse by now, with Don and Peggy working at different agencies, Betty off in her own separate plotline with Henry (only the kids connect these worlds), and even Pete and Trudy split apart. Pete attempts to bridge that gap over the phone but he falls flat, staying alone in the city as she makes it clear that this separation is probably going to be permanent. Even characters who could be together are separated under the circumstances: the Rosens have just left for D.C., where the rioting is much worse than in New York; Don and Bobby go to Planet of the Apes while Megan takes Sally and Gene to a vigil in Central Park (they come together in the end when Don delivers a memorable monologue about fatherhood); and Michael, in one of his most significant episodes thus far, is observed mostly in terms of his family life, including an embarrassing date with the cute, buttoned-up Beverly Farber (Nicole Hayden) coordinared by his loving if overbearing father. Many employees don't even show up for work and those who do want to leave as soon as possible, except for the ever-more-shallow Harry, who gets into a shouting match with Pete over the importance of King's death and its effect on business. (I'm surprised Harry's outraged "That's the latest thing, isn't it? Everybody's a racist!" hasn't become more of a mocking meme in the current Critical Race Theory-obsessed discourse.)

There isn't really a single moment untouched by the King assassination, the subsequent unrest, and the larger implications of the civil rights movement's promise both fulfilled and unfulfilled. Even the new, seemingly dead-end (I doubt it) character Randall Walsh (William Mapother), a bow tie-wearing acidhead who's "in insurance", brings it up in the meeting Roger secures with Don as a favor. Peggy's search for an apartment on the Upper East Side is uncomfortably filtered through her realtor's eager-but-failed push to take advantage of the moment by lowballing their offer (Abe is concerned about the area's lack of diversity although his high-minded liberalism is somewhat tempered by his journalistic excitement while covering this moment of sorrow and fury). And with potentially the most significance, Henry reveals that he's fed up with Mayor Lindsay's brand of racially aware liberal Republican, as well as being a political sidekick more generally, so he's going to run for a safe GOP seat in the state Senate. There, he hints, he will take a more hardnosed approach to what he views as the city's decline into crime, corruption, and disrepair. Henry, who always seemed like a throwback to an earlier era of patrician moderation, is beginning to unveil a neoconservative streak just as indicative of the Mad Men ensemble's view of this moment as their antiracist alarm.

"The Flood"'s least overtly King-centric moment may also be its most memorable; although delivered to an initially horrified, eventually touched Megan, Don's speech feels more like a soliloquy and is worth reprinting in full. Every episode so far this season has ended with a scene attempting to humanize the increasingly unsympathetic main character, to the point where it's become an almost cringeworthy cliche. This gesture is certainly the most effective, and affecting, especially since it incorporates his sociopathic streak into our expectations and Don's own delivery:
"I don't think I 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. 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."

My Response: In terms of its particular writing and direction, this episode snaps with an energy absent in more ponderous previous entries (even that first tracking shot, of Peggy standing alone in an empty room to take in the view, is striking). I found it to be the best so far this season, helped by subject as well as approach. Yet its strengths illuminate the series' shortcomings at this point, as well as - and this isn't quite the same thing - its limitations. Despite the last episode's cautious nudge toward providing Dawn with a side plot, "The Flood" makes a very conscious decision to hone in entirely on the reactions of white characters following the death of an African-American icon. Whenever we see black characters reacting, it is peripheral to the central white individuals in that scene: the kitchen staff stumbling toward the radio as Michael hears the broadcast, or the janitor sweeping up the theater when Bobby informs him that people like to go to the movies when they're sad. Dawn is never shown reacting to the event itself and gets just one scene, in which she is determined not to talk about it and reacts with unease to Joan's extraordinarily awkward embrace. We're reminded of Carla's silence when Betty wondered aloud if it was "too soon" for civil rights after the Birmingham Church bombing. While the creators are always aware of what these characters are missing, there is no question which perspective they place themselves, and the viewers, inside.

This is certainly a limitation in a show that frequently strives to be comprehensive; whether it's truly a flaw or not is an open question, one not yet answered (although perhaps it will be). In a way, it's part of a larger pattern that has emerged in recent seasons - for all its carefully, beautifully-crafted qualities, Mad Men does not exactly represent perfect storytelling and it often bites off more than it can chew. Think how the writers introduced a brand new Draper child in season three, only to leave young Gene a silent smudge of a character well past toddlerhood, and how even Bobby, who's been around for six seasons, has barely been offered any development at all, to the point that you barely notice when they switch actors halfway through (let's finally give Mason Vale Cotton his due, eighteen episodes after his debut). Think how they've often struggled to keep Betty in the action, although Henry's political career and her own concern with becoming a public figure may change that. Think how gracefully they wove Dow Chemical (and the fantastic Ray Wise) into the fabric of season five, only to keep their current PR woes mostly offscreen (although that too could change if the Moratorium movement of '69 gets any screentime). "The Flood" is at least purposeful in its neglect, rather than attempting and failing with token gestures. This is only underscored by the sole exception, in which not Dawn but Phyllis (Yaani King Mondschein), Peggy's secretary, is allowed to speak from the heart: "It's not going to stop anything." Peggy doesn't even seem capable of conceptualizing what Phyllis means by that. "Abe says it could have been a lot worse," she offers as words of comfort, referencing the riots that are tacitly most of the white characters' first concerns rather than the obviously couldn't-be-worse slaying of King.

The racial divide further contributes to the divergence between "The Grown-Ups" and "The Flood"; in the former there was no question that everyone felt the full weight of a president's felling and that whether Democrat or Republican (unless I'm forgetting something about Bert) there was a kind of direct waterfall flow from the tragedy into their own smaller lives. The sensation of "The Flood" is much more disorienting, not the shaking of a seemingly firm foundation but the collapse of an already flimsy facade. I'm not sure either episode ever displayed their martyred leaders (as RFK's assassination episode almost certainly will, due to that shooting's borderline onscreen nature). However, "The Grown-Ups" did feature other participants, like Oswald, Ruby, and Jackie. Here the all-white newscasters, coupled with the just-as-ubiquitous burning buildings on the color TV, further emphasize the fact that we never see MLK himself aside from a slanted newspaper photo on Peggy's desk. (Ironically, Kennedy himself is more prominently featured than King in "The Flood," given his familiar portrait on Peggy's wall.) Catching up with this episode in 2021, it's hard not to think of the previous year's George Floyd protests, how that event also began with an outcry about a visceral trauma which the media, political system, and popular culture attempted to shape into a narrative that had more to do with white self-reflection (and ultimately, white backlash) than black liberation. When Don tells Bobby not to worry about Henry getting shot because he's "not that important," it plays as a wry dig at his one-time romantic rival, but it may also be the episode's most stringent self-critique.

Next (active on October 11, 8am): "For Immediate Release"Previous: "To Have and to Hold"

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