Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
Last night's Mad Men was punishing. The best episode of the sixth season thus far, "The Flood" saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. affect the world of the show, bringing out the best in precious few characters. Mostly, we saw the worst in people. That's why you watch in the first place, isn't it?
To put it simply, white people were fucking up. The white characters of the show, by and large, processed the tragedy as outsiders, failing to see how the death of the Civil Rights Leader impacted the entire nation outside of their own personal lives. On the one hand, that's correct, as they are outsiders to the greater problems of America. But that didn't make it any easier to watch.
Joan attempts to hug Dawn, assuming she must need the physical comfort because Dawn is black.
Peggy tells Phyllis, her assistant, "It could've been worse." She's referring to Harlem's reaction to the assassination, but Phyllis' face suggests that nothing could be worse. It's the worst that Dr. King is dead. It's the worst that Peggy doesn't hear how her sentence sounds. It's the worst that these characters can't really connect to help each other.
Don is worried about Sylvia, who's in D.C. with her husband after the news breaks. The wide-eyed look of shock when he hears of the situation in D.C. is not the only powerful display of emotion from the dead man in this episode, nor is it the strongest.
Henry Francis walks through the looting in Harlem, and sees that he's on the path to becoming a senator. The event is fuel for his political aspirations. Betty will try to play the role of senator's wife, though it terrifies her.
Even Pete, who has a history of reacting well to tragedy, falters in the end. When Harry Crane gets to bitching about how the TV coverage will screw up ads, Pete snaps, calls Harry a racist. You're on the verge of cheering for Pete as he creates a space on the show for all of the nation to feel the full force of Dr. King's death, and then he ruins it by reducing it to the personal. "That man had a wife and four children," he spits. Pete's angry mourning is only the by-product of his ruined marriage. He wants to see Trudy and Tammy, but Trudy forbids it. Defeat is in the air.
Of course, Michael Ginsberg and his father are properly broken by the news. His dad pulls the blanket over his head like a sheet covering a cadaver. They're Jewish; they know something about being locked out of white American privilege.
Bobby Draper, in his most significant work to date, tries to react to the news. While Sally, Megan, and Gene attend a vigil in Central Park, Bobby plays sick. Don takes him to the movies, where Planet of the Apes rocks his world. Don helps explain what Bobby's already putting together, telling him that humans have blown up America. The twist stuns Bobby so much that he wants to see it again. One of the theater attendants sweeps up near the pair and Bobby begins to talk to him about the movie. He tells the theater attendant, a black man, that "everybody likes to go to the movies when they're sad." The attendant's look is a blank canvas for the viewer to fill in. Is he bothered by the comment? We're denied a clear answer.
In the final moments of "The Flood," the scene with Bobby becomes the impetus for one of the most moving monologues from Don since the Carousel Speech in the first season. Megan finds him alone in the bedroom at the end of the day, drunk. She berates him for not being with his children, and it feels a bit like the old Megan, the one who could change Don, bend him. Don talks about not loving his kids, how it's been an act. He tries to do what his father would not do for him, but it's a sham. And yet there are times when you really do love them, he tells Megan, alluding to the time spent with Bobby, his interaction with the theater attendant. It makes your heart explode, he says.
Last night's episode was about acting. How to act in a tragedy. How to act with your kids. It was a brutal episode to take in.
If Don Draper is Mad Men's argument about what it is to be a modern human, the message is growing clear. To be a person is to be acting all of the time. It's a performance, and if you can't convince yourself of its integrity, you're going to feel awfully empty and alone.
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
GIF via The Film Fatale