Social tensions simmer in the initial episodes. In “The Flood” they explode with Martin Luther King’s assassination. The title references the flood in Genesis where God resolves to destroy his wicked and corrupt creation (mankind). This would have been a resonant image when everything seemingly went to hell in 1968. As Randy, Roger’s drug addled acquaintance, notes: “the heavens are telling us to change.”
Don and Bobby see Planet of the Apes, which in a way parallels the flood narrative. Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, discovers at the end of the film he has traveled through time, not space. The Ape Planet was really a post-apocalyptic Earth. Mankind seemingly destroyed itself. Later (and not nearly as worthwhile) sequels reveal human society was destroyed when it became dependent on Apes for menial slave labor.
It’s not a far trip from there to Mad Men. Madison Avenue is a white world. Black people make it function. They clean. They shine shoes. They operate elevators. The closest black people get is being secretaries. Even that concession is “progress” and necessary to conform to fair hiring practices. The rest of black existence happens out of sight. The tension is present. The fear of unrest in the white community is palpable.
Martin Luther King’s assassination is a challenge for Mad Men. “History,” as described in textbooks, occurs in the background. But this assassination is too much of a sea change for subtlety. Like the Kennedy assassination a few seasons back, the show has to address it.
The show also had to divorce its accumulated context. King, like his non-violent exemplar Gandhi, became a secular, ahistorical saint in decades after his death. Reality is messier than a morality play. Reactions to him at the time were more complex and convoluted.
White northern liberals admired the ideal of Martin Luther King with words. Being against overt segregation in the South was easy. Pete could proudly accuse Harry of being a “bonafide racist” for not showing the proper respect. Applying this to their own segregated lives was not so easy. The assassination brought the “front” of the Civil Rights movement to the characters. They too harbor real fear of racial violence. Now, they can hear the sirens.
Mad Men characters seldom, if ever, considered the black people they interacted with people. Attempts to do so now are stilted, awkward and guilt-laden. Every black person gets the perfunctory “I’m so sorry for you” and half-hearted concerned for his or her safety. No one considers Dawn’s individual reaction beyond her skin color. Normally deft, Joan’s hesitant hug is cringe-inducing.
If death and destruction is the “yin” in literature, the “yang” is creation. The Flood has Noah’s ark. As Ginsberg’s adopted father notes, tragedy brings men and women together (a sentiment far brighter than Megan’s father cold father applauding the “escalation of decay”).
Peggy and Abe reach a new understanding. Their real estate agent loses the apartment (by trying to capitalize on the riot fear).* But this gets Abe to reveal his feelings about the future. Peggy glows as he reveals his future includes them having children.
Pete tries to reconnect with Trudy and his kids. Despite the slightest of thaws, he is rebuffed. Ginsberg, on his first date with the teacher, stumbles and blurts out comments about kids and the act of creating a kid.
Don has nowhere to reach out. His marriage with Megan is now built on lies. He can’t relate to his children. At this moment of crisis he completely tunes them out. He retreats inward with alcohol and cigarettes. His most honest relationship is with Sylvia. She is “in Washington D.C.” with her husband.
We’ve seen many times before Don can’t escape the past he left behind. The circumstances of his own birth prevent him from recognizing bringing new life into the world as joyous. He can’t relate to “normal” childhood. He only empathizes with his children, as with Bobby at the movies, when he can sense they feel disaffected and alone.
* The joke about the Second Avenue Subway, still an unfulfilled promise, was hilarious.