Last night's episode of Mad Men, "The Flood," brought our characters to a pivotal date in history: April 4, 1968, the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. As with last season's episode dealing with the Richard Speck murders in Chicago and the third season's episode on the JFK assassination, the horrifying news was the catalyst for more individual plot lines, spotlighting the concerns and emotions of each character in the moment. They are all at least briefly broken by the violent death of the civil rights leader who preached nonviolence. And as with most people when bad things happen, their worries tend to be particularized to each of their own conditions.
When we begin, Peggy is looking at an apartment she hopes to buy for all of $28,000 — oh, to have a real estate time machine. It's 1,290 square feet (1,300 with balcony) and though it's "a little further East than she wanted" on York Avenue, she seems excited about it, and certainly is so about her potential to buy. "When they finish the Second Avenue subway this apartment will quadruple in value," her real estate agent tells her. Har har. There's some surprise when Abe shows up and the agent begins her pitch to him only to hear him say "it's not his decision." Peggy's the one with the money and, as she tells Megan later in the episode, the one with the "tax problem" — which sounds to me like she's simply trying not to brag for being the success that she and everyone else realizes she is.
At the Francis home Bobby is upstairs in his room, peeling at an imperfection in the wallpaper on his wall. Betty calls him down to dinner and he moves his bed to cover the patch. Later, she'll catch him and demand to know why he's "destroying this house." This is no subtle subtext. For Betty, images are of utmost importance. She lacks the emotional intelligence to talk about why, and Bobby will keep secretly peeling at his wall.
Megan and Don are all dressed up and on the way to The Advertising Club of New York's awards dinner. In the lobby they run into the Rosens, who are headed to D.C., where the doctor has been invited ("last-minute," Sylvia specifies) to give a keynote address. In seeing his mistress, Don can't seem to remember where the Rosens are going, and asks the question again. As he and Megan — who is up for an award and who Sylvia compliments (questionably) for being "good at everything" — exit, Dr. Rosen calls Don back. The doctor turns, there's a suspenseful pause while we wonder if he knows about the affair his wife is having with Don and if he's going to say anything about it, but out of his mouth comes an excuse for a joke: “We’re going to D.C.” Everyone's relieved, temporarily, as impending disaster is suspended yet again.
Ginsberg arrives home and finds his dad with a young, pretty woman, Beverly Farber. It's a setup, a date; she's the daughter of his dad's chess buddy. "I was led to believe you knew about this,” she says. At the diner where they eat, Ginsberg manages to be about as awkward as can be, asking her if she likes kids (then explaining he asked because she's a teacher), telling her she's a sexy girl who smells good, and admitting he's never had sex. She has all the poise he doesn't, telling him, “Michael, I’m just doing a favor for my parents. Tonight will not be the night” — but also, he's handsome, she says, and he beams. These two have the makings of a cute couple.
At the ad event, Megan leaves Don at their table so she can say hi to Peggy, and their reunion is sincere and happy. Harry Hamlin, there playing the account guy at Peggy's firm, ogles Megan. "When I started out they didn’t make copywriters like you,” he says. Peggy quips that he's just like Roger but with bad breath. Megan and Peggy are the only two from Sterling Cooper Draper Price up for an award, and neither of them work there, a twist they're both aware of. "My work is for beans, they’re not even a client,” says Megan, and when Peggy tells her about her possible new apartment, Megan says she deserves it, then heads back to Don. At Peggy's table, her boss Ted, there with his wife, takes her boyfriend Abe's seat, and there's some strangeness there between the couples. A weird power dynamic or Ted's angling for an affair with Peggy? Paul Newman begins to address the club, and someone shouts that Martin Luther King, Jr., has been killed. The reaction around the room is immediate shock and horror, with tears.
At the diner where Beverly and Ginsberg eat, the same is so; a plate is dropped and workers collapse into chairs. Betty won't let the kids watch the TV, and Henry, working with Mayor Lindsay, says rioters "are going to burn down the city." Abe leaves the ad event to go uptown to cover the story for The New York Times. "Don't do anything stupid," says Peggy. "Too late, I'm going to Harlem in a tuxedo," he says. The ad show goes on, and Megan leans on Don as sirens blare in the background. In the wake of the news, Pete gets Trudy on the phone and tries to worm his way back into her life, but she won't have it. Ginsberg leaves his date early and tells of the assassination to his dad, who covers his head in a blanket. At the Drapers, a devastated-looking Don watches TV as scenes of riots in D.C., where his mistress is, play. Megan is fighting on the phone with her father, who says he "applauds the escalation of decay." Her award — she won — sits on the couch, forgotten.
The next day in the office Don tries to contact the Rosens by phone, to no avail. Peggy hugs Phyllis, her secretary, who is black, and tells her to go home. There is a sense in these awkward sympathies that no one knows what to do; what's the right way for Peggy, or anyone, to feel this news, much less to express it? Some efforts are more ham-fisted than others. Later, Peggy gets a call from her real estate agent, who suggests they take advantage of the rioting to go lower in price, and when Peggy doesn't answer, takes that for a yes. "Good girl," she says, and hangs up.
At Sterling Cooper Draper Price, Pete and Harry are looking for their missing secretaries, and Harry, focused on the loss of revenue from the news specials preempting prime time, suddenly trumps Pete in assholery. Pete calls him a racist; Harry insults Pete's work ethic; Bert interrupts and tells them to shake hands, but the insults continue. Suddenly, Pete cares deeply about being right in a world in which he is too often wrong. "That man had a wife and four children," he tells Harry.
Dawn arrives late to SCDP, and Don says she doesn't have to stay, but she wants to, to hold on some semblance of normalcy. Joan gives her perhaps the most awkward hug of the entire series, and tells her, "We're all so sorry." Work goes on, though it's a bizarre kind of work, with Randall, the man Roger had introduced Don to at the awards event, telling the team the spirit of Dr. King had visited him and informed him to do an ad featuring a molotov cocktail and ... a coupon. Don is not impressed. "The heavens are telling us to change," Randy says, leaving. "He talked me off a roof once," Roger tells Don later.
Henry, home from working with the mayor, tells Betty about the riots. She's supportive, getting him dinner, playing the wifely role, but when Don fails to pick up the kids, her sweetness disappears. "I knew you would forget,” she tells him on the phone, “I guarantee you’d go to Canada on your knees to pick up your girlfriend." Of course, she's both right and wrong. His new girlfriend is in D.C., and his current wife is just as upset as Betty. Don picks up the kids, heading through the city to the sounds of sirens. Elsewhere in the city, Ginsberg's dad is berating him about finding a woman: "You need a girl, maybe you don't like them," he says. When Ginsberg protests that now's not the right time, his dad tells him that tragedy is exactly when you need people. "In the flood, animals went two by two," he says. "I can find my own girls," says Ginsberg.
Don wakes up to find Megan preparing to take the kids to a vigil in the park, but Bobby gets a "stomachache" (an excuse to stay home). The boy isn't allowed to watch TV as punishment for wallpaper peeling, so Don takes him to the movies instead. They see Planet of the Apes, blowing Bobby's mind and maybe Don's, too, and they stay to watch it again. In between showings there's a brief, sweet scene between Bobby and a black usher in which Bobby asks if the man's seen the movie, the man says no, and Bobby offers up the wisdom that people go to the movies when they're sad. Don appears moved by this scene with his empathetic son, who confesses he's been peeling wallpaper off the wall because it doesn't line up.
As Abe files his big story excitedly, Peggy gets a call from her real estate agent. She lost the apartment, but Abe's not concerned. "Don’t you care where we live?” she asks. He says it isn't his money so he didn't feel right expressing an opinion, but now that she asks ... he thought they'd raise kids where there were more different types of people than on the Upper East Side. Perhaps the West Side in the '80s? She smiles, hearing only that he wants a family with her, and tells him he’s a part of her life. He says he has to finish working. She sits, and smiles some more.
Back in the Francis household Betty is reading in bed, the TV on downstairs because she doesn't feel right turning it off. Henry tells her he thinks the riots are settling down, and confesses that he wants to run for state senate. She's thrilled. "This is what I’ve wanted for you,” she says. "I can’t wait for people to meet you, really meet you,” he says. Later she holds a gown from the old days up to her new frame and inspects her new hair. Betty is still Betty, and appearances are appearances, even if the accessories change.
At the Drapers, Don is drinking through his sorrows again, and Megan is angry, probably more so because of her recent conversation with her own father. “Is this what you want to be to them when they need you?” she asks. Don tells her that due to his difficult childhood he's never really been able to love his kids; he's been faking it, knowing that his own father probably didn't love him. But love arrived; he couldn't stop it: "they get older, you see them do something, and you feel that feeling you were pretending to have, and it feels like your heart is going to explode," he says, presumably referring to Bobby's reaching out to the usher. Megan is understanding, and later Don goes to Bobby's room, where the boy can't sleep, and talks to him just like a real dad. Well, except that when Bobby says he can't sleep because he's afraid someone will shoot Henry, Don's answer is, "Henry's not that important." Not yet.
Lonely Pete orders in food and the delivery guy doesn't understand and can't say a word in response his question, "Are things calmer out there?" Things are not calmer inside, anyway; lonely Pete is lonelier. I can't say he doesn't deserve it. And lonely Don stands outside on his balcony, lighting his cigarette, listening to the sirens. The heart can be an uncomfortable place.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.