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William Bradley

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Mad Men Meets the Assassination of Martin Luther King

Posted: 04/29/2013 8:08 pm

The Flood is a good episode of Mad Men, especially in a Season 6 off to an uneven start.

It came at a good time, too, reassuring that our characters are not all irretrievably stuck in tedious personal melodramas. That, actually, they can be very appealing people.

Spoilers follow, as usual. Incidentally, here's an archive of my pieces on the show, The Mad Men File.

Who knows, the episode, which centers around the shattering assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, might help arrest Mad Men's recent ratings slide. The Flood harkens back to what I think is the high water mark of Mad Men, at least so far, the end of Season 3, which pivots on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent end of the original Sterling Cooper agency and the Don and Betty Draper marriage.

As The Flood begins, the deluge of history pouring into 1968 is underway. So much so that Don and son Bobby's sad and confused post-assassination double-viewing Planet of the Apes and its famously melodramatic ending revealing the future destruction of Earth, in particular New York City, doesn't seem too much.


The closing sequences of Reverend Martin Luther King's final speech, the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. After concluding his discussion of the sanitation workers strike he was there to support, King offers up an eerie set of passages which, in retrospect, seem to presage his impending assassination.

1968, not to put too fine a point on it, for all its excitement and dynamics, is a year drenched in blood.

The most American casualties in the Vietnam War. (Which is why this season kicking off in Hawaii, with Don taking part in the wedding of a soldier about to return to the war, has such resonance.)

The assassinations of Martin Luther King, the nation's civil rights icon and, just two months later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the likely next president.

Blood in the streets of Chicago, for the Democratic national convention, no less, less than three months after that.

The SCDP crew and friends, with Don's inamorata neighbor thankfully trundled off to Washington, react as mostly admirable human beings to the King tragedy, with Don and Megan's marriage clearly having survived so far, finding another context for bonding.

Well, I should say they all react rather admirably except for Harry, of course, who is more concerned about ending the sorrow and tributes and getting back to the usual TV programming. Which prompts a major outburst from Pete Campbell, whom many fans often forget is the agency's house liberal Democrat. (Remember the pilot, in which we quickly learn that we are being asked to identify with an ad agency which exists to spin away the health risks of smoking and promote Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy.)

Poor Pete was back to his JFK-grieving self, reaching out to a more beautiful than ever Trudy for that connection they used to have. Remember how upset and indignant they had been at the end of Season 3 over the JFK assassination and the satisfaction that some of the conservatives around them had had. But it's to little avail, for, though tempted, she still won't let him come home after he embarrassed her with his neighbor fling.

From an experiential standpoint, our characters were much more outside the MLK assassination than the JFK assassination. For an obvious reason. The show's black characters still barely exist. Don's secretary Dawn just got a storyline of her own last week. Just in the nick of time.

But the episode does a good job of conveying a sense of a world spinning out of control.

Still, there was ample space for the odd detachment that crops up on this show. President Lyndon Johnson, intimidated by Robert Kennedy's entry into the race -- just what he always feared, a Kennedy renaissance with his hated enemy Bobby at its head -- has just announced that he will not run for re-election.


Senator Robert F. Kennedy announces the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King to a shocked crowd gathered in the Indianapolis ghetto.

But there is no hint of that on the show, not even in a background newscast.

Yet there is plenty of politics in the episode.

Henry Francis, Betty's healthier second husband, really is a decent guy. A supportive husband and step-father and a diligent deputy mayor of New York, he is working to keep the city from going up in flames and going into harm's way with his glamorous boss, Mayor John Lindsay. But Lindsay is not the presidential prospect Francis, fighting what will prove to be a rear guard action for the old liberal Republicanism, had hoped.

In fact, Henry's old boss, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, is running for president right now on the Republican side. But he's being eclipsed by new California Governor Ronald Reagan. And a man whose career seemed ended when he lost his own race for governor of California in 1962 against Governor Pat Brown (father of today's Governor Jerry Brown), former Vice President Richard Nixon.

When we first met the Sterling Coo crew in the series pilot, we learned that the agency heads were trying to help Nixon run for president that year against John F. Kennedy. 1968 ends with Nixon finally elected president.

Sensing that the stars he is hitching his wagon to aren't taking him to the heights he wanted, Henry is going for a career as his own principal, with a New York state Senate seat for the taking. Look for Betty, who seems happy and supportive, to shed the weight that has so transfixed many viewers.

The episode is good, but it's not perfect. There's a notable derision for the first socially conscious businessman we meet in the series, portrayed by that notably creepy weirdo guy (I'm referring to the character) from Lost.

And speaking of well-known faces, that really was former LA Law star Harry Hamlin as the president of Peggy's new agency. With the star of one winner of four Best Drama Emmys on board, why not another? I'd like to see Richard Schiff from The West Wing as head of acquisitions for a big conglomerate next season to really complicate Don's life.


New York Mayor John Lindsay discusses the crisis of American cities in 1968.

Though the episode is dominated by the reaction to King's assassination, we see that the leading women are doing pretty well. Betty is contemplating a new turn in her life, while Megan Draper is not only continuing with her TV show but actually picked up an award for her advertising work with SCDP.

And Peggy Olson was her new agency's only nominee. But that's not her major point of departure in the episode. That comes with her house-hunting expedition, replete with real estate agent humor, which does not end in a new home, yet, but in something better. Her sheer glee to discover that her journalist partner Abe wants not only more diversity than the Upper East Side offers but room for their kids. Kids? As Elisabeth Moss' character lights up in realization, it's hard not to feel happy for her.

Of course, it wouldn't be Mad Men if we didn't close on darkness.

Don and Bobby bond over their shared inchoate sadness, with Don learning that Bobby, while feeling closer to his natural father, is worried about stepfather Henry getting shot himself as a high-profile public official.

All this leads to Don and Megan bonding as he confesses his emotional reality. (So much for the idea that they were about to split up.)

A deeply abused child himself, Don wanted to love his children but found he could not, no matter how hard he faked it. Only to find he's had a breakthrough with his saddened son in the aftermath of the King assassination.

Where does it go? Somewhere off in the distance into which Don gazes from his darkened balcony, which is a very long way from the balcony on which Martin Luther King found his end.


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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