As a tidal wave of social upheaval picks up speed in the spring of 1968, Mad Men’s Episode 5, “The Flood,” highlights the private lives of key characters – this, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the opening scenes, Don and Megan run into Sylvia and Arnie in the lobby of their building. The Drapers are headed to a banquet, and the Rosens are off to D.C. where the good doctor is slotted at an event as keynote speaker.
Surprise, surprise – Don’s slipping. He asks his mistress where she’s going, twice, though he doesn’t seem to arouse suspicions.
More striking is the ironic role reversal: the Drapers are attending the annual advertising awards affair, where Megan is up for an award rather than Don.
As the news of Martin Luther King’s death interrupts the evening’s festivities, what ensues are relationship and character revelations against a backdrop of all hell breaking loose – responses that range from shock and anger to self-interest and ambition.
Don worries about Sylvia as D. C. appears to be ablaze; Betty insists that her ex take the kids, discounting the dangers of driving through the city; Ginsburg’s set-up with a nice Jewish girl is cut short; Pete reaches out to Trudi through genuine concern, or more likely realization of his isolation.
Interesting reactions, with the flood waters of fear rising – Don with his mind on Sylvia, Betty preoccupied with her own needs, Pete… for his family, or himself?
Betty and Henry
On the subject of Betty, watching her bedded by Henry in a moment of intimacy remains an oddity, as this coupling of convenience seems dismal at best. But the Francis home provides some stability for the children: Bobby expresses concern that Henry might get hurt, and Don reassures him with a prickly reply that “he’s not that important.”
As for Henry, the events of the day have reignited his political ambitions. The missus seems relieved – and possibly encouraged. Remember Betty in Rome, and on the arm of Conrad Hilton? Wasn’t she at least as drawn to the “good life” as dashing Don?
Mrs. Francis tells her husband that higher political office is what she’s always wanted for him. We know it’s the lifestyle she once hoped for – for herself.
Peggy and Abe
Peggy and Abe remain another odd couple, as he finds opportunity in the day’s tragic events as well, immersed in writing an article for the New York Times.
Peggy’s attempt to buy an apartment – a clear sign of her success (and applauded by Megan) – shows the dynamic between these two. He sees himself as on the sidelines, though he’s happy that her offer on the upper East side apartment isn’t taken. Instead, he imagines the two of them and “their children” living in a more diverse area. He suggests she consider the West Side.
Peggy’s mood is immediately improved. She’s almost girlish in her manner! Perhaps she’s envisioning a slice of domestic life she thought she’d never have.
Ginsburg Senior and Junior? Two by Two
We don’t know much about Michael Ginsburg, and his date – as well as the audience – are on the receiving end of TMI.
Ginsburg’s dad sends him on a fix-up that is an awkward scene before and during. Ginsburg nervously spills to the student teacher that he’s never had sex, and after that inappropriate disclosure, they seem to chat with a little more comfort. His date sets his mind at ease by letting him know “this won’t be the night.”
Returning home to the cramped and run-down rooms he shares with his father, the elder Ginsburg reminds him of the importance of a partner in life, and he says:
Now’s the time when men and women need to be together, in a catastrophe. In the flood, the animals went two by two.
Don as Dad, Bobby… as Dick?
Don may cut a fine figure in his tux, but he seems increasingly old guard – and old school. Certainly next to Megan.
Bobby’s in trouble with his mother. Bobby doesn’t want to go to the MLK vigil in the park. Bobby seems distant and lonely – in his own way, a mini Don (or is it Dick) in the making.
Don takes his son to the movies, as they watch the newly released Planet of the Apes. The boy’s questions and observations strike a chord and impress; we can’t help but think these are days of the end of the world as we once knew it.
Megan scolds Don over his parenting. Solemnly, he says:
From the moment they’re born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited, but you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don’t… and the fact you’re faking the feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem…
Then one day they get older and you see them do something, and you feel… that feeling… that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.
What better reminder that this man playing at father has no decent models for parenthood?
More Moments of Note
What’s up with the wacky insurance guy, channeling Tecumseh? Other than the fact that he’s an acid trip buddy of Roger’s, what are we to make of that?
Pete’s upset over the death of MLK is unexpected; Harry is all about recouping lost revenues, as the news has cut into Bewitched and Merv, with sponsors wanting their money back. Pete is outraged, and Burt steps in to break up the argument.
Lighting is always intriguing: Don in his office holds his own against the brightness of the city streaming in; the saturated colors of the banquet hall and the Drapers apartment suggest intensity and transition; the somber tones of the Francis kitchen are claustrophobic and oppressive.
A detail I return to is this: Bobby ripping at his wallpaper. He doesn’t do so without a reason, though Betty tears into him as “destroying the house” – an overreaction, though we wonder what else he may be up to.
Bobby is bothered that the wallpaper seams are not aligned. The background pattern against which he sleeps is off, and he wants to right it. How’s that for a nifty metaphor for family life and social fabric?
Images, Michael Yarish. Click to access originals at AMCTV.