Monday, April 29, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 5, “The Flood”

This week’s episode deals with the impact of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and how tragedy supposedly brings people closer together. Ginsburg’s father spells out this idea most clearly when he chastises his son for not using King’s death as an opportunity to bond more closely with the date his father set him up with, citing the biblical flood as a precedent. It’s a theme that plays out in various ways over the course of the episode, although in many cases, Mad Men’s damaged characters can’t quite bridge the gap between themselves and others, and in some cases they find themselves driven further apart. Peggy, for instance, is on the verge of moving into a new apartment with Abe, but when news of the tragedy hits, Abe leaves Peggy and rushes off to Harlem to write an article for The New York Times on the civil unrest there. Later, consumed by the story, he reveals that he never wanted to live on the Upper East Side. Similarly, Betty has to watch Henry rush over to Harlem to lend his supporting in the quelling of the discontent there. Other examples abound: Pete reaches out to Trudy, but this tragedy isn’t enough to bridge the gulf between them. Joan gives Dawn an incredibly awkward, unwanted, and unreciprocated hug. Don has no means of reaching Sylvia, who is away in DC. Pete and Harry have a moment of commiseration before Pete realizes that Harry is really only upset about how King’s death has screwed up SCDP’s television commercial billings because of all of the preempted programming. Pete might be grating most of the time, but he’s always been one of the most politically progressive characters on the show, and that trait shines through in the scene where he unloads on Harry over his crassness (it feels slightly odd every time the show puts me in the position of rooting for Pete, but here it felt rather vindicating, especially in the context of Harry’s self-righteousness last week).

As usual, this theme applies most interestingly to Don, but not in the way we might expect, given the show’s focus on Megan. Rather than tragedy failing to bring them closer together, instead the tragedy of the assassination fails to bring him and his children closer together. It has long been clear that Don is not terribly interested in raising his children. Don has occasionally shown interest in Sally, but he has always treated her with a degree of stoicism, and poor Bobby has never been more than a passing afterthought. This changes in tonight’s episode, as Don winds up stuck with Bobby during the day and takes him to see Planet of the Apes. They like it so much they decide to see it twice, and during the break between screenings, Don observes Bobby as he shares a moment of sympathy with a black theater attendant, and somehow, this moves Don to feel a love for Bobby that he’s never felt before, and was only pretending to have previously.* Don conveys as much to Megan later, in a heartfelt scene that starts with her chewing him out for his absenteeism.

* Miniscule as it may be, Bobby’s connection with the theater attendant is one of the only examples of tragedy actually bringing anyone closer together in the episode.

For a moment, it appears as though Don has done what no other character could throughout the episode: he’s made a connection to someone as a result of this tragedy. However, this new-found closeness is short-lived. In the episode’s final scene, Bobby can’t sleep, and when Don tries to comfort him, he discovers that Bobby’s malaise is over Henry’s safety in the wake of the civil unrest Henry had to quell earlier in the episode. Don eases Bobby’s anxiety by telling him that Henry will be safe because he’s not important enough. Implicit, however, is that Henry is that important to Bobby; Henry has been more of a father to Bobby than Don ever has. This realization washes over Don with a sigh, and he goes outside to smoke a cigarette and wallow in his lonely self-pity. Ultimately, for Don, the tragedy of King’s assassination only provides him the opportunity to discover how far apart he really is from those he ostensibly cares about.

Bullet points for the rest of this episode:

- This is by far the funniest episode of the season, but I was left wondering if its humor was in good taste, since it’s the episode that deals with the impact of King's death on everyone’s lives. Then again, perhaps it’s remarkable that all of these characters reacted with such a heartfelt sense of loss in the first place, considering how peripheral race relations have been for the show and its characters.

- As for this episode’s comedy, insurance salesman Randal Walsh is probably the headliner, for he is as creepy as he is hilarious. He seems unstuck from time in his first encounter with Don, speaking as if their conversation has already taken place even as they are still in the process of having it. Later, his seemingly drug-induced, fear-mongering ad campaign idea is met by disgust and bemused incredulity when he pitches it to Don, Ginsburg, and Stan, the latter whom has priceless, silent reactions throughout the scene (my favorite is when he is on his way out of Don’s office and looks over his shoulder in confusion at Don and Roger, as if he’s not quite sure what just happened). Still, despite Randal’s gibberish, he leaves the scene with a word of advice for Don: “This is an opportunity. The heavens are telling us to change.” Don’s tried and failed at this in his romantic life, and in this episode, he learns it’s probably too late for him and his kids too. Note Sally’s resigned disappointment that Don isn’t going to the park with her and Megan.

- Don’s resignation after comforting Bobby is kind of sad, but also, not terribly sympathetic. Given the futility of Don’s attempts to change himself through his marriage to Megan, I can’t possibly see him putting his efforts into his kids instead. Don does not want to be constantly confronted with his failures as a father when he is already living with the consequences of failures as a husband. He’d rather hide away, just as Dick Whitman once did by assuming Don Draper’s identity.

- Some minor but fun developments for Ginsburg in this episode. His dad ambushes him with a cute Jewish schoolteacher, and their date shifts Ginsburg’s behavior into hyper-nebbish mode, verging on a caricature of Jewish neuroses. He behaves as if he were the unholy product of a genetic experiment combining the genetic material of Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman. Previously I’ve found this version of the character grating, but I was enthralled by his neurotic explosion during the date, especially his panic after blurting out, “I’ve never had sex, not even once.” Remorse for this statement is followed by his lament over ordering soup, and after his date sets him at ease, he goes right back to awkward questions: “Do you make a lot of money teaching?” Add to this his beginning the scene by asking if she likes kids (and realizing too late what a leading question it seems), and it seems as though he simply can’t stick enough feet in his mouth. Nevertheless, the date takes it in stride. More of these two, please.

- For Betty, Bobby’s peeling the wallpaper in his bedroom is the equivalent of “destroying this house.” Such tragedy Betty has to deal with! Perhaps I shouldn’t tease so much; the episode did manage to make me feel a modicum of sympathy for her. As soon as Henry tells her he’s running for office and that he’s excited to show her to the world, her expression falls, and it is immediately obvious that she doesn’t want to be seen by anybody because of all of the weight she’s gained. It’s a very typical response for her mind to immediately turn Henry’s news about himself into something about her, but her vulnerability here was rather sympathetic. It is a well-played scene by January Jones.

-Ted is almost certainly interested in Peggy – he sits down in Abe’s seat at the table during the awards banquet because he wants to talk Peggy’s ear off, and makes goo-goo eyes at her as the lights dim. Troubled waters for Peggy here (unless, of course, she reciprocates, although this seems unlikely, given how thrilled she seemed to be with the idea of her and Abe raising kids).

- A part of this episode’s comedy: the tiny Paul Newman double giving a speech. The characters make a series of jokes about how far away they are from him, as if to compensate for the inability of the show to cast the young and handsome Paul Newman of the 1960s. Mad Men is normally so good with period detail, I practically expected Newman to appear.

- After last week’s tease, in which the opening credits listed Allison Brie as a guest start but Trudy failed to appear in the episode, this week, the show follows through on the promise of the title sequence.

- In a nice inversion of Joan’s awkward hug with Dawn, Peggy shares a heartfelt hug with her black secretary (who then promptly leaves for the day – once again tragedy drives apart our characters).

- Nice: little Bobby has his mind blown by Planet of the Apes. Also nice: between screenings, Don is reading from a fake promotional newspaper for Planet of the Apes, entitled The Ape. Where’s my latest copy of that bulwark of journalism, The Human?

- After Don explains himself to Megan and makes a connection with her, Pete tries and fails to do this something similar with his (Chinese?) food delivery man. Pete is ever the poor man’s misguided Don Draper.

- Finally, for your enjoyment, the awkward hug:

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