You know, watching a “Planet of the Apes” double feature seems like a pretty chill idea right now.
What started as a light-hearted date night, with both Peggy and Megan up for advertising awards for work they did at SCDP (where neither currently works – yet another sign of the agency’s decline) escalates into something entirely different when news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination breaks during the awards ceremony, sending the city (and country) into chaos.
While most hours of ‘Mad Men’ tend to be constructed as a series of scenes, connected loosely at best on the surface but heavily by themes, “The Flood” dealt directly with our characters’ reactions to assassination, with little thematic work that I detected beyond the different ways different people cope with tragedy. In this way, this episode is heavily reminiscent of season three’s “The Grown Ups,” which chronicled the JFK assassination in much the same way.
But despite the similar structure, “The Flood” didn’t feel nearly as straightforward as “The Grown Ups” did, and was a much more enjoyable watch. This was a completely transfixing hour of television, one that simultaneously cracked me up and left me feeling the same kind of existential dread that permeates the lives of the characters on this show.
Frankly I’ve already written too much without talking about Randall The Crazy Insurance Guy, because oh my goodness. I would call him my spirit animal but I’m worried that he’d take it literally. I can’t even begin to process what was going on here, but I can tell you that Roger Sterling’s blank stare at him followed by Randall chanting was transcendently funny.
And how about Michael Ginsburg’s father invoking Noah’s Ark while trying to shame his son into getting laid? I mean, come on. It appears that in the last few years, ‘Mad Men’ figured out how to focus an episode around a truly horrible event in history without just beating the viewer over the head with sadness.
Of course, there was still plenty of that to go around, and our characters handled it in different ways. Some – Harry, Peggy’s realtor, Betty – were more concerned with the impact on their personal and professional lives than with what actually happened. Harry was issued a stinging rebuke by Pete, whose anger was understandable; Pete has long since been established as the most liberal and forward-thinking character on the show, despite also being The Worst a good chunk of the time. Peggy’s realtor was met with little initial resistance from Peggy, reminiscent of Teddy Chaough gently nudging her to betray Stan’s trust on the Heinz account. And Betty orders Don to pick up the kids for the weekend and drive them back through the center of the rioting. I agree, Megan: Betty IS a piece of work.
Speaking of Don and the kids, this was a big Bobby Draper episode, as we saw him cope with the tragedy by faking a stomach ache to spend the day with his father, who takes him to the movies for not one but two showings of “Planet of the Apes”. The iconic Statue of Liberty reveal at the end perfectly encapsulated the feelings of the day, something that goes unacknowledged but that both Don and Bobby recognized.
The episode ends with Don delivering a curious, beautiful, and impossibly dense monologue to Megan about not loving his children most of the time. I’m not going to attempt to parse what exactly Don means, but I suspect that as is often the case with ‘Mad Men’, it’s not so much about what was said but whether the sentiment behind the words is coming from a place of emotional honesty. Here, it rings so true that it’s uncomfortable. A phenomenal, moving scene, wonderfully acted by Jon Hamm (who, just to remind you, has never won an Emmy for playing only the most iconic character on television since Tony Soprano).
What an episode. In my opinion, the best of this already fantastic season, and a significant upgrade over the last episode built around a national tragedy. And with what we know about history circa 1968, there will be plenty more tragedies yet to come.