By Alex Greenberger
In light of the Boston bombing, “The Flood” registers on an emotional level. Of course, “The Flood” would have been a quality hour of television no matter what, but what happened in Boston illuminates something similar to what the events of “The Flood” illuminate — that there are events beyond our control that interrupt the flow of our daily lives.
That concept is encapsulated even before the first commercial break — even before the central historical event of the episode happens — when Bobby peels off a piece of his wallpaper. He sees that the stars on his wallpaper don’t line up, so he rips off some wallpaper just to see what will happen. He then hides the wallpaper behind his bed, but it’s only so long before Betty discovers. In typical “Mad Men” fashion, the torn wallpaper is highly symbolic. It shows the way that there were cracks in the order of life, and it was only so long before Bobby’s life was disrupted.
The disruption that changed the course of Bobby’s life was Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. In another truly amazing sequence, Dr. King’s assassination is revealed by a loud ad man at an advertising convention. The sequence feels flustered as we cut around the room to briefly see each character’s reaction. Some look truly disappointed; others look terrified. In Don’s case, he looks particularly horrified, as his worst fear has been realized — death is near, and it’s now affecting an entire nation, not just himself.
Talking specifically about this sequence discounts the ten minutes prior to it, and I should also mention that what built up to this was also amazing. Joan is mostly off-camera for this episode, but that clearly doesn’t matter because she still gets the episode’s best lines. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear Joan muttering, “These are the worst seats in the room.” She also makes some witty remarks about having to wear binoculars to see the speaker. Oh, Joan.
Then there’s also that beautifully written exchange between Michael and his (arranged) date. We learn a lot in this sequence — that Michael is a virgin, that his father is overpowering, that Michael’s moustache strangely makes him handsome (according to his date) — and it sets up some interesting character development in the episodes to come.
But we couldn’t have been prepared for Dr. King’s death. We all knew it was going to happen. 1968 truly was a turbulent year. But seeing each character react to the tragic event was painful in every way. The fact that “The Flood” doesn’t let its viewer prepare for Dr. King’s death is even more fantastic. It starts the episode off strong and it dramatically changes course only ten minutes in. It’s a risk, but the strong writing makes its viewer feel the sucker punch that was Dr. King’s death.
Even Pete somehow manages to be moved by all this. Pete’s character development in this season is among some of the most fascinating material “Mad Men” has attempted to date. In one episode, we see Pete as a chauvinist monster, and then in the next, he’s the most human person in SCDP. “The Flood” definitely brings out the humanist side of Pete, as he angrily confronts Harry when Harry complains about the unnecessary TV coverage to come and Pete even calls him a racist. Oddly enough, the scene put me on Pete’s side for the majority of the episode — I was even tempted to like Pete when he calls Trudy after the assassination and tries to get back together with her. Then I snapped out of it and realized that Pete still sucks, but still, at least “The Flood” made me think a little about Pete’s humanity.
And of course, Don is absolutely distraught. Don has been having an emotional breakdown, but seeing him with tears in his eyes as he finds that Dr. King is really dead? Well, now there are even tears in my eyes.
Like Pete, we finally get to see Don being human in “The Flood.” He lights a cigarette only a few times in this one, and I don’t remember him drinking. The death of Dr. King clearly snaps Don out of his usual routine of drinking and smoking. And there’s that masterpiece of a monologue with Megan, too.
“The Flood” hit me the way the twist ending to “Planet of the Apes” hits Bobby and Don when they go to the movies together. I feel shaken in some way I can’t even really explain, possibly because the episode reminds me of how people reacted to the recent events of Boston, but also because the episode feels timeless. It could’ve taken place after RFK’s death (that episode should be a doozy), it could’ve taken place after 9/11. The point is, “The Flood” touches on some universal themes. This is “Mad Men” at its finest.
Alex Greenberger is entertainment editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.