Mad Men Season 6 Recap: The Flood
Welcome back for another Mad Men recap! As you know, ours are not straightforward recaps, but please read on for our takes on shame, morality, and money in this gripping, politically heavy episode.
Shame, Shame, Shame
In a scene that had me (almost) liking Pete Campbell, he shouts at Harry Crane that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was "shameful." "This is a shameful day!" he barks, and though he isn't able to make Harry care about the death of a great man, he does remind us that shame is something most characters on Mad Men are feeling a good deal of the time. (He also reminds us that even complete assholes like Pete can have redeeming qualities—he's always been one of the most progressive characters on the show when it comes to race.)
In addition to the general shame the show's privileged white people felt hearing the news of the assassination and learning of the riots that followed it—not only that it was "a shame" that King was shot but also the shame that comes with caring a little more about your apartment or your mistress or your career than you do about the civil rights movement and the lives of colored people—shame was a theme this week in other ways. Pete, for one, is a walking shamefest. Yes, his feelings about Dr. King seem genuine, but they also prompt him to reflect on his family situation. He has blowharded himself out of Connecticut and into an empty bachelor pad. Not even the takeout delivery person will talk to him, let alone his wife and daughter (assuming she still exists—I don't think we've seen Tammy Campbell since the beginning of last season). He's ashamed of his behavior, and reflecting on the death of someone who was successful in his work AND at home brings Pete's life into focus: Instead of the swingin' singles apartment he wanted, he's sad and lonely in a tacky shame palace.
For different reasons, Ginsberg is also feeling shame. He hates that the foxy Beverly saw the apartment he shares with his father, and he's so nervous about their date that he blurts out he's a soup-ordering virgin. Beverly, to her credit, seemed not to mind, and if Papa Ginsberg keeps up the pep talks I bet Ginsberg will see where she lives eventually. Still, like Peggy and Dawn, Ginsberg comes from a different world than that of SCDP, and like Pete, seeing his situation through someone else's eyes has him cringing with embarrassment. (He also embarrasses his dad with his poor sewing skills, but that jacket looked pretty good to me.)
Despite her new Mrs. Francis 'do and her enthusiasm over Henry's political aspirations, Betty, too, is ashamed. Not because she is a pampered wife in a mansion listening to the riots on the radio while her husband takes action—six seasons is not long enough for her to develop that level of self-reflection—but because she doesn't want to be seen in public now that she's gained weight. This is not to diminish Betty's reaction; she has been valued for her looks her whole life, first as a model and then as Mrs. Don Draper, and it makes perfect sense for her character that a dress in the closet would elicit more emotion from her than an assassination or race riots. I know Betty isn't exactly a crowd favorite, but I'd like to see her out and about and away from that depressing house this season, and Henry's career might be exactly what she needs. Maybe she'll be inspired to go into politics herself? Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis 1972!
No shame spiral is complete without its center, and of course this one is swirling around Don Draper. First he's down about his mistress and her trip to Washington DC, and to make matters worse, he forgot to pick up his own kids! But no, it's more than that. Actually, Don has just been pretending to love his children this whole time. Until! Bobby shows a little emotion at a movie and all of a sudden Don's heart cracks wide open and decides he wants to be a dad. That is, until he has a conversation with Bobby about the riots and realizes Bobby sees Henry Francis as a father figure, not Don. (No surprise there, since Henry is unbelievably kind and seems to genuinely care for those children in a way that the drunk, monologuing Don never could.) The episode ends with Don on his balcony furrowing his brow over not the city that's burning outside, but the charred ruins of his own life. Mad Men wouldn't have it any other way.
• Mad Men excels at dark humor, especially when disaster strikes. This episode, while bleak, had plenty of laughs, especially the meeting with Randall, the strung-out insurance rep, and any scene involving a Ginsberg. (Seriously, someone get us an animated gif of Mr. Ginsberg pulling that blanket back over his head.)
• "Her laxative radio spot is a sentimental favorite."
Don't be ashamed, really! I like soup too!
At the end of "The Flood," the elder Ginsberg retold the story of Noah's Ark and emphasized to his singled-out son the importance of partnerships in a time of crisis. In an episode focused on one of the major moments of crisis in the 1960s, we're granted further insight into both Peggy and Megan's feelings on their own partnerships and their identities within them. Each of them appeared to take for granted signs of their independent economic success, a privilege that, as this episode would like to remind us, was not available to many others.
Before news broke that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot, most of our heroes were making awkward conversations and squinting at Paul Newman at an awards ceremony. As Peggy pointed out, herself and Megan were SCDP's sole nominees, a humorous observation due to the fact that neither of them work there anymore (BURN, DON). However, as we later see cast aside on the Draper couch, it's Megan that walks away the victor for her work on the Heinz beans campaign. This acknowledgement, and the conversation earlier between her and Peggy, reminds the viewer of Megan's conflicted relationship to advertising: She's good at it, the universe continues to remind her, but she's not interested in it. Megan seems much more comfortable and committed to playing the part of Don's wife rather than a nominated copywriter. While Don would certainly show his pride in the accomplishments of his wife if she were still working for SCDP, one is left wondering if her nomination is the salt in the wound she left when she walked away from sharing his career. Regardless, her nonchalant attitude towards successes not available to many women or people of color betrays a certain level of privilege. Megan doesn't have to be excited about this award because it doesn't really open up any opportunities that aren't already available to her.
Peggy, on the other hand, was checking out a new apartment pre-MLK assassination—a shockingly large one, compared to all of Peggy's previous dwellings (she's come a long way from living with Ma, that's for sure!). While she initially appears to be on her own, once Abe walks in it's clear that the realtor assumed that Peggy was a wife who had simply arrived to the appointment before her husband, and that despite Peggy's feelings about the apartment, Abe would be the one making the final decision. Obviously, all of us, most of all Abe, know that this isn't the case, and Peggy certainly seemed proud of the prospect of being able to buy her own place. However, for a woman who has jumped through as many burning career hoops as she has (let's not forget, this spacious apartment wouldn't be possible if she had kept her Campbell lovechild), Peggy didn't seem particularly put off by the realtor's assumption. While Peggy's feminist leanings are questionable, one would still expect her to be more offended by being judged as dependent on a husband (especially one as goofy looking as Abe). Pegs has always seemed like the type who cares about acknowledgement and dues—how else would you explain her leaving SCDP in the first place?—so her willingness to be underestimated economically demonstrates how unconcerned she is with her standing in the world.
In an episode centered on white characters attempting to understand their response to the death of MLK, Megan and Peggy's privilege shown clearly. Both demonstrate an indifference towards their financial successes independent of their partners. In Megan's case, she appears to almost view it as direct opposition to her marriage to Don. From workers at the diner to the movie theater, "The Flood" contrasted the taken-for-granted opportunities available to these two Mad Women against the economic limitations experienced by many African Americans. Apart from secretaries Dawn and Phyllis and various service-industry workers and, "The Flood" largely shields the viewers from seeing a large-scale reactionby the black community to MLK's death. While this could be read as Weiner & Co. glossing over race, it also seems fitting to have such a glaring omission, given that the characters of Mad Men frequently only relate to black characters as people who work below or for them.
• If Joan's awkward hug wasn't the most hilarious example of someone's discomfort with their white privilege, I don't know what is!
• While it's nice that Bobby 12.0 (seriously, what number are we on?) is granted some screen time, I would much rather see the shenanigans Sally could be getting into, as I'm sure they extend way beyond peeling misaligned wallpaper. With her snippy comments to all parental figures, she's sure shaping up to be a fine example of disaffected youth.
Applauding the Escalation of Decay
As it did in Season 3 when JFK's murder was a backdrop, this episode of Mad Men uses a single, shattering true-life event to throw its characters' sense of morality into relief. It seems fitting that our gang hears the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination at the start of a ritzy Advertising Club of New York awards gala, a heckler shouting the news in the middle of Paul Newman's speech and rattling the suits out of their cloud of self-regard. From there, the episode offered viewers a chance to see how the event affected the characters' moral compasses.
Take the face-off between Pete, SCDP's most surprisingly liberal thinker on the subject of race—remember his campaign to get the company's clients to consider advertising to African-Americans?—and Harry. For Pete, civil rights is already a issue of morality, and one that resonates with him in particular: Who else knows better than Pete Campbell, Imaginary Underdog, what it's like to want a place at the table? But more specifically, Dr. King's assassination prompts Pete to realize his own moral failings. When he asserts to Harry that MLK was a man with a wife and children, he's comparing himself and coming up so short that he's almost gasping with regret. Harry, meanwhile, seemingly lacks the ability to internalize anything, for better or worse, and derives his own sense of rightness (as we saw last week) from keeping the trains running on time at the office. For Harry, serving the clients is moral. And, of course, Pete's not really mad at him, but at himself.
Then there's Peggy, whose moral compass is set askew first by the ANDY awards continuing despite the terrible news (according to Ad Age, the episode is incredibly faithful to actual history, down to Newman's speech being interrupted and the rush to the bank of pay phones), by the fact that people are just showing up to work the next day like nothing's wrong, and finally, by her opportunistic realtor suggesting that the assassination means Peg can put in an under-asking-price offer on an apartment that's a mere 20 blocks from Harlem. It's Abe who's able to reset things for her, though—his easiness about where they might settle down prompts Peggy to realize that the dream of an Upper East Side pad might have more to do with the image of a boilerplate "successful ad lady" than it does with the more temperamentally modest, moral reality of who she actually is. (And, slight digression, is anyone else really feeling Abe's look right now? Just me? Okay.)
And finally, there's everyone at the fully surreal meeting with potential new client Randall Walsh, an insurance-guy pal of Roger's who may or may not be a.) racist and b.) tripping on LSD, but who is definitely pitching the wrong crowd with his idea for a campaign invoking Molotov cocktails and the specter of rioting black folks. "The heavens are telling us to change," he says earnestly, but the skeptical faces looking back at him at least know that those heavens are not suggesting racialized fearmongering.
It was fascinating to contrast, too, the difference between Peggy's interaction with Phyllis—which seemed genuine and charged with feeling—and Don and Joan's with Dawn. The two black women had both come to work seemingly to preserve a sense of order and routine in the midst of chaos; Peggy, while she felt work should be suspended as an act of respect, intrinsically understood this. Don and Joan, meanwhile, kept pushing Dawn to go home after she had made it all the way to the office, not getting at all that she feels safer there until she tells them. (And then came, as Annalee already pointed out, the world's most awkward hug.)
It'll be interesting to see whether the cultural reverberations of MLK's death are felt in future episodes—or whether other upcoming news and important deaths will take precedence.
• The introduction of Peggy's top boss, Cutler—"He's like Roger with bad breath"—has to portend something or other, as you don't just drop Harry Hamlin in a tuxedo into your show and not do something dramatic with him. (See also: Shameless.) And holy simmering plot point, did you catch that look Ted shot Peggy during the awards?
• In meta ad news: Who else noticed Jon Hamm doing the voiceover in the American Airlines ad that played during one of the commercial breaks?
Cultural references: Eugene McCarthy, MLK, Planet of the Apes, Paul Newman
Inappropriate office behavior: It wasn't necessarily inappropriate, and not to keep harping on it, but…Joan, you're just not a hugger. It's okay. Own it.
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