Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 6, Episode 5 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "The Flood."
Since it debuted, "Mad Men" has been very good at misdirection.
In fact, when I've dinged various episodes in the last year or two, it's often been because they've been short on subtlety. It's not that I require the show to be stealthy all the time -- I actually tend to enjoy "Mad Men" most when it's mixing up tones, moods, structures and styles -- but when the symbolism clangs too loudly or meanings are too overt, it can throw the whole thing off and the stories can start to feel a bit didactic. The show is rightly celebrated for its ambiguity, which isn't to say that episodes that jump headlong into current affairs are failures. They're usually among the show's stronger outings, as was the case with "The Flood."
To put it more briefly, "Mad Men" was quite devious and very obvious this week, and both strategies were deployed well.
The misdirection had to do with the first quarter of the hour, when it looked as though we were in for a typical "Mad Men" hour. We started with the show's signature back-of-the-head shot of Peggy, who was checking out a new apartment. Don and Megan soon headed out to an awards dinner, and Michael Ginsberg came home to find out he'd been set up on a blind date by his dad. So far, so typical: Most episodes focus on a few characters, and the opening scenes gave us no indications that anything out of the ordinary would happen -- which sometimes means that we should brace ourselves for a major event. Since there's no clear pattern regarding when the show will spring those big events on us, the sheer normality of the opening served as camouflage for what was about to happen.
Various bits of business occurred at the award ceremony itself that were both typical and distracting: Don avoided Peggy, Megan greeted Peggy, the gang commented on the awful placement of their table, etc. Three things in a row pulled focus even further away from the potential content of the episode itself: that creepy Ethan from "Lost" turned out to be an out-to-lunch weirdo. Also, Harry Hamlin showed up as Ted Chaugh's partner Jim Cutler, and I have to believe we'll be seeing him again (if you're over the age of 40, you probably spent the next few minutes gasping, "Holy shit, that's Harry Hamlin! Harry Hamlin is on 'Mad Men'!" If you were never an "L.A. Law" fan, you may not have had that reaction, but trust me, many of your fellow viewers did.)
We were barely able to process the appearance of Hamlin before we all began squinting, as did Joan and the rest of the SCCP employees, to see if we could see Paul Newman. Of course, our rational brains knew that "Mad Men" would never even attempt to show us the iconic visage of 1968 Paul Newman up close, but come on -- it's Paul Newman! We were craning our neck and squinting with the best of them, and we were so concerned with rubbernecking that we were barely thinking about "Mad Men" as a TV show at all.
Just when our distraction was set to absolute maximum, "Mad Men" lowered the boom. As it has done on a few occasions in the past, it dwelled extensively on national tragedy and showed how it affected (or didn't affect) a whole range of characters. Which 1960s events will be dealt with in glancing fashion and which ones will get much more serious exposure? The fact that we never know usually makes the impact of the "current events" episodes even greater.
Certainly, if the show were going to deal with one huge national event this season, this was the one to focus on. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an enormous event that affected the course of American history. Thanks to the various strategies employed by the show, the news felt as though it came from nowhere (though, as more than one character noted, it's not as if such an event hadn't been predicted). Even if we had speculated before the season began about whether this enormous incident would be discussed during the season, thanks to "The Flood's" stealthiness, the events of that April day felt like a bolt from the blue.
And that was completely intentional, given how stunned people were then. That event mentally dislocated most people and left them feeling bereft, afraid and unsure of what to do next. Many of us were probably too young to remember that awful day, but those who were old enough to process it probably still remember it vividly. And even those of us aware or alive then can draw on our memories of other horrific moments in American history. It was unsettling, to say the least, to see characters glued to news coverage, as we were just a week or so ago when events in Boston played themselves out. At moments like that, we look at the screen and feel both numb and a dozen roiling emotions. Just like Don.
Surely we can all relate to the moments of reassessment that took place in many of the characters' lives. Tragedy forces people to take a hard look at what they value and why; it stops everything and compels people to think about what rules matter, what they want and where they're going. Things don't look the same, and even if they get back to a kind of normal, people have been altered -- at least some of them.
You know it's a world gone terribly awry when Pete Campbell seems like a good guy.
Actually, that statement is a bit too facetious. Pete is indeed a world-class jackass much of the time, but he's always been remarkably forward-thinking and egalitarian when it comes to matters of race. Think back to his astonishment when the firm brushed off his attempts to pursue African-American consumers. That kind of bias struck him as both dumb and unfair. When it comes to work matters, Pete has generally been fairly level-headed and realistic, and he knew that, if nothing else, racism was simply bad for business.
Clearly his dressing down of Harry was partly driven by the loneliness he's felt since Trudy kicked him out of the house -- the idea of a family being torn apart wounded him in part due to the dicey state of his marriage. But I like to think there are a few shreds of something like decency in Pete Campbell, and he really was just sickened by Harry's insensitive and thoughtless comments. If SCDP goes out of business one day, it's because the company is being run not by people who really understand the new generation coming up, but by people who don't want primetime programming interfered with for any reason.
Harry and Pete both may be unhappy, skirt-chasing ad men, but their loud confrontation reminded us how very different they are at their cores. It's hard to think of this kind of tragedy prompting the blinkered Harry into trying to make a real connection with another human being, particularly someone of another race. Pete tried that with the man delivering his Chinese food near the end of the hour, but it didn't work out. Was that attempt at conversation driven by the fact that Pete was lonely? Was it prompted by the enormity of the news itself? By the fact that the man was Chinese? It's hard to say, but it didn't work. Likewise, Pete's phone call with Trudy didn't break down her resolve to avoid him as much as possible.
Pete and Trudy, Pete and the delivery man, Pete and Harry: Notice a theme? Soon after the news of the assassination broke, group scenes became something of a rarity. There was the meeting with Marshall and a few other scenes with three or more people, but most of the scenes in the rest of the episode featured two people. Two by two, as happened when people boarded the Ark during the flood. This being "Mad Men," most of the pairings weren't quite in harmony.
However, shaken out of their complacency, some characters made a kind of progress in their lives. Don and Bobby shared some reasonably decent father-son bonding time, even if, as Don admitted to Megan, the fact that he had no examples of positive parental intimacy means he's often terrible at it.
Both Peggy and Abe took opportunities as a result of the week's tragic events: Abe got an assignment from The New York Times and Peggy allowed herself to be steered into underbidding on an apartment. The latter strategy backfired, but at least it led to a conversation with Abe about their future, which he sees as involving kids. This was news to Peggy, who's spent a lot of her life steeling herself for disappointment.
It's hard not to have my heart tied up in knots when Peggy looks as hopeful as she did after Abe mentioned the prospect of children. I desperately want Peggy to have hope in her life (and she clearly desires at least some of the conventional life that she was raised to want). But I can't help but feel that, as with the case with the apartment, Peggy and Abe are not "meant to be." In my view, Peggy is settling for this guy, and because she's awesome, I want more for her than she wants for herself. But experience has been a harsh teacher, as evidenced by Peggy's intermittent desire to tamp down her exuberant smile. Oh Pegs. I want more for you, but I also fear that you want more than you're going to be able to handle.
Henry also came to a realization about wanting to further his political ambitions and Betty was tantalized by the possibility of her status improving if Husband No. 2 ascends the political ladder, but I'll be honest: I'm more fascinated by the lint in the lint trap of my dryer than anything to do with Henry and Betty. Moving on.
More misdirection: Randall Walsh is obviously a Complete Loon, thus his scenes were played somewhat for laughs. (There are few things I enjoy more than watching a very stoned Stan Rizzo contemplate ridiculous people and things.) But there was also a lot of truth to what he said, certainly about Don's desire not to look at anything honestly. It's true: Don would rather ignore the obvious, cloak things in spin, and ignore the fact that he's an animal crying out in pain.
Of course Randall's desire to shove the Truth in people's faces -- with an ad that said, more or less, "Buy my insurance in case your building gets torched!" -- is a terrible idea, and the team rightly regards it with varying levels of incredulity. (Having said that, Stan was probably thinking, "This guy's awesome! I have to find out where he gets his drugs!") But Randall was just another reminder that the kind of elegant obfuscation that is Don's stock in trade is largely going by the wayside. Don keeps encountering people who assault his worldview -- hippies, rock chicks, swingers, drugged-out weirdos -- and if, like Harry, he thinks this is all going to stop soon, he's got another thing coming.
"This cannot be made good," Pete snarls, and he's right. More and more these days, characters are finding themselves on the opposite sides of unbridgeable gulfs. Pete and Harry may shake hands, but they use that moment to say even more furious things to each other, and Bert's attempts at placating them are exceptionally ineffectual. Bert, the voice of reason, a man who could stop contentious meetings cold with one or two well-placed words in the past, is now regarded more or less as a house plant that talks. Feelings run too deep these days, and the go-along, get-along attitude of Bert's generation (and that of Roger and Don's generations) just isn't going to work miracles anymore.
Nor are hugs a panacea for anything. It was interesting to regard the various awkward hugs in the episode: Don hugged Megan as she wept at the awards ceremony, but he looked blank and his actions felt mechanical. Joan, who's of a similar age, looked even more awkward trying to hug a surprised Dawn. That sort of emotional moment doesn't come easily to Don or Joan, especially with employees, and the Dawn scene reflected that (Don didn't even attempt to hug her, which felt more right than Joan's well-intentioned but strange embrace).
Peggy, who's more than a decade younger than Joan and Don, looked far more natural embracing her secretary Phyllis, even if it's clear that the women are not really friends, nor are they ever likely to be friends. That awful day made the black and white characters realize just how big a gap still remained between them. Peggy is clearly a well-intentioned person, but the road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. As she did with Dawn last year, Peggy tripped herself up; in this case, she referred to what occurred in the city as "not as bad" as it could have been. There were a host of assumptions contained in that statement, and both she and Phyllis knew it, but as was the case when Dawn stayed over last year, after a moment of awkwardness, both women chose to ignore what passed between then.
In different ways though, Joan, Peggy, Pete and Don were trying to bridge gulfs with people. But given how self-absorbed and/or work-focused these people typically are, their efforts were only partially successful. Still, they tried, and that counts for something, even though it was clear most people were out of their depth, uncertain and uncomfortable.
Don may have been able to bridge the gap between himself and his older son a little, and possibly decrease the distance between his wife and himself, but he was very much alone on that balcony. The sirens sounded close, but his loved ones -- including Sylvia -- felt very far away.
A few more notes and observations:
- Speaking of Sylvia, one of the sources of suspense for this episode was wondering how everything turned out for her and her husband. The episode left us hanging when it came to that couple, but I think that actually worked in "The Flood's" favor. This was an episode all about feeling fractured and unsettled, and it made sense for Don to still feel off-kilter when it ended.
- What didn't work for me: I didn't believe that Betty, despite being the worst, would really want her kids in the city, to the point of not letting Don just come and get them the next day. Betty may be a horrid mother sometimes, but that seemed unreasonable, even for her. What an ungainly plot contrivance.
- Another thing that didn't quite work for me: Jon Hamm's performance was typically powerful in the last Don-Megan scene, but her tears at his confession about his own father were jarring. We've seen Don pull this move before -- confide just enough about his past to keep whoever he's with on the hook and hopeful that they might receive another crumb of intimacy someday. It's hard to explain my reaction to that scene: It's not that I think Don was consciously manipulating Megan, but we've seen that kind of thing from Don so often that it's hard for it not to feel at least a little cynical about it. And Megan, the guy who you're crying for? He was an absolute shit to you quite recently in your dressing room. Obviously the couple patched things up after he confronted her about her love scenes, but her deep sympathy is somewhat hard to buy, given recently we saw him being awful to her. But maybe when a gal has a withholding Marxist for a father, anything's possible.
- There was a Look between Peggy and Ted at that awards banquet. I wasn't alone in catching how significantly they looked at each other, was I? Also notice how eager Ted seemed to be to sit next to her -- but of course he had to engage in negging to counteract his obvious interest. His interest in his wife, by the way, seemed pretty fake.
- As we saw when the camera showed Megan's award, Don and Megan (and presumably Peggy) did stay for the rest of the ceremony, which seems odd, but somehow in keeping with the fact that denial was more of a thing then.
- I loved Roger's deadpan reaction to Randall's imitation of Tecumseh: "I had forgotten that."
- Clueless Betty is still clueless: Bobby's peeling of the wallpaper pre-dates the week's huge news, but she blames it on current events rather than anything else going on in his life.
- This week in Whatever Could That Symbol Mean: The wallpaper, which is meant to cover up what came before, is not aligned! The child peels it away to cover what's underneath! That couldn't be a subtle nod to the fact that Betty's new family is full of mismatched people trying to forget who they used to be, could it? I wonder!
- Prediction: Jim Cutler & Roger Sterling will meet in a future episode and have a silver fox-off. Then they will go on an epic secretary-chasing bender.
- When you want a character to give off a "Danger: Here is a Very Weird Guy, Possibly With a Head in His Freezer" vibe, you cast William Mapother, who's possibly best known as the ultra-creepy Ethan on "Lost."
- Based on the charm he displayed on his big date with Beverley, Ginsburg is going to remain a virgin for some time to come. His running commentary on what a terrible date he was, however, was pretty amusing.
- "The man knew how to talk. I don't know why but I thought that would save him." Figures Roger would want another man who was very good with words to survive.
- Update: I wrote this Sunday night, finishing at around 3 a.m., and as I write this list item on Monday morning, I realize that I didn't really deal with "Planet of the Apes" at all. I'll leave it to insightful commenters and other critics -- parsing the symbology there (aside from New York living up to Harry's worst nightmare and going to hell in a handbag).
- I don't know about you, but I felt echoes of "The Grown-Ups," the Season 3 episode in which the characters reacted to the JFK assassination, in "The Flood." I haven't watched "The Grown-Ups" recently, but I seem to recall that hour having a similarly charged vibe.
- Of course there is a wealth of historical information about Dr. King's life and death available, but I want to mention one of those resources. The Smithsonian Channel's "MLK: The Assassination Tapes," which won a Peabody Award this year, is an hourlong documentary that uses only audio recordings and video footage from 1968 -- much of it from local news media -- of the coverage of King's visit to Memphis and the aftermath of his death. It's a fascinating on-the-ground chronicle of what actually happened in Memphis that spring.
"Mad Men" airs 10 p.m. ET Sundays on AMC.