Mad Men has done major national events - the 1960 Presidential election framed an all night Sterling Coo blowout complete with a Creme de Menthe tainted water cooler  and Margaret Sterling's wedding took place just after the Kennedy Assassination . But unlike those episodes, where the high drama of current events served as the backdrop for the storyline, in The Flood the national tragedy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination was the story, washing away everything else and instilling a leaden cloud as tangible as the smoke that formed over the city.
On the broad strokes, there was (sadly) an authenticity we could all appreciate - the saturation media coverage, the sense of anxiety and fear, of not knowing what to do or how to act (and Harry Crane's agita over potential lost billings over pre-empted network programming!) that we have all felt from Sandy Hook to Boston, 9/11 to Virginia Tech. The use of media, radio, television and the clackity-clack of Abe's typewriter was as subtle as a sledgehammer and discursive in its mood setting. It was as if characters were vibrating at a slightly higher frequency and unsure what to do - Don fretted that Sylvia, on a last minute jag to Washington, D.C. was caught in the rioting that took place there; Peggy's real estate agent tried to leverage the tragedy to low ball a bid on an apartment and Henry took the opportunity as a sign that he needed to recalibrate his political ambition. At the office, Pete and Harry got into a shouting match, with the former accusing the latter of racism, while Roger brought in a potential client who wanted to market his insurance products at the tip of a Molotov cocktail.
And like life, whatever mundane things that were going on until the moment that BIG THING happened immediately became superfluous - from Ginzo's worst. first. date. ever. ("I've never had sex. Not even once. Oh Ginzo, you charmer) to Peggy's flirtatious side eye to Ted at the awards ceremony. Megan's victory plaque at the same event for her Heinz pitch sat mournfully on the Draper family couch, forgotten, and Bobby's scab picking at the bedroom wallpaper (he's nothing if not consistent - he broke the Draper family record player back in Season 2 ) was just another minor way the Drapers' middle child annoyed his parents.
And within that tragedy, character was revealed and refracted through new and different lenses. Pete took umbrage at Harry's concern over lost advertising revenue  and attempted to console his estranged wife Trudy (to no avail). Left on his own, the pied a tierre that was going to be his City "shag pad" is now just a lonely one bedroom apartment where he grimly orders carry out. Don, immersed in a drama of his own making, is dismissive of his own children until Bobby reacts viscerally to their little evening of hooky at a back-to-back viewing of Planet of the Apes. Although still a boy, Bobby connects the cinematic destruction of America with what he is seeing outside Don's car window.
Bobby also knows that people go to movies when they are sad, but Don, in a heart breaking scene late in the episode confesses an ugly truth to Megan - that he doesn't love his children or fears he cannot love them, that he feared his own father feigned love toward him as a young boy  and that when faced with reacting to something his son did that actually made him feel emotion, Don struggled to process it. I thought this scene between Don and Megan was one of their best, not just of this season, but of their "relationship." It harkened back to an earlier time in their marriage when Megan was unafraid to question and push Don over his shortcomings (in this case, his drinking and seeming alienation from his children) and Don was open to her voice and her presence. There was a poignancy and intimacy between Don and Megan that has been missing from much of their interaction this season even as viewers could not help but feel the remove between them.
As much time as Don has spent burying the lie of his Dick Whitman past, it is clear that it is not the swapping of dog tags that he wants hidden from the world, but his inability to cope with the fall out from his difficult childhood. Indeed, the impact of his hard scrabble roots has been juxtaposed just a few times, but each at a critical moment . Here, Don's burden is weightiest. The screen practically sags with his inconsolability - it is not just that wretched childhood that burdens him, it is a deeper weariness. At another trying time, he was able to compartmentalize tragedy writ large (the JFK assassination) and small (his divorce from Betty) to tell Peggy that seeing a changed world when others do not is a valuable thing . Now, he can only look sadly at an empty bottle of Canadian Club, a crumpled packet of Lucky's, and across a scarred landscape from the balcony of his Park Avenue penthouse apartment.
While Don searched for answers that have long eluded him, The Flood was not without its optimism. Abe casually mentions to Peggy that he's given thought to where he'd like to raise their children, offering a subtle grace note as she vents about losing out on the apartment she bid on. Ginzo's dad lectures him about people finding people in times of crisis and I for one thought Ginzo's extreme awkwardness and his date's coy flirtation was kind of charming. When Harry tells Betty he is going to run for the State Senate, Betty eyes a dress from her younger (and skinnier) times. It's all they could have done to cue the Rocky theme as she gazed into the mirror, envisioning herself svelte and on the arm of her politically influential husband.
In this way, we see something we know to be true - that even in the middle of extreme turmoil, life goes on. But the benefit of knowing how the events being portrayed in Mad Men unfold merely serves to prepare us for the societal meltdown that was kindled in the wake of MLK's shooting. We know, even if Don, Roger and the others do not, that this is just the beginning, and not the end, of the insanity of 1968.
1. Nixon v. Kennedy, Season 1, Episode 12.
2. The Grown-Ups, Season 3, Episode 12.
3. Three Sundays, Season 2, Episode 4.
4. This is not the first time Pete has shown an uncharacteristic charity toward his fellow man. Back in Season 3, he attempted to pitch TV manufacturer Admiral on direct marketing to the black community. The Fog, Season 3, Episode 5.
5. And who could blame him? His mother named him "Dick" and suggested his penis be boiled in hog fat (Out of Town, Season 3, Episode 1) and Archie was a dishonorable man (The Hobo Code, Season 1, Episode 8).
6. The flashback revealing Archie's "dishonor" takes place as Don's affair with Midge is dissolving (The Hobo Code, supra); Archie appears to Don in a hallucination while Don is in a motel with a runaway couple out to rob him after he has a fight with Betty (Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7); Archie's death is examined while Don is in the process of divorcing Betty and forming Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Shut the Door. Have a Seat, Season 3, Episode 13); and Don reveals how his father passed away to Peggy the night Anna dies (The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7).
7. Shut the Door. Have a Seat, supra.