Mad Men S6 E5: The Flood (updated)

My usual routine before sitting down to write a recap is to jot down a bunch of notes with my thoughts on the episode, and then check another recap or two that night or the next day in case I felt differently than people like Alan Sepinwall or Andy Greenwald or my man Kyra so I can prepare a response of sorts. So I typed up my notes and then turned to Sepinwall’s review; for obvious reasons (last night, the MLK assassination) Sepinwall recalled the episode with Roger’s daughter’s wedding that doubled as the Kennedy Assassination episode (Season Three’s “The Grown-Ups”). Sepinwall apparently wasn’t a fan of that episode, and I take his point (I’ll elaborate below) even though I don’t really get why that episode in particular merited a badge of dishonor from him. (If you want a truly awful Mad Men episode, might I suggest the Fat Betty one from last season.) I’m saying this because I took that as an opportunity to revisit “The Grown-Ups” (it’s on Netflix Instant, along with every other Mad Men episode), and there’s a great opportunity to compare and contrast it with “The Flood.” I think Sepinwall is right that Mad Men handles these monumental events that pop up during its timeline better now than in seasons past, even if not all of the characters do.

I think the criticism of “The Grown-Ups”—that it’s too much like every other movie or show that wants to devote some of its time to November 22, 1963 and show people forlornly whimpering on their couches as Walter Cronkite reads news bulletins (and how far we’ve come with breaking news today OH WAIT)—is a valid one. The Kennedy Assassination was an unavoidable story—you’d be glued to your TV set, too, as you might have been last Friday—and everybody reacted in pretty much the same way, by watching TV. If you’re not going to use that event as the jumping off point for a dramatization of your batshit insane (but also highly entertaining) conspiracy theories, then yeah, there’s not much that’s enthralling about seeing fake people moan over the death of the same dude for the hundredth time. I’d add two important caveats to this criticism, though.

The first is that while it’s not novel to film the same tissue-to-eye reaction shots time and again, on Mad Men, these sorts of moments aren’t limited to JFK (and Lee Harvey Oswald) getting shot. There was that time they were glued to their TVs in the office during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the time that they all threw an election night party for Nixon even though he lost, and that time they…I could go on. People on Mad Men are always watching TV, or listening to the radio, or reading the newspaper, because their job requires them to be on top of this stuff. If everybody is watching their TV on some world historical date, well you’d certainly expect Don and Peggy and Pete to be, too. I think you can definitely complain that the set up to episodes like “The Grown-Ups” and “Nixon vs. Kennedy” were gimmicky: You knew ahead of time the date of the wedding Roger was paying for and that it would be a disaster, and you knew when Bert Cooper announced earlier in Season One that the agency would be in charge of the Nixon ad campaign that a sour mood would cast a pall over the election night debauchery. But, just because you knew what was going to happen isn’t necessarily justification to criticize those episodes by themselves, especially because this is the sort of the thing that Mad Men does all the time. In any case, I think Mad Men—and last night was an example—is better with these moments now, perhaps because Matt Weiner’s refrained from cluing you in ahead of time about which episodes will match up with which catastrophe.

The second caveat is that the Kennedy Assassination only dominated “The Grown-Ups” to a point: Weiner devoted the last third of that episode to what his characters were facing on November 23 and afterwards (“The Grown-Ups” is more a transitional episode, also, sandwiched between Betty’s confrontation of Don over his past and the formation of SCDP) just as last night focused on “the more uncertain light of April 5th,” as Sepinwall put it. If you noticed that Don spent a lot of his scenes in the flood preoccupied with Sylvia’s safety (she was in DC, which wasn’t untouched by rioting), that’s a reversal from “The Grown-Ups,” when it was Betty who had her mind on somebody else: Henry Francis was a guest at the Sterling wedding, and Betty—distraught from the news—absconded from Chez Draper to rendezvous with Henry. These guys were just as apprehensive about the future on November 23, 1963—they were about to break off and form new agency, even if they didn’t know it just yet—as on April 5, 1968. What might have changed five years down the road, though, is a loss of innocence and sincerity. It doesn’t mean as much now when they try to reassure themselves that things are going to be okay; if you weren’t convinced the world was going to shit, here’s the last twenty seconds of Planet of the Apes.

Don’s an interesting, if enigmatic read, in the wake of the JFK and MLK assassinations, to be sure. In 1963, he’s telling Betty—who already has eyes for another—that everything will turn out fine, and in 1968, he’s telling Bobby the same. As I mentioned above, the roles are reversed five years down the road; instead of Betty telling Don she doesn’t love him, it’s Don confessing to his wife that he doesn’t love his children. Don’s at a precipice both times (he’s always at something of a precipice), and while he could devote himself to the new agency five years before, it’s going to be much tougher sledding devoting himself to his kids now. I’m with some of Sepinwall’s commenters: Don’s delay in responding to Bobby (and the response’s snark itself), who asks about Henry, not Don, indicates how crushed Don is. Don’s just seen his son do something that caused him to feel love for the first time, but it makes sense that Bobby would ask about the father figure he’s currently spending more time with (and the one who’s probably more attentive). Don’s a little late on the parental duties: his trip to the movies with Bobby is a nice bit of parenting but also a means to spite Betty.

It turns out that Betty’s changed over five years, too. She’s hit her bottom, and that’s resulted in some weight gain and some new hair colors (and continued arrested development), and while I don’t think she’s really improved in any significant way, things are at least a little different. For starters, her new husband isn’t a serial philanderer. For seconds, she’s now preventing her children from watching what’s unfolding TV, when in “The Grown Ups” she was sort of flailing about, telling Don she didn’t know how she was going to keep them from the news. Now I don’t think she’s doing any better when it comes to keeping her children from trauma—she demanded that Don drive them through parts of the city that were on police lockdown—but she’s at least manifesting her inabilities anew. Not everybody responds differently to MLK’s assassination than to JFK’s, though.

Harry is just as concerned in 1968 about the lost commercial time necessitated by breaking news coverage as in 1963. Harry is so selfish on April 5th that Pete Campbell, of all people, is the one chastising him for has graceless lack of magnanimity. But Harry’s not the only character who uses tragedy as a chance to think about himself. There’s Peggy’s real estate broker, who tries to use the unrest to capitalize on a temporary dip in apartment values. There’s Henry, who looks at Mayor Lindsay grinning like an idiot, and thinks that this is his time to run for office. And there’s Abe, who Peggy fingers as a self-styled martyr—like Truman Capote, Abe’s not immune to capitalizing on tragedy for the purposes of good copy. Abe’s not a bad guy, he’s just doing his job, and he’s got a keen sense of place: he knows where he wants to live, who the breadwinner is between him and Peggy, and how to follow a story. Peggy thinks about herself, too: Abe’s a part of her life and will share her apartment that she buys with her money. It’s for that reason why I thought her little moment on the coach was a mixture of relief and confusion. Peggy’s the boss, but she’s still learning how to work with people her subordinates at CCS (I’d say nobody gives an awkward hug like Peggy, until Joan hugged Dawn) and with Abe, her equal in a relationship if not in annual income. Thinking about your own plight: Just as Martin Luther King would have it.

[kyra update]: Just a couple brief remarks. If anyone read my comments last week, they’ll know that I predicted this would be the MLK assassination episode. I don’t mean this to take credit for it, but I want to focus on what I said about the introduction of the character Dawn as kinda foreshadowing this event. She got her first plot, and I expected it was so that we could feel a little closer to her when shit went down this past week. I think it park worked and part didn’t–all the people in the office don’t really know what to do. They are white, and mostly rich, so MLK doesn’t inspire them all that much, and just assume that they should give all the black people in the office the day off. But this is the opposite of what Dawn wants. In this emotional time she just wants to feel a sense of normalcy again, so she asks Don if she can spend the whole day working. I think this made sense for all the characters. However, inserting Dawn last week for an extended story point feels a little forced. Kind of borrowing a little from The Americans‘ method of using flashbacks in an episode when a character dies to imbue some connection to him, were we supposed to feel more sympathy with Dawn because we had seen her have some problems the week before? Maybe she goes on to become a regular character this season, but I doubt it, which makes me question the storyline in the first place.

The next comment I want to make is about the brief Pete-Harry argument in the office. While Pete is standing for the side of good for once against Harry’s capitalist ways, I think we can all agree the argument is a stand-in for his problems with his wife. We see him try to reconcile things to no avail, and I applaud Trudy for not going back to this asshole.

Lastly, on Bobby worrying about Henry rather than Don. I think it’s a really complex issue. Literally Henry is more at risk than Don because Henry is down in the trenches with the Mayor during riots whereas Don is self-confined to the Upper East Side. It is also literally true that Henry is not nearly important enough to be worthy of kidnapping or putting in harms way. His death/injury would not really send a message. From Bobby’s line of questioning/thought to the janitor at the movie theater we see he is a kid who speaks his mind without much thought for what the consequences will be. So while I think it is a reasonable interpretation that Bobby cares more about Henry than Don (and I don’t necessarily disagree), I don’t think it’s the only possible interpretation. Finally, what about Don’s response? I personally think he means the remark to only put Bobby at ease that he doesn’t need to worry, but of course he is also taking a jab at Henry. Basically my point in saying all this is that I think it’s a really interesting and compact moment worthy of close examination.

Oh yeah, and Ginsburg’s line about making a weird comment and eating soup might be the funniest thing in the history of the show.

Also, how fucking weird is Roger’s acid buddy?

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