Mad Men: ‘Flood’ Takes on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By  · Published on April 29th, 2013

This week’s Mad Men, entitled “The Flood,” brings us to that pivotal point in history when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, viewing how the tragic event brought out the best and the worst in people. Some used the event to their gain or resented it for putting a stop to the normal routine. For others, it made them appreciate the important things in life, like family and friends. Written by showrunner Matthew Weiner and Tom Smuts and directed by Chris Manley, this week’s installment was hardly perfect – it had a few unusually cheesy moments – but it was thought-provoking and featured a powerhouse performance from Jon Hamm.

The title of the episode comes from Ginsberg’s father saying, “In the flood, the animals went two-by-two,” as he sets his son up on a surprise dinner date with a comely teacher, eventually passing off MLK Jr.’s assassination as a good time to play matchmaker. The date goes pretty well – though Ginsberg is apparently a virgin – and the girl admits that she is also just going along for the matchmaking ride. While Ginsberg’s father helps to enunciate the episode’s theme – the quest to find companionship in a scary, uncertain wolrd – the Ginsberg home life is somewhat corny and melodramatic. Ginsberg sews for his father on a sewing machine! They bicker about dinner! And matchmaking! This tale of a Jewish émigré and his son holed up in a small apartment reads like something out of The Jazz Singer, only Ginsberg wants to become an ad man instead of a jazz singer. Mad Men, you can do better.

The ad men first learn about the assassination at the Ad Club of New York awards dinner, hosted by no other than Paul Newman, played by someone who obviously isn’t Paul Newman and from an out-of-focus longshot. The fact that people have to struggle to see him is written into the script as a joke – Joan even puts on her reading glasses. But really, it’s a lame gag.

Nevertheless, the only people from SDCP nominated no longer work there – Peggy and Megan – and Megan wins for her work on the Heinz account, which is certainly an interesting development. The people running the awards dinner try to shield everyone from the news of the assassination, but someone screams it in the middle of the ceremony and panic sets in. The ceremony continues, which only highlights the obvious superficiality of the advertising industry. In the office the next day, Dawn is pitied because she is black – the white employees at SCDP think they are being considerate, but instead they are ignorantly marginalizing her.

On the plus side, Don and Pete looked human after making some questionable decisions recently. Both men took the event as a reminder of how important their family should be. Pete, now ousted by Trudie and living alone, calls his estranged wife, worried about her reaction to the assassination. He offers to come home to be a comfort to her and their baby daughter, but Trudie does not budge. He even has an altercation with Harry at work when Harry voices his annoyance on how the assassination stalled business. Knowing Pete pretty well by now, I can see where some would interpret him manipulating the assassination as an excuse to weasel his way back into his family, but there is a sadness and desperation behind his eyes that makes me think that he’s finally being genuine. He squandered his family life on sleeping around and adhering to the philandering social norms of the time, and now he’s really hurting from his bad decisions – he is struck that MLK Jr. was a family man, that his wife and children must be mourning him. Sure, when he calls Harry a racist, it seems a bit like a reach, but did Pete’s heart grow a few sizes this week? Only time will tell if his sincerity endures to see another episode.

Post-assassination, Don starts out mainly obsessing about Sylvia, who went to Washington, D.C. with her husband – he fears that she will be in the middle of a riot. He is even annoyed when Betty enforces taking the kids for the weekend (Henry is going to run for Senate, and Betty doesn’t have a thing to wear!). Though actually being in the presence of his own children after the tragedy softens Don and makes him appreciate being a father. Earlier, Betty punished Bobby for peeling off the wallpaper behind his bed – no television for a week! – so when Megan takes Sally and Gene to a vigil in the park (she is the greatest stepmother ever!), Bobby feigns illness and stays home with his father. The two go to the movies and watch Planet of the Apes twice on a loop. But Don is struck by the empathy that Bobby has for the black usher – Bobby suggests that he see the movie because seeing movies is good when you’re sad. Later in bed with Megan, Don gives this poignant monologue:

“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 and hand out cigars. But you don’t feel anything. Especially if you’ve 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 that 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.”

I honestly don’t think I’ve heard such a frank, meditative thought about parenting on a television show ever. This is so unabashedly honest. Mad Men, in particular, frequently examines what is like to play out certain societal roles, as Dick Whitman does as Don Draper every day of his life. But it is forced down our throats from childhood that once you’re a parent, you instantly have this unconditional love for your child. Don struggled with this, but recent events made him realize the overwhelming love that he does have for his children, actually feeling what he has pretended to, the expected becoming real. This is almost a revelatory moment for Don, since you have to wonder when a relationship with a woman will become real and make his heart feel like it is “going to explode.” Or will that ever happen at all? This episode also makes you wish that he realizes that with Megan (though that’s highly unlikely), since she is so great with his kids, and so understanding during this monologue. Hamm plays this scene (and the episode on the whole) brilliantly, filled with raw emotion and delicate nuance. The content of the monologue could possibly come across as unsympathetic if delivered by a lesser actor, but Hamm interprets it flawlessly.

Amidst the flood, Peggy finds herself seeking the companionship of her live-in boyfriend, Abe. She is on the hunt for an apartment, and her cutthroat realtor wants to take advantage of the assassination and hope that a lower offer will fly, given how “east” the apartment is in the midst off all that rioting. They don’t get the apartment. Though Peggy gets a nicer surprise – Abe causally says that he wouldn’t want to raise their kids on the Upper East Side, that it’s too vanilla of a neighborhood (ain’t that the truth!). Also, as a New Yorker, thanks for that in-joke, Mad Men – that Second Avenue subway still doesn’t exist. In one of the best reactions ever on television, when Peggy hears Abe strongly allude to settling down, she perks up with such a genuine, surprised smile. Elizabeth Moss gives a lovely, subtle performance in this scene. Yes, Peggy is the breadwinner in this relationship, but that can’t squelch the girlish joy of being wanted by the man that she loves.

The assassination also brings out the crazy in people. SCDP takes a meeting with property insurance magnate Randall Walsh (William Mapother), who proposes an insane campaign idea involving a Molotov cocktail and a coupon, after having talked to MLK Jr.’s ghost. Huh. Everyone in the meeting keeps it together – relatively – except for Stan, who can’t stop giggling. We’re with you, boyfriend. Stan not being able to shake out the sillies is another great moment in this episode, another great natural reaction like Don’s and like Peggy’s. It’s okay to laugh in times of tragedy, after all.

The Upside: Interesting examination of relationships, Stan laughing during the wackadoo property insurance pitch, Peggy’s reaction to Abe’s domestic proposal, and that brilliant Don Draper monologue.

The Downside: The weird faux Paul Newman. And Michael Ginsberg’s family life seems a bit heavy-handed.

On the Side: Hey, that was Harry Hamlin as Jim Cutler!