Mad Men – The Flood
Mad Men is not necessarily a very nice show, it’s inspired but not so much inspirational, and so when real life historical events intrude upon the show’s storytelling they tend to be the sadder ones, the ‘catastrophes’ as one character puts it or the floods as the title does. Tonight’s catastrophe was of course the assassination of Martin Luther King, his passing the breaking of a wave that would continue to crash and spill through American cities over the following days. A simpler show would have taken this time to show us the way that their colored characters reacted to the tragedy, they would have used it as an obvious jumping off point for a civil rights debate but Mad Men has never been such a show and so it instead took this time to convey a more complicated idea, one that Dr.King famously preached: the identicality and inversions inherent in man, that though we are all different we’re also all the same.
The episodes somewhat obtuse title is displayed in a line by Ginsberg’s father – “In the flood the animals went two by two…” – and this line seemed to me to be the episode’s mission statement. One realized literally by Peggy’s particular journey, which begins with her standing alone besides the Draper’s in deep embrace and ends with her finally finding a flood partner in Abe. The idea invades deeper than that though and we see this in the way that nearly every beat in every scene is given a double, from the subtle (Peggy’s opening pose mirroring the shot of the partners that ended an episode last season, both of them inspecting new real estate at the time) to the blunt (Don needing to be told about DC multiple times).
Though the episode is a deceptively dry one it still plays out like something seen in the reflection of the water, the mirror of the flood, focusing strongly on these juxtapositions and showing us how different people cope with catastrophes in the show’s two distinct worlds. Don’s different ex-secretaries come copywriters are seated at different tables and yet they touch, then one wins the award for the company she has left while the other loses for the one she has just joined; one leaves an equal and one a partner, two very different terms as Civil Rights did show. Then we see the two different current secretaries get hugs from the white women they work for with some affection, one embracing the moment and another making do, one retreating to family and one to work. Everyone copes with the death in different ways but they are together in the fact that they are all of them having to deal with it; even if it is for some more of an intellectual or financial exercise than it is an emotional one.
Perhaps my favorite inversion was the absolutely hilarious scene (the second after the Paul Newman as out-of-focus speck beat) with Roger’s friend in insurance; having a client come to a meeting with too open a mind and too creative a vision is a new thing for a show that has had so much success depicting the Firm’s struggles against cowardly businessman who cannot appreciate the art in what they do. It was hard enough not to fall in love with the admittedly silly scene halfway through but then it ends with a great philosophical button in which the man makes a little too much sense for the SCDP crowd by announcing that this catastrophe was the “The heavens… telling us to change.” That like the literal flood of biblical legend this was a way of washing the world clean.
The tragedy then is that the flood is never truly loosed on the city or the country as a whole because the levee’s are lined up too quickly around those who most needed the wash. As the rain did the literal ones these walls of money quench the fire of frustrated revolution before it can burn closed the wound and so the tensions remain, full now but smouldering, beneath yet another layer of rich, white, male repression. The main characters of Mad Men all live far too high up in their apartment towers to be effected by a flood, they look out over their balconies or through their car windows as the world beneath them erupts, as those stuck close to the ground are pulled away by the waters; only cheap buildings crumble in earthquakes, to switch catastrophes, and so for them the event ends with the closing credits, equilibrium restored for next week.
Thankfully then it wasn’t just the show’s main characters that we got to see this week. While the two secretaries were strangely given their season’s time-slot last episode and thus don’t show up at all solo this time we are give the chance to spend a lot more time with the show’s other outsiders; it’s Jews. At this time the Jews, like women, are straddling the line of societal acceptance, they are the middle ground, the glass in the mirror and in the case of these two particular characters also up and comers for the next generation. Abe, who is here given the first thing he has had resembling a storyline is attempting to give voice to those left, a wannabe white revolutionary who, in theory at least, believes in their cause. On the other hand we have Ginsberg who is torn between riding the crest of the new wave and worming his way up to watch in safety from the perch of the old guard. More importantly though both came into their own as characters I care about this week.
But where are the African-American characters? Some will surely chant, the Abe Drexler’s and Pete Cambell’s of today perhaps. These same people will probably just look at the inclusion of Planet of the Apes in such an episode and call that questionable, or maybe even racist, but it was there as a part of the show’s original symboly and not as a relic of outdated stereotype. The Apes aren’t African-American’s, they’re us, they’re mankind as a whole, a dirty, stinking reflection of what it was that so needed to be changed. Some may argue that in not going for the obvious beats The Flood missed both an opportunity and an important point, but in doing so I think it made a much larger one and an amazing hour of television besides, no matter how vocal its critics. Then again criticism isn’t so much a sign of making a mistake; Bobby is chastised for peeling back the wallpaper in the house just as King was peeling back facade’s in real life.