Mad Men: The Flood

Mad Men: The Flood

This episode, “The Flood,” set on the day of and the two days after Martin Luther King’s assassination in early April 1968, is dividing “Mad Men” fans and recappers. Some — mostly recappers, it seems — think the show’s lost its luster. Others think this episode missed an opportunity to explore racial relations. I think “The Flood” was an excellent episode, and that it captured the moment realistically across all lines.

I’m old enough to remember this day. My mother woke me up for school, crying, and told me they’d shot Martin Luther King. I saw that same stunned upset in my parents’ faces that morning at breakfast, and later as we ate supper and then watched the evening news, that we saw in the characters in this episode of “Mad Men.” I recall that sense of heightened awareness, where time doesn’t move faster or slower but somehow presses against you more tightly, leaving you amped-up aware of everything from the spoon next to your applesauce to the possibility that someone else might shoot someone else and the world as we know it might never be the same.

I share this to affirm that, yes indeed, white people did get upset about the assassination of Martin Luther King. I was taken aback that people were questioning the response of the gathering of the New York Advertising Club and beyond. (It was a common theme on Twitter on Sunday evening and into the next day.) In the episode, someone in the audience shouts out the news that Martin Luther King is dead as Paul Newman addresses the crowd. There are gasps and tears. They take a break, and the event continues. Pete, distraught that he can’t make a call, goes home. Everyone else from Cooper Sterling Draper Pryce remains.

Cutler, Gleason and Chaough are there, as well. Earlier, Don had avoided Peggy, but she and Megan catch up, with Peggy telling her that they might soon be neighbors, as she’s looking at an apartment at 82nd and York. (The realtor’s line about the apartment quadrupling in value after the Second Avenue subway goes in was a hoot. It’s still not open! Gothamist did a fun post on apartment hunting. In a parallel thread, Ginsberg goes out on a surprise blind date, to a diner, with the daughter of one of his father’s chessmates. This is where he is when he hears about the assassination.

At home, people start moving their way through the national tragedy. Ginsburg returns to his apartment early from his blind date, and tells his father about the assassination. Megan cuts her call to her father short, because, Marxist that he is, he supports the rioting. Don is concerned about the Rosens, who are in Washington, D.C. Dr. Rosen was asked to be a keynote speaker at an event. The next day in the offices of CSDP, it’s sort of business as usual and sort of not. Don calls Dr. Rosen’s service, but doesn’t leave his name. (The two couples had bumped into each other in the lobby as Don and Megan were heading out to the event and the Rosens were going to the station, to take the train to Washington.)

Joan tells Don that they’re closing the office early, but that they’re having a partner’s meeting at three. A prospective client, a friend of Roger’s played by William Mapother, who played Ethan on “Lost,” comes by and pitches an insurance ad, claiming it was inspired by the ghost of Martin Luther King.

In an emotionally heightened outburst, Pete pounces on Harry when Harry starts ticking off the clients whose ads are being preempted. (Bewitched! Merv Griffin!) Indignant that Harry could even discuss work, Pete tells Harry this is a “shameful, shameful day,” and doesn’t back off even after Bert asks the two to shake hands to erase what’s been said. I latched on to Pete’s calling this a shameful day, because this is what Trudy calls it when he’d spoken to her the evening before. He’d offered to go out to Cos Cob, because he didn’t want Trudy and their daughter to be alone. But Trudy doesn’t accept the offer. The word “shameful” was poignant, a reminder that while their marriage is probably over, there are still emotional attachments and unresolved feelings.

That evening, Betty calls Don and reminds her that he’s supposed to pick up the children. He does, and the next day, Megan goes with Sally and Gene while Bobby remains home with Don because he’s not feeling well. Bobby’s being punished for peeling off misaligned wallpaper in his bedroom and isn’t supposed to watch television for a week. Don takes him to the movies, to see “Planet of the Apes.” Bobby likes the movie so much, he wants to see it again. Between shows, Bobby tells an African American theater worker, “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” A post in The Bowery Boys blog affirms that while the city was shut down, moviegoing didn’t drop off.

Peggy doesn’t get the apartment, and when she calls out Gabe, who’s writing on deadline, for not reacting, he tells her he didn’t think that’s where they’d want to raise their children. He thinks the Upper West Side is more interesting. Her eyes light up, because apparently, the two of them still haven’t mapped out  their future together with any specificity.

One frustration I’m detecting among fans is that they’re tired of characters, especially Don, not changing. But to me, that’s one of the beauties of the show. Because who in real life changes? Some people do, but others don’t. Perhaps we are demanding more from a television show’s characters, or any work of fiction, for that matter, than from the people in our lives. That some people do not change — not every alcoholic joins AA, not every hoarder schedules a pickup from Goodwill — is a point that doesn’t always lend itself to fiction. We expect, if not metamorphosis, some sense of change … And some characters in “Mad Men” have evolved. We’re seeing a lot of quiet character development with Betty this season, including in this episode, as she realizes that Henry’s move to the State Senate is going to mean a more public existence for her. Presumably this is what is going to inspire her to lose weight, since she shares this dream for her husband.

What “Mad Men,” and other great shows and movies attempt to do thematically, is often novelistic in ambition. Matthew Weiner has said in interviews that one of the things he’s exploring in “Mad Men” is the passage of time. It’s exceedingly difficult to treat this, Big Ideas and other abstract notions such as arrested development, without benefit of an omniscient narrator or interior monologues or other literary devices that take us inside the character. Film is if anything exterior. Yes the film toolkit includes interior-monologue voiceovers and asides, but they don’t lend themselves to all film and TV; they work better in comedies. (Think “Modern Family” and “The Office.”) So we should, in our assessment of tableau television dramas, remind ourselves as much.

These points apply to criticism around race. It would have been preposterous to elevate Dawn, Don’s secretary, in this episode, the one with MLK’s assassination as a backdrop, to a larger role. Yet some people were clamoring for that. This is classic damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Dawn had had more lines — she had under 10 by my count, in a brief exchange with Don in his office, in a scene that included a self-conscious hug from Joan — people would have accused the show’s writers of window dressing or “on the nose’ writing and who knows what else. Yet if this had been a novel, a passage describing her morning at home and commute to the office would have likely worked. There’s so much more latitude on the page.

We did get insight into Don as a father in this episode, in what has to be one of Jon Hamm’s greatest moments in the role of Don Draper. He’s sitting on the edge of his bed, and Megan challenges his parenting. He’s drunk. He begins a monologue about the awakening of his love for his children. When they’re born, he says, you pass out cigarettes, but you feel nothing. And you wonder if your father had the same problem. “One day they get older and you feel that feeling you were pretending not to have and it feels like your heart is going to explode.”

Is this not the crux of Don Draper, passing through life fighting the yolk of emotional expectations?

Later, Don realizes Bobby is still awake in his bedroom. He can’t sleep because he’s worried. Don thinks it’s “Planet of the Apes.” But Bobby is concerned that someone might shoot Henry. Don assures Bobby, matter-of-factly, that it won’t happen because Henry’s not important enough.

Quibbles: As “Mad Men” fans know, factchecking the show has become something of a sport. I usual don’t play. But for a storyline like “The Flood,” which was rooted in history, I had more quibbles than usual.

My biggest is Betty wanting the children to go to Don’s the day after the assassination in the middle of considerable unrest. Yes, Henry thought it was safe. But still. It had only been one day. And New York was so very different from what it is today.

The actor who played Paul Newman didn’t sound at all like Paul Newman. Given we didn’t get a closeup, I wondered why they couldn’t find someone with a voice that more closely resembled Paul Newman’s in tone, charm and sweetness. The man still has millions of fans out there.

More quibbles: One of Pete’s lines during his ferocious exchange with Harry — Pete called him a “bona fide racist” — over how preempted news coverage was impacting client TV advertising referenced “some Movie of the Week.” It turns out ABC did not start its Movie of the Week until December 1969.

The Rosens tell the Drapers they’re going to D.C. But people didn’t called D.C. “D.C.” in the late 1960s. It was Washington. “D.C.” took hold later. Finally, how did Gabe, who used to write for the Village Voice, get to file a story on the riots with the Times? Did they use stringers to this degree in the late 1960s? I wish Gabe had said said something that explained this, when he told Peggy he was going to cover the unrest.

Predictions: Jim Cutler, the Harry Hamlin character, seemed to appreciate Megan in ways that went beyond business. Was this a tease? Or will he express his desire for her? It would make an interesting story line, the president of a rival firm pursuing the wife of a Madison Avenue executive. (Even though Peggy summed him up as Roger “with bad breath.”) Something is likely going to force Don and/or Megan to evaluate their marriage at some point this season. Whether it’s his affair with Sylvia or another party, well, as ever, time will tell!


  1. Good catch on that Movie of the Week! And I agree about the Paul Newman voice. Prior to that when someone mentioned that Paul Newman was speaking, I wondered how they would handle it. Surely there must be an impersonator who could have captured his charm, even from a distance.

    I bet you’re right on the Harry Hamlin character and Megan. And I could have sworn that was Dana Delany beside him, but don’t see her name anywhere in the credits. Sounded just like her, but of course, she’s busy with Body of Proof anyway.

  2. And I’m also ok with the characters not changing radically, because it does seem more like real life. The beauty of Mad Men is that it doesn’t have to give us all the sensational stuff. It’s above that. Though I wonder what this season’s lawnmower scene will be – or if there will be one.

    • Jane,
      Ha! I’m thinking there might not be another lawnmower scene, that seismic events, Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June, the Democratic Convention in August, are fodder enough. But since this is Mad Men, who knows!

      As for character development, it’s subtle but we are seeing Don opening up ever so slightly, first to Sylvia, in Episode 2, when he tells her he wants to stop doing this (sleeping with someone other than his wife) and than heartbreakingly in this last episode. The pendulum certainly swings in Don and Megan’s marriage. Her biggest window into his psyche is with parenting, how she handles the children and also how she can relate to his tortured feelings because of her complicated parents.

  3. As a friend on Facebook said, this particular episode was so right in so many details about the time. I was an adult when MLK was shot, and remember the fear of the sudden falling apart of everything, the rioting–even though it was no where near us in Arizona–and particularly of a new awareness of race, something that had never occurred to me before. But I tend to agree with critics who question the Ad Club banquet falling apart. The realization of the effect of King’s death was not that immediate.
    Although certainly a good number of whites were upset by King’s death, a nearly equal number were only upset for the selfish reasons–whether that was cancelled shows or burning buildings. I don’t know the statistics, but a high percentage thought King was just a troublemaker. Not politically correct to say that (or possibly to show it on TV) but that was my experience, living through it.
    This is an excellent and thoughtful summary of the show and all the complexities–one of the things that keeps drawing me back–the complexity.

    • Vera,

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that the response to MLK’s assassination started at shock and grief for many and then, as riots erupted, morphed into broader concerns over civil unrest and the social order. I also realize that some people saw him as a troublemaker, though there were other civil rights leaders who were far more militant, making MLK seem more reasonable.

      Also, based on tweets and comments around this Mad Men episode, I can’t help but wonder if some people don’t realize how well known MLK was in the 1960s. He was TIME’s Man of the Year In 1964, he won the Nobel Peace Prize that same year. This legitimized him with the white Establishment at least with liberals and progressives. As far as public opinion polling, I’ve seen numbers that show an unfavorable rating in the mid-1960s, but I’m not clear how diverse or large the sample was, i.e., was it mostly white respondents.

      Finally, Ad Age confirms that the Advertising Club of New York pretty much unfolded as depicted on Mad Men. (Your comment here prompted me to Google that, so thanks.)


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