It’s always apparent, when watching Mad Men, how much the drama draws from its setting. This is a period piece, no matter how effectively the writers enrich our characters and focus on their own personal triumphs and failures. Matthew Weiner has often cited his desire to keep the show character driven while the backdrop just unfolds around them, but as is the case in real life, the political and cultural atmosphere in which our characters exist deeply shapes their lives.
“The Flood” brings history to the forefront, as did “The Grown Ups” back in Season 3 where we watched the Mad Men world stunned and hunched around TV sets, all the while their lives continuing around them, unable to stop. That episode played with the Hitchcockian device of showing life go on, oblivious, after a terrible event. Margaret’s sad wedding set amidst the tragedy was a literal interpretation of this idea, which flowed throughout the episode. Unlike “The Grown Ups”, “The Flood” does not hop around the big topic, while it hums passively in our ear and only touches upon the borders of our real stories. As we’ve so consistently been reminded this season, our characters cannot hold back the flow of time, and the big social issues that have been bubbling below the surface have finally erupted into a movement demanding attention.
I feel like the focus of this episode will be viewed as akin to that of “Grown Ups,” but I don’t see the business as usual atmosphere with this assassination that I saw in the prior. If anything, any casualness seems very out of place, note Joan’s strange and uncharacteristically awkward hugging of Dawn. Peggy too is guilty of this, when her reaction to Abe’s passion for covering the riots is shock at his desire to get involved, followed by concern only for his person. The significance of the events seems lost on her and as a result that burgeoning distance she has from the rational perspective grows. Don, as always, is callous behind a veil of emotional presence (A tactic described in his parenting speech this episode, more on that later…for certain). Any legitimate involvement he has with the current events revolves around his feelings, lust or otherwise, for the missing Sylvia and the realization of his failure as a father that was brought on by Bobby’s sentimental reaction to the assassination. These reactions all stand out as contrary to the sentiment of the zeitgeist, reminding us just where our characters are aligned on the political and economic spectrum. Abe, frustrating as it may be so see him bouncing hectically from scene to scene, is the realest perspective we get of what is going on. Well, Abe and Dawn.
Dawn’s authenticity is something that has been germinating since her first few lines last season, when she brushed off jokes about hers and Don’s names like flies off a windshield. She is somewhat predictable, but that is part of what I like about her. Let’s see, can I think of any other predictable Mad Men character whose name starts with D? Or R, or P, or H, or J, or—you get what I’m saying. Dawn is definitely going to be integral to the last two seasons of Mad Men (Isn’t there some possibility it’s going to keep going?). The appeal in Dawn’s predictability lies, as it does for the other characters, in the unusual set of rules she sticks so fundamentally to. We’ve seen her heightened professionalism, and now we are seeing a maturity in her that extends beyond wanting to keep her job. While she is definitely affected by the MLK assassination, both personally and politically, Dawn doesn’t want to take the opportunity to leave work. This isn’t just some attempt to appeal to her supervisors, she would just rather be at SCDP. We can wax on the reasons for this, ranging from safety concerns to a desire to be removed from the melancholy her neighborhood is likely experiencing. The reasons don’t matter so much as does Dawn’s obvious determination to not allow King’s death (Or any other deterrent) to sway her life. She is at the forefront of this revolution, a young black woman poised to rise in the ranks of a Madison Avenue ad company. We may have seen her softer side last week, but I think there is a seriousness about Dawn that will only benefit her.
Don, conversely, is much too serious. Was that speech supposed to make me like Don more, feel for him? Because it didn’t. And I love Don Draper. What it did do was make me a little disgusted at how cleverly Don interwove his admission of not loving his newborn kids with a stab at victimization at the hands of his father. Maybe I should have seen this verbalization of his terrible upbringing as a vulnerable and honest move on Don’s part, but after basically hearing he didn’t care about Bobby until his heart exploded that afternoon in the theater, it felt a little self-conscious to me. And this was no fault of the writers, this was Don, as round and visceral a character as ever, just being himself. Watching him grief stricken over Sylvia could have roused sympathy as well, were Don not using the emotions of the events around him to justify his panic and concern. Do we really believe that Don felt anything at all about the assassination, or the riots that followed? Do we even think that he cared much about his newfound connection with Bobby once he found out it was based on Bobby’s feelings for Henry? Feel free to comment on that. Without a doubt the closing shot of Don, sweaty and teary-eyed on his balcony, begets anticipation of a genuine upheaval of that Don Draper disposition we’ve come to know so well. It’s certainly possible that there is nothing predictable about any of these characters. Peggy’s pregnancy denial stands out as behavior thoroughly out of sync with my expectations of the character, as does Joan’s decision to accept the partnership deal, Trudy’s decision to marry Pete (Zing!), and honestly, Betty’s weight gain.
Peggy and babies, a nice image conjured up for us this season by a frenzied (Big surprise—his hair alone elicits motion sickness) Abe, not realizing but utterly in compliance with what he has suggested. After this cute little Peggy and Abe at-home scene, I take back what I have said about their relationship being an ill-fit. Just kidding, I’m still not 100% on board, but I am a little closer. Long have the scales between Peggy and Abe been seeking balance, with one heavier on money while the other leads in integrity. It works because the characters’ value systems are proportionately ranked, and their appreciation for the other’s perspective engenders an indifference to comparison. As we have seen before (eg: Abe listening to headphones while Peggy yelled at her subordinates) “The Flood” presents us a great scene where the characters are staged to perfectly capture this way in which their relationship works. Abe is typing furiously away on his New York Times story about the riots when he answers the phone and blurts out, “I need another half hour—“ Oh, but the phone call is for Peggy; it’s the realtor, and it’s not good news. Peggy unravels into her own little Upper East Side tragedy as Abe is so thoroughly engrossed in a journalistic manic episode. Yet the two find not just common, but exulting ground when, in finally speaking out on his disproval of the would-have-been apartment, Abe describes how he would prefer to raise their children. You want children? Peggy is pretty adorable when that hard outer shell melts to reveal her love for Abe and, would you believe it, some maternal instinct. Abe is oblivious, because to him their relationship has so obviously always been forever, as Peggy, simpering, tiptoes over to him. There is a comfort and warmth between them that, if lasting and valid, might prove the backbone for the most successful relationship on the show.
While relationships may be the mental thread linking this paragraph to the last, I love that this episode provided a more profound thematic backdrop which tempered the rest of the developments. Ginsberg went on what sure seemed like his first ever date, a pairing made by that unruly father (?) of his, who I really enjoy. We can’t discuss “The Flood” without discussing Ginsberg, since the name itself came from his father’s little parable about love (Or lust) in a time of tragedy (Reminding his son that in the biblical flood, the animals went in pairs on the arc, not alone). It’s pretty clear that Ginsberg is being fleshed out to play a more important role in the future of Mad Men as well as SCDP. I just can’t decide what the angle is on him, the one prevailing aspect of him that never leaves my mind is his Season 5 story about being born in a concentration camp. The follow-up about him receiving intel from Mars has always left me a little confused as to the reality of his origin story, but I assume this is meant to mimic his own confusion. This is who he is, and his father’s drive to mate him up only furthers his superhero-esque characterization; prodigy always seeks progeny. I like the contrast between Ginsberg’s very relatable registering of the tragedy and its outcome with that of his father, who is forever and ever focused solely on him. This does the trick of igniting his unwitting hero complex whilst maintaining his humility. He also gets in the best joke about Mad Men of the night, when he complains he “has to shave” before his date, to the tittering of viewers everywhere.
As with Ginsberg, Mad Men does often add new central characters, slowly growing its cast as time goes on, but always paring it down as well, need I mention Lane? Or any of the many others we’ve lost over time, if less violently. Should we expect the show’s approach to history, always just at a grasp and conveniently affecting, to continue through the tumultuous impending year, or will someone we know get just a little too close to the action? After Henry’s announcement tonight that he will be running unopposed for Senate, his risk level went up a notch. But he’s a Republican, so I guess we won’t see any trouble with him at the DNC later in the year. I’d love to see Harry get attacked (I watch a lot of AMC), if only to see him fall off that high horse. It’s true that Pete’s little eruption this episode was transparently vile in its self-righteousness, but Harry’s peevish indifference to the murder of MLK and the changing tides is even more despicable to me. I mean, if Pete Campbell can legitimately call you an ass, whether he’s compensating for a failed marriage or not, you definitely are one. Also that Burt Cooper refereed argument was so satisfying to watch, and the fiery and genuine little passion that I love in Pete Campbell definitely shone triumphantly through. SCDP partners-2; Harry-0. I’d love to throw in an extra point for Burt Cooper’s whopping diss in “To Have and To Hold” (“I was different from you Mr. Crane, in every way”), but I expect our partners will all get a valid go at this lout as the season wears on.
Note: I have been thinking I would like to rate each episode, but this will be difficult. If I were going to rate each episode as just a TV drama, they would all get a fairly high ratings because of how competent the show continuously proves to be (Of course this could change, but five and a half high quality seasons suggest otherwise). If, on the other hand, I grade each episode on the Mad Men scale, primarily in relation to each other and the enterprise as a whole, I think the result would be more functional. Let me know what you think in the comments, and I’ll institute this measure!
This article was first posted on May 2, 2013