28
Apr
2013
Mad Men: Season Six, Episode 4
The Flood
Jordan
On some level, Mad Men will never live up to expectations for episode's dedicated to big, sweeping historical events. We all know they are coming (and roughly when, though the exact episode they pop up is always a bit of a surprise), and, with the benefit of hindsight, we know how monumental any given event turned out to be. This leads us to expect stirring episodes with epic proportions, and I think, at least a little bit, it leads us to expect the show to be slightly more Forest Gump than it ever wants to be. On a lesser show, a character would be more involved with the big historical event to allow us to experience it in a more visceral way, to give us the interpretation of it we see in our heads. But that isn't what Mad Men does. Megan takes Sally and Gene to a vigil in the park, but even that happens off-screen. When it comes to the effect of history on the characters, the show tends to go in for the kind of subtlety I prefer from it, combining realism (when this stuff happens, for most of us what it means is watching a lot of TV and trying to figure out exactly how to react, and the show is great at recognizing that) with a low-key depiction of the weight this decade of change has had on each of the characters.

This, to my mind, is why "The Flood" is a much more satisfying hour of television than "The Grown-Ups," and one that is much more resonant to us from a modern perspective. When Kennedy was assassinated in that latter episode, it represented a sea-change for the decade--Camelot fell, and everything was about to get a whole lot darker. It indicated that the world these characters--especially the upper-class, white, male characters--had bought into was quickly disappearing, and had the feeling of the floor dropping out from under them. But that was an episode that spent a little bit too much time watching its characters watching TV, and giving us little more than the idea that they didn't yet know what this would mean for their way of life. In "The Flood," all of that sitting around, watching television takes on a deeper meaning, in that it shows all of the characters grappling with the event, but it also displays the ways in which they are grappling with how to grapple with it. They have seen a lot of tragedy these last few years, and become kind of inured to it, to the point where most of them recognize the need to feel something, but aren't sure exactly what that is supposed to be, and just how strongly they are supposed to feel it.

The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the sort of event that was momentous as it occurred but only truly became an iconic moment in history with the benefit of hindsight (this is, by the way, true of virtually every huge historical event ever). When a large scale tragedy occurs, it can be hard to understand, from its epicenter, what that will mean for life going forward. Everyone knows the death of MLK will mean something--whether its just the tragic death of a great speaker whose rhetoric might have made a difference, as Roger thinks, or a shameful black mark on American history, as Pete is convinced--but they aren't quite sure what. They know a great man has died, and they know that a wave of violence has broken out across the country, and there's a combination of sadness and fear in the air that confuses everyone.

The announcement that King is dead is handled incredibly well, in that it comes out of nowhere and is sort of half-heard from the back of the room, as if its a rumor yet to be substantiated. In fact, for a brief moment watching the episode, I thought that Bobby Kennedy had died (though, with a moment to think, I realized that King was killed a few weeks before Kennedy). The banquet hall erupts in sadness, terror, and the vague approximation of both. It's the sort of momentous even everyone feels the need to react to immediately, even if not everyone has their feelings on it in focus yet.

What's impressive about "The Flood" is the way it gets these reactions just right, and also recognizes that, where JFK's assassination shocked the nation to its core and stopped everything in its tracks briefly, by the time MLK was killed, people had adjusted to the sort of world they were living in, and tried to go on with their lives, even as they were dealing with the tragedy. Peggy tries to buy an apartment while property values are lower. Pete wants to use the tragedy to get back into Trudy's good graces. Henry is going to take this as a political opportunity. Harry just wants prime time TV back. Their reactions are almost uniformly cynical, but they also reflect the fact that these people have adapted to living in a world where terrible things happen fairly regularly, and have done so to the point that they take the death of Martin Luther King in stride and just try to get back to normal. There are racial implications to this, to be sure (and I want to get back to those in a moment), but it seemed to me more like the show acknowledging that people adapt over time, that they become desensitized to the horror and the tragedy that the world throws at them. That they learn how to live even while everything around them seems to be falling apart.

It's hard for me to think about all of this without looking at its contemporary parallels, which I'm sure were apparent to Matthew Weiner even if incidental to the story he is telling. Perhaps its just my age (I'm 24 now, and have lived over half my life in the current century), but throughout the episode, I couldn't help but think of the way 9/11 was a sea change for my generation of the sort the Kennedy assassination was for the characters on Mad Men. Everything was so completely altered by it, and in ways that were impossible to comprehend or predict as they were happening. By analogy, the death of MLK in "The Flood" reminded me of the Boston bombing (Though I think any recent act of terror, foreign or domestic, from Sandy Hook to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, could fit in just as well) and the way that we, as a culture, have come to accept these horrific aberrations as a part of modern life. This isn't to say we don't feel deep sadness, nor to imply we don't mourn the loss. It also isn't attempting to compare the massive loss of life in 9/11 to the comparatively small death tolls in my recent examples (nor to compare either to the deaths of JFK and MLK who, despite their import, were individuals), simply to compare the reactions of people on Mad Men to the reactions of people I see every day in response to both events. We don't become desensitized to terror, but we do adapt to living in a world where horrible things will happen every once in a while. We develop coping mechanisms, ways of thinking about things, and yes, ways of reacting to them before their full weight has hit us. We learn to live in the world into which we are thrust, and the more punches we take, the more we teach ourselves how to lean into them.

In this regard, perhaps the most important reaction to assassination is the one Ginsberg's father has. Ginsberg comes home from his date (with a woman I hope we see again) to find his father sleeping on the couch. He wakes his dad up to tell him the news and his father groans, pulls the blanket over his head, and goes back to sleep. This is a man who has survived the Holocaust, a man who has looked the horrible things people do to each other in the eye, a man who has stared into the abyss and walked away. He's seen the world at its worst, and when confronted with more of it, he decides to opt out. While the rest of the cast must go on with their lives in spite of the tragedy, Ginsberg's father chooses to just let the stream of history flow over him, to react by not reacting at all.

Everybody else has to keep going. The Kennedy assassination stopped things cold, but now people feel like they need to keep living. Eventually Cooper figures out the office should close down, but first we get a lot of little moments of characters trying to walk the line between respecting and reacting to the tragedy and returning to a sense of normalcy. Pete's reaction is too strong, Harry is quick to want things back to normal, and the two nearly come to blows. Don is shocked to see Dawn in the office, and tells her to go home (not realizing that what he thinks of as an act of kindness is exactly the opposite of how Dawn wants to be treated, especially in the wake of MLK's death, which underlines the lack of equality, racial tensions, and differential treatment).

This episode is also stronger than "The Grown Ups" for the center it has in Don, who kind of perfectly encapsulates a lot of the things we've been dancing around this week. Don spends a lot of time watching television, like the characters in that episode, but he's doing it for different reasons. Sure, he watches the coverage of Washington D.C. with special attention because Sylvia is there, but mostly, he seems to be watching to hide from being forced to react. Don doesn't want to parent his children in this moment because he doesn't know how to feel himself, and doesn't want his confusion to effect his children. More importantly, though, he uses the tragedy to avoid thinking about his own, at least temporarily. Where in "The Grown-Ups," we had an episode of television about an event, "The Flood" is more about the way these people use the tragedy as a distraction from their own troubles, as a way to direct their feelings at something else for a little while.

We can, and should, talk about the way the show avoids dealing with characters who would have stronger, more palpable emotions, the way it side-steps the people most effected by the death of MLK. Mad Men is, ultimately, a very white television show, and one that is not particularly adept at dealing with issues of race. I would argue (and some would disagree) that the show handles issues of sexism very well and realistically, but its attitude toward racism is much less successful. It mostly just keeps these concerns on the periphery. On the one hand, this makes sense--a man like Don Draper is going to be confronted with feminism and the changing roles of women much more regularly than he will be confronted with the Civil Rights Movement, and the show does get some slack for the fact that, well, Roger Sterling is not going to be attending any Civil Rights rallies. On the other, that feels a bit like an excuse to not engage, and that's more apparent in an episode consciously about its characters not engaging. The way these characters do reach out, and in ways they would not have even a few years ago, shows how race relations have improved since the show began, but they also underline how far they still have to go. Everyone sort of tiptoes around how to handle it, and that leads to a lot of awkwardness (except Bobby's sweet advice to the usher about how when you're sad, you should go to the movies).

Alternatively, Pete and Harry don't tiptoe at all around each other, and it leads to some ugliness. One of my favorite things about "The Flood" is the way it remembers that Pete is the most transparently progressive character on the show. Sure, he is loathsome personally, but this is also the guy who was talking about marketing to African-Americans based on demographic research years ago. Pete clawed his way into "accepted" society, and he knows what that struggle means. So when he yells about how shameful this is for America, part of it is almost certainly him projecting his feelings about his disintegrating marriage outward, but part of it is his genuine reaction of anger and horror that this could happen. Harry, on the other hand, is just concerned about the bottom line. His callousness and cynicism also seem to be of a piece with a lot of the other reactions in this hour, but like Pete's political beliefs, Harry's have an effect on how he perceives the situation. Harry is, after all, concerned about how "they" will deal with the news going forward, and in an episode where everyone seems to be consciously tiptoeing around the racial tensions that underline King's death, Harry strides right in, sounding like many of the characters might have five years earlier. The times, they are a-changin', and while Pete gets that politically if not personally, Harry understands that professionally but not politically. Harry is on the cutting edge of his field, but he has somehow ignored the way society at large is shifting around him.

The episode never comments on it directly, but that Harry wins the day is made clear later in the episode. When Megan takes Sally and Gene to the vigil, Bobby fakes sick to stay behind and watch TV--regular programming, that is, which has returned. Ultimately, life goes on in the face of tragedy, things regain their sense of normalcy. But beneath that veneer is the hard to swallow truth that things will never be the same, and the creeping dread that comes along with adjusting to a "normal" that means life is syncopated with sudden bursts of horrific violence. We all struggle to move on, to keep the river flowing ever downstream. But the flood expands the flow past its banks, and in its aftermath, normal means something very different indeed.

Grade: A-

Notes:

-I really wanted to talk more about Bobby, who gets his first real story ever (even though he is still a total cipher), and about Don's beautiful speech on fatherhood, which was so moving, it is transcribed in large part below. That was definitely my favorite scene of the episode, tragic and moving and lovely all at the same time.

-"When they finish the Second Avenue subway, this apartment will quadruple in value." Sorry, Peggy.

-"I'm going to flush that toilet again..." Greatest way to avoid awkwardness ever.

-"Don't do anything stupid." "Its too late. I'm going to Harlem in a tuxedo."

-"They're really still having the awards?" "What else would they do?"

-Megan won the award! And no one cared!

-"Man knew how to talk. I don't know why, but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing."

-Don really didn't get that giving Dawn the day off was exactly not the way to handle that.

-"I was trying to communicate without words, but it didn't work." "Randy, it never works!"

-"In the flood, the animals went two by two. You, you're gonna get on the ark with your father?"

-Don takes Bobby to Planet of the Apes. "You wanna see it again?" "Can we?"

-Elisabeth Moss played the reaction to Abe mentioning children so well. In the span of that scene she felt a huge variety of emotions, and every single one of them came across wordlessly. Someone give this woman an Emmy already.

-"Everybody likes to go to the movie when they're sad."

-"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." Ugh. And then they do something Don couldn't predict and he does feel it, and it feels like his heart is going to explode. It's so moving and heartbreaking, and Hamm plays the hell out of the whole thing.

-On the next Mad Men: Roger still sleeps in a bed!
Tags: Mad Men
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