The closest thing Mad Men has had to a running joke lately – other than the ongoing farce that is the love life of Pete Campbell – isn’t even really a part of the proper show. Matthew Weiner’s absurd zero tolerance policy regarding anything and everything that could be called a spoiler has bedevilled many professional critics who have to write early seasonal previews with more redacted information than a hotel review for Gitmo. We laypeople see the strict code of silence most clearly during the obtuse “next week” promos after each episode, which are usually just a string of random non sequiturs that leave you with no impression of what’s to come. This week’s featured a shot of a shirtless Roger giving a kissy face, then cut to Don returning the look in a completely different scene, which is good for a laugh, though will no doubt disappoint a few misled Don-Roger shippers come next week.
Now, I’m a huge believer in the importance of stories getting to tell themselves on their own terms, despite research that suggests knowing what you’re getting into makes for a more enjoyable experience. That being said, Weiner seems like he’d prefer to strangle a cat instead risk letting it get out of the bag, and that’s particularly unnecessary for a show like Mad Men. So little of its appeal comes from the actual plot, as it’s never really been about out-of-left-field gut punches. We choose to follow Don even though we know his life is a gargantuan, slow-moving trainwreck because we’re more invested in seeing who gets caught in the path, than where it’s going to make the final collision.
But Weiner and his secrecy acquit themselves nicely tonight, as the big surprise in “The Flood” arrives with appropriate shock for not just the characters, but the audience as well. Anyone even remotely aware of 1968 knows that among that year’s many dates of turmoil and unrest, the April 4th assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. stands out as particularly devastating. As all the advertisers congregate at the Advertising Club of New York Awards, a speech from Paul Newman is cut short by a random, barely decipherable shout from the audience declaring that MLK has been shot. It falls out of the clear blue sky like a bombshell and a wakeup call; while Don’s nursing his bitterness towards Peggy, who’s own dream of coming away a winner has already been casually crushed by Ted, an usher walks out into the little theatre drama they’ve made their lives out to be, and rudely tells everyone to have a fiver, because the real world will be taking the stage for now.
Among the more common criticisms that’s been lobbed at Mad Men is how insular the show has been for most of its run. Don and the agency are our entry point to the rapidly changing times of the ‘60s, but after five-and-a-half seasons, how many different ways can you see those changes from the viewpoint of mildly-to-majorly privileged white people before the sidelines just don’t seem as interesting as the frontline? It’s in no way becoming of the show, but there’s a part of me that badly wanted to follow Abe as he took the pulse of Harlem while wearing a tux, or to see how Dawn’s evening with her sister went down. After proving last week that, yes, black characters on Mad Men do have lives unrelated to the office, Dawn and her doppelganger over at CGC seem like they might have more to add to the discussion than being outlets for lots of confused sympathies, and a couple cringe-worthy hugs.
But as is the case with all historical events in Mad Men, “The Flood” isn’t really about what’s changing in the world at large, instead focusing on what those changes mean to the worlds of the characters. The most obvious parallel goes back to season three, with “The Grown-Ups,” when the assassination of JFK eventually took the life of Betty Draper, who broke the last straw in her marriage to Don, then set the whole haystack on fire. She’s on that same path at episode’s open, laying down more “Mother of the Year” material by accusing Bobby of “destroying this house” for just ripping out a scrap of poorly placed wallpaper. Henry getting picked by higher-ups to run for an open senate seat will be a temporary balm to their relationship. Betty does something of a double take when seeing how close she is to getting back into her pre-weight gain clothes, into that old skin. She’s changed a little since leaving Don, but she’d still rather go back to the land of white picket fences than really commit to a life that involves making stew with East Village hippies. If anywhere’s going to be a last refuge for good ‘ol American values, it’s D.C., but marriages like Don and Betty’s destroyed good ‘ol America from the inside long before Vietnam, or MLK could tear it down from the outside.
Betty’s not the only one looking at a change of address, as Peggy’s finally moving on up, to the east side, to a de-luxe apartment in the sky…thus completing what I hope is an elaborate nod to The Jeffersons that started last week, with Ted using pie as a metaphor for prosperity. Peggy seems to have the hardest time processing MLK’s passing in any noticeable fashion, wrapping herself up in work, and advancing her place in the world like a protective blanket. She still wants to have it all: the job, and the man, but she’s only really attached to one of those things. Abe always begrudgingly accepted Peggy’s particular line of work, despite his more radical leanings, but the passion he puts into investigating the aftershocks of MLK’s passing proves how wrong for each other they are. Peggy referring to Abe as a “trusted advisor” in front of the realtor is pretty dismissive, but the real killer line comes later. “You’re in my life. You’re a part of my life,” she tells Abe, in the closest thing to an expression of love she can deliver while still being honest. She might as well be addressing the sentiment to the heinous couch she has in her apartment; it would ring with just as much earnest investment.
Continue reading on the next page…