The Ties That Bind

BY EMILY VIVIANI

In time of tragedy, Don and others turn to those they've often shunned - family. (Credit: AMC).
In times of tragedy, Don and others turn to those they’ve often shunned – family. (Credit: AMC)

All of the vaporous allusion seeping through the plot lines of  this season of “Mad Men” converged into one big storm cloud on Sunday night’s installment, aptly titled “The Flood.”

So far, ominous murmurings of civil rights and Vietnam have peppered the episodes, in cocktail conversation and background radio, but 1968 really soaked in on Sunday, when Matthew Weiner decided to dress Don up in a tuxedo on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Weiner was bold in choosing to focus on MLK’s assassination, considering the criticism the series has received for failing to infuse its African American characters with the authentic dimensionality that has defined the core cast. But since “Mad Men” is simplistically a show about a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960’s (and not about the 1960’s itself), it seemed appropriate that Weiner didn’t attempt to use the event as an opportunity to cheaply memorialize the civil rights movement. Instead, the plot developed around the central characters’ (primarily upper-middle-class-white ones) respective reactions to the tragedy and the turmoil that followed.

The hour begins with Don and Megan, along with the rest of the SCDP crew (plus Peggy), at The Ad Club of New York’s Awards Dinner. A tiny Paul Newman is just wrapping up his speech when an anonymous crowd member shouts that Martin Luther King had been shot. Everyone moves to the lobby, stunned by the news. Abe heads up to Harlem in a tux, Megan dries her tears on Don’s shoulder, Peggy pops a breath mint and Pete gets aggravated with everyone ahead of him in line at the phone banks.

At the same time, Ginsberg is nervous, eating soup at a diner, on a date with a pretty girl that his father had insisted he take to dinner. “Do you like kids?” he asks the young student teacher, before a misdirected justification for the question clumsily transforms into a declaration of virginity. Then over the radio they hear that MLK has been shot and the date is cut short. In comparison to the award’s gala, the scene was well-lit and awkward, but proved to nicely highlight the redemptive implication of “The Flood,” which Ginsberg’s father seemed to spoon-feed later on:

“Now is the time when a man and woman need to be together the most – in a catastrophe. In The Flood, the animals went two by two. You, you’re going to get on the Ark with your father?!”

Thematically, the episode was very similar to a combination of Season 2’s “Meditations in An Emergency” (which pivoted around the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Season 3’s “The Grown Ups” (which followed the week of John F. Kennedy’s assassination). All three episodes are hinged on the notion that in times of fear and sadness, people seek love and security.[1] But I thought “The Flood” was most effective at communicating catastrophe’s ability to temper existential indulgence, to push people to glean a version of clarity through the promise of purpose that comes only through family.

After news of the assassination, Pete displays some uncharacteristic decency when he calls his wife Trudy, asking to come home and be with her and his daughter Tammy. This is a stark contrast from Pete’s behavior in “Meditations” when Trudy asks Pete to come with her to Rehoboth Beach out of apocalyptic precaution. Pete responds, “If I’m going to die, I want to die in Manhattan.” After Trudy’s response to him this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does.

At the office the next day, Pete instigates an argument with Harry when he expresses frustration that business will suffer in wake of the tragedy. “It’s a shameful, shameful day,” Pete says, reprimanding Harry for his insensitivity and reminding him that MLK “was a man with a wife and four children.” The scene suggests that Pete, despite his terribleness, may have a soul. I’m not sure there’s hope for Harry.

Peggy appears uncharacteristically conventional when disappointment over losing her chance at an Upper East Side apartment transforms to joy after Abe insinuates it was for the best, since he had envisioned raising their kids in a more diverse neighborhood. This scene, again, directly contrasts Peggy’s attitude toward motherhood in “Meditations.” Back then, when Pete confesses his love for her, she responds: “I had your baby and I gave it away. I wanted other things.”

Don, whose initial reaction to the tragedy closely resembles his response to JFK’s assassination,[2] appears genuinely moved after a trip to the movie theater with little Bobby to see “Planet of the Apes” (twice). Don is touched by Bobby’s reaction to the to the film’s bleak conclusion, coupled with his unassuming exchange with an African American usher at the theater (“Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad,”).

Later that evening, hunched in his bedroom, Don tells Megan that he’d only ever felt a kind of guilt-induced love for his children, but “[t]hen 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.” Don’s paternal epiphany is tainted when Bobby later tells Don that’s he’s only scared his stepfather Henry Francis (aka Don’s replacement) will be killed just as MLK had been murdered. “Henry’s not that important,” Don responds.

The final scene of the episode is Don standing on his balcony, overlooking a city drenched in mourning. It suggests that Don is beginning to realize he, too, may not be all that important. Perhaps it takes a tragedy of this proportion to make a Don Draper realize that the “catastrophe of [his] personality” that he’s been quietly nurturing since Season 2 may in fact never “seem beautiful, or interesting, or modern”[3] again.


[1] In “Meditations in An Emergency” Don is living in The Roosevelt Hotel, “staring at the back of Sally and Bobby’s heads,” when he decides to write Betty a note telling her how much he loves her and at the end of the episode Don moves back home and Betty tells him she’s pregnant. In “The Grown Ups” the tragedy of the day was counter-balanced by the celebration or Roger’s daughter’s wedding.

[2] “I can’t sit here and watch the T.V. all day,” Don says to Betty. “Bars are closed,” Don says in response to Peggy asking why he’d come in to the office.

[3] Meditations in An Emergency by Frank O’Hara, as quoted by Don.

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Author: R. Byrnes

Ryan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Yi! News.

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