Throughout its run on AMC, Mad Men has contrasted the interpersonal drama of its characters against the turbulent decade of the 1960s, functioning as a Cliff's Notes version of that era's historical events. Watershed moments such as President John F. Kennedy's assassination, the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam protests have all inspired memorable episodes in previous seasons. Although history has played a minor role so far, this season may end up topping them all if creator Matthew Weiner incorporates the impactful events still to come, including the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.
Suffice to say, 1968 is a tinderbox waiting to be ignited, and this week's episode was the first to light the flame with the assassination of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. During an advertising awards ceremony attended by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as well as Peggy and her colleagues from Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, the news is blurted out by an audience member while Paul Newman is making a speech supporting Gene McCarthy over Bobby Kennedy in the Democratic primaries. The awards event takes a brief intermission to allow everyone to compose themselves, as concern quickly turns to the potentially riotous reaction of the black population who had placed their hopes and dreams in Dr. King's vision.
From there, we witness the varied reactions to the news. Like any good husband and father, Don is most concerned about his married mistress Sylvia, who traveled to Washington, DC with her husband for the weekend before the riots broke out. Betty interrupts his worrying when she calls and demands that he pick up the kids despite the turmoil in the streets, assuring him that Henry said it was safe. Don drives out and retrieves the children, passing police sirens and flashing lights on the way home, and enjoys some bonding time with middle child Bobby the next day. While Megan takes Sally and little Gene to a candlelight vigil, Don and his first-born son deal with their stress over the tragic event by going to the movies to watch the original Planet of the Apes. After the unforgettable twist ending (SPOILER ALERT!) that the simian-ruled planet was actually Earth in the future, Bobby is suitably awestruck and utters a classic, "Jesus." He likes the movie so much, they stay to watch it again. Wait until this guy sees The Matrix in 30 years. 40-year-old Bobby is going to lose his shit.
The most touching moment occurs while Don and Bobby await the next screening. Bobby innocently strikes up a conversation with the black usher sweeping the aisles and comments, "Everybody likes to go to the movies when they're sad." Young actor Mason Vale Cotton deserves some credit for his effort in this episode, bringing Bobby to life in a way we haven't seen and making us empathize with this poor young kid who doesn't understand why his mom is always mad at him. Finally feeling a connection with his son, Don later admits to Megan that he had never really loved his children and "faked it" since they were babies. He tearfully wonders if his own father felt the same way and describes the sensation of his heart about to explode when he felt that love for real for the first time, presumably referring to his day at the movies with Bobby. (Can't really blame Don, Bobby was an irritating little brat when he was younger.) Jon Hamm delivers another powerful performance in this scene that will undoubtedly provide fine Emmy fodder when awards season rolls around again.
As if by instinct, Pete reacts to the news of Dr. King's assassination selfishly by using the tragedy and ensuing riots to worm his way back into his old life with Trudy and their daughter Tammy, offering to stay at the house with them. It's possible he actually cares, but more likely he just wants to flee the city because of the riots. Trudy turns down his attempts and even withstands his final guilt-trip: "I don't want you to be worried." Pete's later outburst against Harry — accusing him of being a "bonafide racist" because he's focused on business instead of the national tragedy — seems out of character until Pete mentions that Dr. King had a wife and children. Once again, Pete can only think about himself and equates the situation with his own.
To balance out the super-serious nature of the murder, comedy relief is provided by Lost alum (and Tom Cruise cousin) William Mapother's portrayal of insurance executive Randall Walsh, obviously one of Roger's LSD buddies who exhibits odd behavior and tries to communicate without words. Claiming that he was visited by the spirit of Dr. King, Randall has concocted a property insurance ad campaign depicting a molotov cocktail being lit to capitalize on the fear created by the riots. Although Roger astutely notes that someone will probably make that ad, Don replies that it won't be SCDP and that's that. Roger later explains the only reason he brought Randall in was because he talked Rog "off a roof" once; could he be referencing last season's finale when we last saw Roger tripping balls and standing on his windowsill?
Mad Men is at its best when it subtly interweaves real-world historical events with the overall dramatic narrative. While this episode had its strong points, "The Flood" felt heavy-handed at times in dealing with race relations and the implications of Dr. King's assassination. The episode also felt timely because it seems like there's a national tragedy every other week these days and we are all more connected through social media and 24-hour cable news. It's sobering to look back at a time when news like this was shared communally, with family and friends and co-workers huddled around televisions and radios. There was a sense that everyone was living out the same experience, as opposed to the cynical and conflicting points of view easily circulated today. Aside from Harry's concern for the clients, the closest we got to a glib, Twitter-like comment was Roger's disappointment that MLK's impressive oratory skills didn't "solve the whole thing." Progress, indeed.
FINAL GRADE: B