In the wake of the Boston bombing and the subsequent manhunt for its perpetrators, Mad Men‘s newest episode, “The Flood,” is eerily timely. Not only for the obvious reasons–Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination occurs in the beginning of the episode, leaving New York City to erupt in violent riots–but for the more subtle ones. The riots reveal the fear and the selfishness in each character, leading to new discoveries and revelations.
The theme of loneliness and isolation continues in “The Flood”, an episode that is downright apocalyptic in its depiction of America in the moments directly following the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. The offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Price are empty, the streets are dangerous and unpredictable, and everybody’s emotions are getting the best of them.
Strangely enough, it’s Pete Campbell who is the most visibly affected by the news. The morning after MLK’s assassination, Pete screams for Harry to be more sympathetic toward the man’s death. It’s an interesting piece of characterization for Pete, who has proven himself to be the most sociopathic of the SCDP partners up to this point, but it’s also a wise writing decision from Weiner. Of course Pete would be outraged by King’s murder, but not outraged by the idea of selling Joan’s body for an account–Pete is nothing more than a sponge of the culture from which he’s been raised, and he’s much more likely to cling to abstract symbols and ideas than he is to the actual people around him. Case in point being Trudy, the “perfect” wife who has never seemed to interest him at all (beyond, of course, her skillful and charming presence at parties).
I’m intrigued that Weiner chose this episode to be the first time in the entire series that we ever see Don and his oldest son, Bobby, interact independently from the rest of the family. Bobby has gotten such little screen time over the course of the series that I often forget that Don even has sons, but in this episode Bobby got even more screen time than Sally (Kiernan Shipka), who is a top-billed member of the cast.
However, based on Don’s monologue at the end of the episode, it’s pretty clear why Bobby was the child chosen for this episode’s attention.
After Megan finally gets the kids to sleep the night after the assassination, she scolds Don for drinking too much and not spending enough time with his children. And for once, Don just agrees with her. In one long take, Jon Hamm gives one of the best performances of his career in a monologue that may hit some parents far too close for comfort.
In the monologue, he bluntly tells Megan that he’s never felt love for his children unconditionally, and he’s afraid of that absence. It makes him scared because he’s afraid his father had the same problem. Yes, Don does say that Bobby surprised him that afternoon and he felt that his heart was going to burst, but that was a moment of clarity in the wake of a tragedy. Don doesn’t love his children. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise, as we’ve never really seen evidence of that love, but hearing the words come out of his mouth is tragic.
He wants to love his kids, but he just doesn’t know how to do it. Whatever mechanism he needs to get the job done is broken for him. I’m reminded of his conversation with Sylvia in “The Collaborators” when she asks if he ever feels guilty for sleeping with her.
“I don’t think about it,” he says as he unbuckles his belt.
Don is a master of compartmentalization. His very identity is a compartment in his mind. But what is the consequence of such a fractured life? Three wives, three children, two lovers, and two backstories. He’s not one man. He’s several. The fallout of being so many men is that he’s never one man for anybody. His children are suffering for it.
“The Flood” refers to many things in this episode. The most overt reference would be the one made by Ginsberg’s father, who refers to the story of Noah and the Ark, and how in great tragedies the animals pair up. Another reference would be the “flood” of love that Don felt in the afternoon that he saw Planet of the Apes with Bobby.
But “The Flood” is appropriate in many ways. As I said before, the episode itself is apocalyptic. It’s not a random occurrence that Weiner wrote Planet of the Apes into this week’s script. The ending of that film shows a dystopian, unrecognizable Earth that has been ravaged by its own inhabitants, leaving nothing behind but warped versions of themselves. It’s no mistake that Bobby pulls the wallpaper off of his wall because it “doesn’t line up”.
Peggy’s search for a new apartment with an extremely unprofessional real estate agent becomes a story about fate and understanding. A potential client’s proposal for an ad turns into a conversation about fear-mongering and violence. An award show, in the minutes following the news of MLK’s death, becomes cartoonish and silly when the context is changed.
Nothing in this episode happened as it was intended to happen, but that’s not the tragedy. The tragedy is that everybody took it personally.