As many predicted, "Mad Men" looked at the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. For better or worse, it limited its two black characters, Dawn and Phyllis, to a brief appearance to illustrate the disconnect they have with their privileged white employers. Don couldn't bring himself to do anything, Joan gives Dawn a well-intentioned but awkward hug, and Peggy, who is at least 10 years younger than Don or Joan, gives a much more sympathetic embrace. One could argue that backing away from more difficult subject matter was a cowardly act, but at the same time, it's hard not to admire the realism with which it portrays the effect on the white workers of SCDP.
"I would characterize 'Mad Men''s oblique way of handling the MLK assassination as pretty brave, mostly because it's probably closer to the truth about how white people reacted."
"It doesn't hit anyone nearly as hard as one might have expected, except maybe Peggy's secretary, but we get to learn a lot about a lot of different people."
"This time around, everyone was upset – but for the wrong reasons. They used King's death as an excuse to unleash their fury, to avoid their responsibilities, to seize a career opportunity, to save a bit of money."
That is to say, this was nothing like the Season 3 episode "The Grown Ups," which depicted the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One of the show's best moments was when Pete, complaining about being passed over for a promotion, suddenly realized his concerns did not really mean much. The assassination of JFK will always be a definitive moment in U.S. history: The widespread use of TV turned presidents into pop culture celebrities in a way they could never have been before, and that JFK and his family were attractive and charismatic people, representing America at a rare moment of optimism following the Cuban Missile Crisis' end only compounded it. The privileged white workers of Madison Avenue would never be able to comprehend -- or at least feel -- the significance of the MLK assassination, and "Mad Men" knew that. So what happened instead was we observed reactions in the wake of tragedy and learned a lot about the characters in the process. In particular, critics were divided on Pete's handling of the situation.
"You know it's a world gone terribly awry when Pete Campbell seems like a good guy. Actually, that statement is a bit too facetious. Pete is indeed a world-class jackass much of the time, but he's always been remarkably forward-thinking and egalitarian when it comes to matters of race."
"Those who love to hate Pete will say his reaction was annoyingly disingenuous. To me, his rage underscores what makes him one of the show's most riveting characters (and it reminds us, at a particularly moralistic moment in “Mad Men's” trajectory, that the show's moralism is never all that easily delineated)."
Also receiving lots of critical attention was Peggy, who may be on her way to happiness, or possibly only to contentment.
Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly:
"Peggy, meanwhile, continues to show how she's different from her mentor. With Abe, she's building the life that she wants, not the one she's expected to have...Peggy radiates relief and joy. Where Don's marriage was a makeshift thing thrown together over a vacation to Disneyland, Peggy's will be one constructed slowly, brick-by-brick."
"The episode's opening scene of Peggy in the apartment was the show's clearest nod yet to her becoming Don, kicking off with the camera lingering on the back of her head, the signature angle from which we often observe her former mentor."
But it wouldn't be "Mad Men" with Don drama, and critics were overwhelming in their praise for the scene he shared with his neglected son. The two went to see "Planet of the Apes" together, but it was Bobby's empathetic words to a black usher that almost caused Don's heart to explode...the storyline that found Don taking his son to see "Planet of the Apes" and led to a rare and telling instance of vulnerability and openness from our typically aloof hero...Don, for all his doubts, turns out to be a real boy after all, and for someone who works in advertising, a world of artifice and calculated appeal, his understanding that the way you're supposed to feel and the way you actually do is a gradient along which you can shift comes surprisingly late in life."
"Don is finally getting a clue that his actions have consequences not just for others, but for himself. At this point, sympathy for the charming devil is pretty much out of the question, but it's still possible to pity him."
That said, not all critics were pleased with the episode. While admitting the difficulty of having to write such an episode, the approach, while realistic, may have been a bit too simplistic:
Heather Havrilesky, Salon:
"The show's oversimplified battle lines -- between blacks and whites, between unfeeling older characters and passionate younger characters sometimes dull the impact of big events instead of amplifying them."
All in all, "The Flood" was considered an insightful take on difficult subject matter.