It’s almost impossible to watch an episode like “The Flood” and not spend the entire time comparing it to season 3′s Mad Menization of the (first) Kennedy assassination, “The Grownups.” Aside from the rather obvious similarities in story, both episodes also reveal that Matthew Weiner and company are not particularly at their best when forced to make historical events center stage. Not that we’re arguing that this was a bad episode; just not one of the better ones, to our minds. Like “The Grownups,” the story takes a huge event, places it smack in the middle of the characters’ ongoing lives, and watches how they all react to it. It’s something of a standard way to depict historical events and it’s always just a tiny bit disappointing to us when Weiner & Co. attempt it.
But just as we said the morning after “The Grownups” aired, a “bad” episode of Mad Men is still a hell of a lot more engrossing with a hell of a lot more depth than 95% of what’s on television. And we don’t want to give the impression that we didn’t enjoy it or that it didn’t have moments of deep emotion or character triumphs, but it felt very …. rote. “Historical event X happens, spurring character Y to do Z.” We didn’t get anything quite so declarative as Betty taking the Oswald murder as an opportunity to leave Don, but several characters took this moment to either move forward, rail against their restraints, reveal who they truly are, or allow themselves to become overwhelmed by their emotions. It was, in most ways, a smaller story than the Kennedy assassination to these people; which makes sense, because these people are all white.
We hated ourselves for doing it, but after the initial 20 minutes of the episode, we started watching the clock, wondering just when the hell an actual black person was going to speak. Mad Men is a lily-white world, seeing as how it’s almost entirely focused on the Manhattan creative class and the upper-middle to upper classes on the east coast, starting in 1960. These characters do not inhabit an integrated society and for many of them, as we’ve seen, the only black people they ever regularly come into contact with are the ones who are waiting on them hand and foot, silently. People get angry at Weiner & Co. for not including more African-Americans in the story, but we’ve always felt that when it comes to the topic of racism in the period, that IS the story, at least for these characters. They are largely sheltered and removed from the African-American experience of the time. This is also why we’ve never been among those clamoring for a return of Sal to the story. The forced underground experience of closeted gay people pre-Stonewall IS the story – and it would be something of a disservice to it to have Sal happily sashay back into SCDP’s good graces, waving his rainbow flag.
But 1968 is definitely a period when those walls were crumbling and the assassination of Martin Luther King was a watershed moment in African-American visibility and voice, so all we could think for the first half of the episode was, “Where the fuck is DAWN?” We realize she’s the most minor of the minor speaking roles on this show, but they made the effort to define her last episode (and a little bit last season), so it struck us as enormously odd that we weren’t seeing any of this from her viewpoint. Peggy’s secretary provided a brief moment, but she’s so undefined as a character that it just felt like she was mouthing generic lines. It wasn’t until Dawn finally showed up that it all kind of clicked into place. Love it or not, Weiner & Co. took the same route with Dawn that they took with every other character. They used this event to define her rather than using her to define the event. It may seem odd that she was so relatively emotion-less and business-like when she returned to the office, but in retrospect, it makes almost perfect sense. As we said last week, she is Peggy 2.0; maybe not quite as ambitious in her goals but no less committed to being the very best at her job that she can be. Peggy came into the office the weekend of the Kennedy assassination to work on an Aquanet ad because that’s how she deals with these types of events. Dawn is similar in a lot of ways; she just wants to work. And when Joan moved in for that HILARIOUSLY awkward hug, suddenly Dawn and Peggy’s secretary were thrown into relief; one giving us the emotional, culturally-based response we’re yearning for as an audience, and the other one giving us a very interesting character reaction that elevates her way above “Black Character #1″ and pays her the respect of allowing her to be fully rounded as a person. The open reaction Peggy’s secretary was having to the event probably would have mortified Dawn.
Having gotten these two different takes out of the way, Weiner & Co. went back to looking at all the white people in the tale and frankly, most of them didn’t come off all that well. Peggy pays lip service to how awful it all is, but she makes fun of Abe for loving the drama a bit too much (which was true) and then allowed herself to be pushed into lowering her asking price on an apartment; using the assassination and the rioting to benefit her financially. That’s when she wasn’t ignoring the assassination outright in order to indulge in baby-making fantasies briefly. We’re being harder on her than we mean to be. After all, it would be silly to expect Peggy to lie on the couch sobbing all weekend. She never was very good at understanding the various civil rights struggles going on around her; not even the nascent women’s lib movement, of which she has remained largely absent and uninvolved. Peggy’s main focus has always been Peggy, which is befitting of Don Draper’s protege. We have to admit, it’s thrilling to see her negotiating to buy an apartment (with a balcony, like Don’s of course) and attending an awards ceremony all dolled up in a gown. This is everything Peggy’s worked toward since the very beginning of the series and it’s heady and exciting to see her achieve it.
But please, girl. Don’t go shagging your boss, for God’s sake.
If you’re looking for a truly repulsive response to the events of the week, you can always turn to Harry Crane, who’s been marked by the writers this season as The Asshole. Like Peggy, his reaction to the assassination tends to center around financial dealings and how this all affects him, which would be bad enough, but then he had to go talk about those people ruining his city and frankly, it was the first time in … ever? That we were on Pete’s side. People seemed a little surprised last night to see Pete being so forceful (not to mention empathetic) on the topic, but Pete wanted to sell televisions to black people at a time when he could have been fired for bring up the topic (and almost was) and was one of the only people to react with disgust at Roger’s blackface act during Derby Day. He’s an old Knickerbocker Democrat from a long line of them, with vaguely liberal leanings and a surprisingly open mind about race. This has all been long established, so it was nice to see it paid off. Granted, a lot of Pete’s fury and reaction come down to his own shitty life and how he screwed it up, but he was genuinely revolted by Harry’s words.
As for Harry, we suppose it’s only a matter of time before he jets off to the west coast for good. The only goal the creators have for the character this season seems to be to show how much everyone else dislikes him. And once you get the Duck Phillips treatment on Mad Men, it’s only a question of when you’re going to be shown the door, so to speak. Our only issue with Harry is how undefined this change in character is. We’re talking about someone who used to introduce himself to pretty secretaries with “Harry Crane. Married,” and who was reduced to tears at the idea that he’d screwed up his marriage by one night of drunken cheating. We suppose his unexplained turn toward crudeness and self-absorption is making a point about the growing crudeness in the culture, but to be honest, it’s unearned. The longer this goes on, the more scenes of Asshole Harry we get treated to, the more it stands out that the audience has absolutely no understanding of who Harry is.
And finally we get Don’s reaction to events, and frankly, we’re afraid we couldn’t care less. Everything about the Don story just felt like wheel-spinning to us. His reaction to the events was to worry about his mistress more than anyone else, withdraw from his children and wife, argue with his ex-wife, and skip out to the movies for hours in order to escape everything. It’s all very typically Don Draper. Which is good; we wouldn’t have it any other way. Like Peggy’s reactions, it would make no sense to have Don act out of character now. But unlike Peggy’s story, absolutely nothing new or interesting was being said in Don’s. “I go through the motions of pretending to love the people around me?” Pfft. Tell us all something we DON’T know, Don. Granted, it’s a big deal for him to admit something like that to Megan, but we suppose the audience, after all these years, is something like a bitter ex-wife of Don’s. We hear him have these breakthrough moments, but all we can do is roll our eyes because we know any sort of real change in behavior isn’t coming. So while everything Don said or did this episode felt earned and made sense for the character (including the idea that he only really notices his children after they’ve become fully formed people, which explains why poor Bobby has been the Most Ignored Child of the 1960s up till now), it didn’t add up to anything engrossing or interesting. We found ourselves thinking that, if the writers had little new to say about Don in this tale, they should have spent more time on the other characters.
Bullet points for a very fragmented episode:
- Dawn and Ginsberg, the two characters most defined by their minority status, are the only characters who revealed a little more of themselves this episode. Everyone else acted like they’ve always acted.
- That awards dinner was a Mad Style extravaganza and a treat for the eyes. The Paul Newman bit was a little cheesy, but the confusion surrounding the announcement of the assassination was beautifully handled. Sitting at home, half the audience found themselves squinting, leaning in, and turning to each other to say “What?” Perfect mimicry of what the characters were feeling in the moment.
- We haven’t even touched on the weirdness of Roger’s acid-tripping buddy and his bizarre visit to the office. We don’t think we’ve heard the last of this one, but we suppose it’s at least partly of the theme of crudeness and obviousness entering the culture and the advertising industry, something that offends Don.
- Thank God poor Bobby got a little something to do. That bit about him peeling the wallpaper was perfectly “little boy,” as was his ridiculous “I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!” the second he got caught. Loved Don’s amused reaction to his “Jesus.”
- We really didn’t get the point to Betty this episode. Demanding that her kids be sent into a rioting city just flat out doesn’t make any damn sense. Watching her scream at Don because he didn’t pick them up had us saying “Really? This scene again?”
- On the other hand, Betty’s reaction to the idea that she would have to present herself as a candidate’s wife was PRICELESS. All the credit in the world to January Jones, who doesn’t normally get much credit for her acting. Poor Betty. Her life is just about on track and she’s heading toward an eating disorder.
- Trudy Vogel Campbell don’t front, bitches. She really meant it when she kicked that shithead out.
Our Mad Style post will be up on Wednesday.
[Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC]