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The escalation of decay

April 29, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

“Mad Men” 6x05

Episode title: “The Flood”

Significance: A direct reference to the story Ginsberg’s father told about the biblical Great Flood and how people react in times of turmoil, spun nicely into a larger morality play on how our characters react in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Time passages: “The Flood” takes place on April 4, 1968, and the days following King’s shooting at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Episode essay: You know those days. We just had one of those days. There have been too many of those days.

Days when it seems like the world has gone mad. Days when you question why you ever wanted to bring a child into this world. Days when you wonder if there will be another day.

April 4 and 5, 1968, were those kind of days, telling days.

Days when Don had to come to terms with his absentee fatherhood. Days when Peggy and Abe started to come to terms with their impending parenthood. Days when Ginsberg pondered his solitary life (and his father, knowing what might be coming, simply pulled the covers over his head). Days when Henry pondered doing something important for the world, and Betty pondered what it means to be the wife of someone who’s doing something important for the world. Days when Pete acted decently and Harry acted boorishly and an LSD-addled insurance executive had a dream, too, a dream we could change (there’s that word again).

In times of such grand despair and universal angst, it can be the smallest gestures that have the most impact. So there amidst the chaos was Bobby Draper – who, given the circumstances of his upbringing, has every right to be petulant, selfish, even disturbed – showing true empathy for another human being, one he doesn’t know, one whose skin is a different color than his own. It’s Bobby’s simple advice to the movie theater usher – “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad” – that provides a moment of clarity for his father, who had a pretty shitty upbringing himself, about the nature (and terror) of unconditional love.

The whole episode sends Don into a whiskey-and-Luckies tailspin – “You feel like your heart is going to explode,” he tells Megan – as he ponders whether his own father ever felt the same way he feels at that moment. But Megan (who is so good for Don, even though he’s so bad to her) steers him back on track and he’s able to ease Bobby’s “Planet of the Apes”-driven fears (about the end of the word and the end of Henry) while realizing another man has been more of a father to his son than he has.

We’ve seen Don Draper have these crises of conscience before, but we’ve never seen them affect any lasting change with him. Time will tell if this time is different. Time will tell if Don can change. We’re left trying to read his poker face as he paces on his balcony, high above Manhattan, with sirens wailing in the background. But given our gift of hindsight into the “Mad Men” universe, we know one thing for sure. There will be more days like those days.

About last week: With show runner Matthew Weiner appearing last week at a TV writers panel in New York, the ongoing criticism about the perceived lack of direction and character development on “Mad Men” came to a highly publicized peak. And Weiner’s response was a classic. He said, to paraphrase: It’s my show and you can watch or not, but don’t tell me what to do. Of course, many are not watching. Ratings are down 20 percent so far this season and we’ll hazard a guess that won’t change until the series finale (sometime in 2014) pulls in a record number. The same thing happened to “The Sopranos” in its final two seasons as David Chase took the show toward psychological drama and refused to sanitize how his characters’ lives turned out (mostly death, destruction and dysfunction). We expect the same from Weiner, who made his bones as a “Sopranos” writer.

Quick hits:

+ It’s getting clearer every week that Teddy Chough has designs on Peggy. We were practically hit over the head with it in “The Flood” with Chough “accidentally” sitting in Abe’s seat at the advertising awards dinner.

+ Getting back to last week’s theory that Sylvia Rosen might be more important to the “Mad Men” end game than we might initially have imagined: As the MLK crisis unfolds, she is the first person he thinks about, not his wife, not his children. Is Don Draper falling in love?

Brand names: There was so much Canadian Club whiskey in this episode, it should have gotten a co-starring credit. Lucky Strike (Don’s bedside), Cheerios (Ginsberg’s kitchen) and Milk Duds (at the movies, of course) also made appearances.

Historical notes:
+ “Planet of the Apes” premiered on February 8, 1968. Its twisty plot, which blew Bobby Draper’s mind, was written by Rod Serling.

+ Martin Luther King was assassinated on a Thursday at around 7 p.m. EST. Paul Newman really was speaking at an advertising awards program when the news broke. There were riots in more than 100 American cities over the next few nights, but not in New York.

+ Playing over the closing credits was “La Amousr Est Bleu,” an orchestral piece conducted by Frenchman Paul Mauriat, that was a No.1 hit in the U.S. in early 1968.

Sweet tweet: From @SeanPeterBudge: “I think it’s official. More actors have played Bobby Draper than have played Rusty Griswold.”

Lines of the night:

“I’m going to Harlem in a tuxedo.” –Abe Drexler

“Now is the time for a man and a woman to be together the most – in a catastrophe.” –Morris Ginsberg

“The heavens are telling us to change.” –Randall Walsh

“I just keep thinking what would happen if someone shoots Henry?” –Bobby Draper

“They won’t. He’s not that important.” –Don Draper

“I can’t wait for people to see you.” –Henry Francis (and did you see Betty’s face drop when he said it?)

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A night on the town for Don and Roger becomes an American nightmare in "The Flood."


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