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Examining the Personal Failures of "Mad Men's" Characters In Light of the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Sarah Carlson | TV | April 30, 2013 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | April 30, 2013 |

What a viewer has to remember about “Mad Men” is that the series is not an examination of the 1960s and the decade’s major events. Rather, it is an examination of a particular set of characters who live during the ’60s. Real-life events are presented only in relation to these characters — how the events influenced their lives, not necessarily how the events affected the country and world as a whole. We see the larger societal shifts reflected throughout, it’s true. But it isn’t a history lesson. This isn’t an apology for the series, but it is important to remember the distinction when viewing and thinking about the fifth episode of Season Six, “The Flood,” which touched on the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. The episode wasn’t about his death; it was about the characters and the goings on of their lives at the time of his death, as well as their reaction to the tragedy.

“The Flood” comes at an interesting time in the life of the series, in which fans appear to be asking themselves the sort of questions usually reserved for a show’s first season, or first several episodes really. Some considered the reappearance of a Dawn storyline (she was introduced last season and has popped up now and then) to be mere pandering by creator Matthew Weiner and his crew to address one of the bigger issues of the period, civil rights, but just enough so to seem fair. The inclusion of several black extras this episode — busboys and cooks at a diner; the usher at the movie theater — were ways to incorporate much-needed diversity into the “Mad Men” world, even if it was fleeting. The all-white main cast is accurate, however, considering the specific world Weiner chose to focus on: middle- to upper-class whites working on Madison Avenue beginning in 1960. Their world was predominantly white, so it is depicted realistically. That’s not the problem. The issue gnawing at many is whether this specific worldview should have been the focus of the show, or any show, in the first place. By limiting himself to so narrow a portrait of New York life, Weiner couldn’t help but back himself into a corner. Non-white characters feel more like concessions than natural developments, and while the series does touch on areas most anyone can relate to — identity, family, anxiety, love, you name it — and the main characters’ opinions on MLK and his death aren’t somehow invalid because they are white, diverse life experiences aren’t present when they are needed most. When reality shows up, the fiction seems much less significant. We get awkward hugs and apologies, such as the one Joan gave Dawn, because that’s all there is.

That being said, fairly self-centered reactions to a national tragedy are normal — humans are selfish, and we have to keep going about our lives in the midst of uncertainty and upheaval. The assassination certainly made several characters think differently about their recent behavior. Before the assassination took place and news of it spread (it really was brought up at the ANDY awards, which Paul Newman did speak at), we saw several female characters continue to rise in their careers and personal lives, such as Peggy now having enough money to buy her own apartment. Abe is merely an “interested party,” considering he can’t contribute financially, but he does tell Peggy later he envisions them one day having kids. Peggy is clearly happy with this reveal, even if she isn’t yet ready for a family. (And maybe has feelings for her boss, Ted?) Megan is right to congratulate her — she does deserve it.

The two meet up at the ANDY advertising awards honoring advertising, and both have a laugh at the fact theirs are the only works from Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce up for an award, and they don’t work at the firm anymore. Megan’s nomination is for her work on Heinz baked beans — an account no longer with the firm, either, thanks to the recent ketchup debacle. “When I started out, they didn’t make copywriters like you,” a slightly creepy Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin), of CDC, tells Megan. He means her looks, but he’s right on many levels: the likes of Megan and Peggy aren’t typical for the game, and the game is changing. Even the school teacher, Beverly (Nicole Hayden), Ginsberg’s father sets him up with has an advantage — she at least knows about it, and she handles Ginsberg’s Woody Allen-level spiel at a diner about being nervous, not to mention a virgin, with ease. “Michael,” she says, “I’m just doing a favor for my parents. Tonight will not be ‘the night.’ “

Pete processes the assassination in relation to his own personal failures, mainly that of a husband and father. He calls Trudy, still in the suburbs as he is relegated to his city bachelor pad, and offers to come over to provide comfort for her and Tammy. She isn’t interested. Pete’s outburst at Harry’s crassness regarding the event - - the latter being upset the news is cutting into primetime programming and hurting pocketbooks - - makes more sense by the line he leaves his co-worker with: that King had a wife and children, and they are now without a husband and father. Don, when he wasn’t worrying about Sylvia and Arnold being in Washington, D.C., also spent much of the episode examining his own role as a father, especially with Bobby. We haven’t really gotten to know Bobby before now. Don doesn’t know him, either, and their outing to see Planet of the Apes only reminded Don of his failures.

His past doesn’t let him off the hook, but it is true Don’s troubled childhood has contributed to his bad parenting. His confession to Megan about not initially feeling love for his children is the most honest we have seen him in a while: “I wanted to be the man who loves children,” he tells her. “… 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. And 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.” Comforting Bobby later, he learns his son is concerned for the welfare of Henry because of his job with the mayor and potential danger it brings thanks to rioting in the city. Henry is the father he really knows, and Megan calls him on it. Don is better with his kids, better when he isn’t hiding from them. She knows about difficult dads; her own called after the assassination to cheer on the destruction of the U.S. But he’s using his intellect as a crutch, and Don is using alcohol.

Bobby’s fears may not be abated now that Henry is considering a run for the New York State Senate, a move Betty cheers even as she worries about being thrust into the public eye. Her body issues narrative may gear up again. She doesn’t exactly win parent of the year, either; Bobby and Sally only went to the city because Betty demanded it, despite the danger from rioting. Megan, at least, is a comforting presence. Too bad Peggy won’t soon be her neighbor after all. She didn’t get the apartment thanks to a weird development with her real estate agent. Did the agent, who was surprised to learn Abe wasn’t making the decisions in their apartment hunting, sabotage the deal? Not everyone is eager for such societal shifts, and thankfully not everyone is as far out as Roger’s friend, Randall (William Mapother), who thinks a property insurance ad featuring a Molotov cocktail and a coupon is a great idea. “This is an opportunity,” he says. “The heavens are telling us to change.”

Indeed, the assassination is representative of the changing culture but also the cyclical nature of humans — so often, we tear our lives and worlds apart without reason. “Man knew how to talk,” Roger said of the late King. “I don’t know why, but I thought that would save him. I thought it would solve the whole thing.” The Apes finale fascinated Bobby — wait, this new world we’re seeing is actually America, only destroyed? Why did they do that to themselves? Perhaps the title “The Flood” is a biblical reference, reminding viewers of the great flood from The Book of Genesis. God destroyed the world he created because of man’s evilness. A clean slate was needed because humans, essentially, had screwed things up too much to continue at their present pace. God promised He’d never flood the Earth again, but has man actually changed? We murder to dissect. We blow things up, and we hurt each other. Charlton Heston’s George Taylor is right — we’re maniacs.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.