Mad Men has always been uncomfortable about race - rather intentionally, one could presume, given that the show is all about keeping up appearances while everything falls apart.
The “white picket fence” imagery was hugely important for the show’s first few seasons, but now, as Mad Men’s characters have moved into the city (and into ugly apartments with weird recessed living rooms) so too have the stuffy edifices of the suburbs disappeared.
So while "The Flood," which takes place on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, echoes the season 3 episode "The Grown-Ups," which centered on the Kennedy Assassination, the subtext is entirely different.
Both Kennedy and King represented hope; both were profoundly eminent and meaningful figures from the 60’s.
But King’s assassination signifies the coming-to-a-head of all the brushed-aside racial conditions of the 1960s. While in the context of Mad Men, Kennedy’s death was a confirmation that, no, everything was not okay just because it looked pretty, this episode was about the fear of confronting one’s demons.
America confronts its demons as New York and DC erupt in riots over the death of an African American hero.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce confronts its demons as gluttonous upper-middle class business-as-usual is thrust into the terrifying social context of “much bigger picture-dom.”
When Pete accuses Harry of racism for concerning himself with adjusted TV schedules in the wake of this tragedy, the response in the air is “but…this is what we do.”
The border of social responsibility and the flashy business of Madison Avenue is further breached when a very bizarre insurance man comes to SCDP pitching an ad that evokes Dr. King’s death.
Of course they’re not going to produce that ad. That would be blatant.
But on a different day? When the expectation to be sad and outraged isn't as high? It could be conceivable.
Pete confronts the demons of his loneliness, embarrassment, and anger, when he tries to chat up the Chinese delivery guy, bringing food to his sad, sad closet of a Manhattan apartment, only to learn the guy can’t speak a word of English.
The way Pete slaps down his bag of food in defeat is so satisfying. This is what happens when you try to be Don, Pete. This is what Don feels like.
Ginsberg's father tries to break him out of his shell, for fear that he won't have anyone to share his life with. After all, when the biblical flood came, two of every animal got on the ark. He asks his son, "You gonna get on the ark with your father?"
Then, Don confronts his own personal demons with the monumental confession to Megan that he doesn’t love his kids. At least, not until they impress him.
All the main characters are trying to tackle the tragedy, and are genuinely affected by it. But they are all very much outsiders.
They’ve rarely confronted race before, so it feels foreign that they should all be so emotional.
When the white characters have to deal with their expectations about African American characters in the wake of Dr. King’s death, it gets uncomfortable.
Don and Joan simply assume that Don’s black secretary Dawn wouldn’t be coming in. So when she shows up, she’s greeted by looks of shock and a painfully awkward hug from Joan.
“You should go home,” says Don, fully expecting her to be grateful for his understanding. But her response is “I’d rather be here.”
Then, at the movies, Don expects Bobby’s exchange with a black usher to go poorly. But he ends up, well, being impressed by his son (and thus feeling love for him), when he remarks that “everyone goes to the movies when they feel sad.”
‘The Flood’ is ultimately about confronting what was previously unspoken. It’s about the floodgates opening, and everyone bracing themselves for what's about to come.
The season is progressing nicely, and it's always hard to tell what the first few Episodes in a Mad Men season are leading to. But it's looking like veneers are going to be shed.
That will likely include the truth coming out about Don's affair with the neighbor.
We all know Don’s got plenty of conversations that need to be had. So does the SCDP office. So does 1960s America. Everything’s been unraveling for 5 1/2 seasons. Now it’s time to air it all out.
EPISODE RATING: 4/5
For another perspective on this week's episode, see TV Fanatic's Mad Men review!