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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: Mad Men, The Flood

Season 6, Episode 5
Grade: B-
Verdict: Mad Men returns to an event of historical importance making the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King the focal point of the characters allowing for introspection and a few minor reveals. But much like it's previous forays into cultural landmarks that dominate the narrative, this episode sputters the season's momentum in lieu of emotional moments that simply don't register. In all, it's the worst episode of the season so far, but still eminently enjoyable.

Watching "The Flood", I was immediately reminded of the Season 3 episode "The Grown-Ups" where all our cast react to the death of John F. Kennedy. It's interesting to consider just what national tragedy does to us as a nation. Recalling 9/11, I remember just how many of my dorm-mates in college were glued to televisions, wondering just what could happen next. I think as humans we often feel a sense of invincibility, and when the unexpected happens, the first reaction is to learn everything possible and then call home. That's basically what occurs here in this episode, but much like "The Grown-Ups" was one of the worst episodes of Season 3 (the weakest season of the show by far), the same more or less occurs with "The Flood". It may be very human to react this way, but it doesn't create compelling drama and almost feels like a cheap way to stir up audience emotions.

That's not to say the episode was without its positive aspects, again, this is Mad Men and even a lesser script is still of interest. Perhaps of greatest excitement is that we finally get a Peggy-centered plot, after weeks of sitting behind a desk and giving terrible ad pitches, we learn that Peggy is out looking for an apartment with Abe, and the on-going struggles with that were one of the highlights of the episode. There's a beautiful moment where Peggy sits on the couch, feeling overwhelmed with the apartment hunt, says "I feel alone in this" while Abe types away furiously trying to finish a piece for the New York Times about the King murder. Abe's response is shockingly different than what you might expect from Don, Pete or any of the other male counterparts that inhabit the show. His willingness to say "it's not my money, I didn't think I had a say", is an incredibly progressive statement for just where the attitudes about male and female relationships were starting to head. There's also an interesting statement being made here, that while their relationship is still in its infancy in a sense, they're far happier than people like Don and Megan, who fight often, and Pete and Trudy, who are separated. I don't think the writers are trying to say that less traditional relationships are better of, but more that because they're changing with the times, they're better suited for them.

Maybe the most telling plot development that was produced this episode was Don's reaction to the shooting. Before the news breaks across the country, Don and Megan are heading to an awards gala for Megan's nomination due to her work at the agency last season. Before they leave, they run into Sylvia and her husband who are headed to DC, where the good Doctor is speaking at an event himself. After word spreads during the awards function about the tragedy, Don is immediately more concerned about Sylvia's well-being than he is even about his own children. Whereas Pete calls Trudy to see if she's okay, and has a fairly painful conversation, at no point does Don attempt to do the same with Betty and the kids. Instead he's glued to the television watching any news he can about what may be occurring in the Nation's Capital. One must assume this is placing a furthered romantic element in their affair beyond just what is normal in most of Don's flings. It's telling that his actual interaction with the children comes at the behest of Betty giving him a call to remind him to pick them up. By the episode's conclusion we start to get an idea of just what Don's priorities really are. What's interesting is, they change a bit, and alot of that is due to the fact that the writers have finally given Bobby Draper something to do.

Throughout the series, Bobby has generally been "the other Draper child", with little function in the plot other than to provide an outlet for Betty's frustration at being a mother. "The Flood" changes that a bit, as Bobby's resentment at Betty manifests itself as pulling the wallpaper off his bedroom wall and barely even trying to hide it. Bobby has often had a better connection with his father in the few times we've been given an opportunity to glimpse it, and this episode allows for a significant milestone in our viewing of that connection. When Don learns of Betty not allowing him to watch television for a week, what does Don do? He takes him to the movies of course (to see Planet of the Apes, a film that I deeply love for multiple reasons), mainly to provide some way to stick it to Betty than to really be a loving father. Yet, when Bobby interacts with the African American theater custodian and tells him "Alot of people go to the movies when they're sad", there's a trigger effect there for Don and his heartfelt confession to Megan afterwards may be one of my favorite Don Draper moments ever (give or take the events of "The Suitcase").

The rest of the episode isn't as successful, there's a Ginsberg storyline about his sad-sack love life that fell a bit flat for me, though it included a great line from his father about bringing his father on the Ark with him. Ginsberg is just one of the characters that still doesn't feel fully fleshed out, and I'd love to see him escape caricature this season; but at this point, he still feels like a 1960's Woody Allen. In an area I'm more unsure of, there's also a bizarre appearance by William Mapother as their Insurance agent with an ad idea involving molotov cocktails that he "received in a dream from Dr. King himself". It's humorous, and is perhaps meant to invoke the coming unrest of the 70's, but Mapother's performance has appearance of "someone in the writer's room had a funny idea" rather than something that feels like it fits. Perhaps that's the point, but the uneasiness in which this character fit into the character environment is still there, square peg, round hole.

On the other hand, the scene between Harry and Pete, who were clearly heading to a confrontation since the premiere was fascinating to behold. One of the forgotten aspects of Pete, for all of his slimy ways, is that he's actually quite liberal for the time. He was the first person to speak up for Dawn last week when she was faced with Joan possibly firing her, and throughout the series, minority interests have held some grip on him personally and professionally, in Pete's own way that is. When Pete and Harry nearly come to blows over it, Pete conflates this with his growing concern for his possibly lost family by putting it all in terms that Harry should understand, showing a sense of depth to Pete that may not have been apparent in earlier seasons. It's a moment that stands out significantly though in an episode that sadly just feels like alot of hugging and hand-holding, and compared to last week's plot driven piece, just sort of brings everything to a halt. Again, it's realistic, but it doesn't always make for great television.
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