Back to IndieWire

‘Mad Men’ Uses the MLK Assassination to Look at How Its Characters React in the Face of a National Tragedy

'Mad Men' Uses the MLK Assassination to Look at How Its Characters React in the Face of a National Tragedy

The article below contains spoilers for “The Flood,” the April 28th, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”

“Mad Men” chooses its intersections with history carefully. It’s a show that is set in the 1960s without aims to be explicitly about them, and so major events and cultural shifts tend to occur for the characters as they do for most people, on the periphery, noticed and talked about but not the central focus of lives more concerned with closer dramas. When a real incident does influence the series, it’s just as often not one of the era’s landmarks but a less familiar occurrence — the American Airlines Flight 1 crash, the Richard Speck murders, a solar eclipse. “The Flood,” directed by the show’s cinematographer Christopher Manley and written by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner, is an anomaly in that it was an episode not only centered around a defining historical moment — the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. — but was one primarily concerned with how the characters dealt with what happened in the aftermath.

It was another scattered installment of the show, though in ways that felt intentional, as it jumped from character to character in a structure that mirrored the sickening hurry-up-and-wait sensation that follows a national tragedy, as everyone wrestled with how best to respond to grief and fear about the riots that followed. Its best moments were the ones about how life continues on, sometimes awkwardly, in the face of something terrible, ones that placed Don (Jon Hamm) in the company of his much-ignored middle child Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton) in a 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.

“From the moment they’re born,” he told Megan (Jessica Paré) after she admonished him for being drunk and having gone to the movies, “you don’t feel anything, especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don’t and the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. Then 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, 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.

For Don, that feeling of emptiness, of not being the same inside as other people, has been a burden but also a means of self-defense, a way of remaining forever detached. In that moment of recognition in his child’s reaching out to the African American usher to suggest that “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad,” Don experienced the twinge of paternal love and, perhaps more importantly, actually admitted it to himself. Maybe someday he’ll even manage a similar kind of recognition for his current romantic relationship, rather than half-heartedly fret over the fate of his mistress, stranded in a turbulent D.C. with her husband on a weekend trip, how little a hold the two have on each other coming through in his bewilderment over what kind of message to leave.

The idea that there are right and wrong ways to behave in the face of a tragedy divided up the characters. Don took Bobby to the cinema, only to realize later the kind of solace those damned dirty apes were providing, while Megan took Sally (Kiernan Shipka) to a vigil in the park the two felt was more appropriate. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Harry (Rich Sommer) had that terrific argument in the middle of the office over Harry’s complaints about the networks preempting the primetime programming and with it the ad time purchased by Sterling Cooper Draper’s clients.

Harry was being cold-blooded, absolutely, but also had to deal with this issue of whether it was in good taste or not, while Pete was filtering through some of the distress he feels in his exile from home, alone in his Manhattan apartment and told to stay there by Trudy (Alison Brie) after the other week’s battle over his infidelities. Meanwhile, that odd appearance from the property insurance exec played by William Mapother, best known as “Lost” baddie Ethan Rom, suggested the ways in which social anxiety and business as usual can uneasily intersect — thanks, perhaps, to whatever the man was on that led him to suggest a molotov cocktail-based advertising campaign.

Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) cut short his date due to the news, despite his father’s insistence that it’s in times like these that one should pair up, while Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was talked into making an unsuccessful bid on an Upper East Side apartment by her broker, who tried to leverage the unrest into a lower offer. She might not be a property owner, but she finally had something resembling a conversation with Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) about their future together, thanks to his offhand mention that he never imagined them raising their kids in a neighborhood so short on diversity. 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.

For all that the characters of “Mad Men” were affected by King’s murder, either emotionally or in terms of business or, for Henry (Christopher Stanley), career, this episode also provided a reminder for how far removed most of them are from the struggle King lead and from the giant changes being fought for. Their lives are varying degrees of privileged and white — Don drove through those other neighborhoods on his way to pick up his kids, and stood above a New York teeming with sirens at the end, aloft in his penthouse apartment. He, Megan, Peggy and Roger (John Slattery) learned about the assassination while at a silly advertising award ceremony, the coordinators of which elected to keep the news a secret so as to not interrupt the proceedings. They mean well (Harry, perhaps, less than others) and they can offer condolences, but everything seemed best summed up by those two awkward hugs — Peggy’s warmer one with her secretary and Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) more stilted one with Dawn (Teyonah Parris), who arrives frazzled but determined to work, her story left off screen.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox