"Mad Men" recap: "Maybe we can fall asleep"

The mad men respond to MLK Jr.'s assassination in different ways -- some surprising, some "shameful," some clichéd

By Heather Havrilesky

Published April 29, 2013 12:53PM (EDT)


"He's going into hell. This is the descent. Maybe he'll come out on the other side, or maybe he'll just take up residence there." – Matthew Weiner discussing Don Draper's fate on NPR's "Fresh Air," 4/25/13

Now that "Mad Men" creator Weiner has come out and told us that the sixth season of "Mad Men" is all about hellfire and damnation, it feels less interesting to sift through Dante's nine circles to try to figure out which one we're in. But then, maybe it's the real-life hell of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination that renders any "Inferno"-specific analysis of this episode, "The Flood," particularly ludicrous. Can you imagine Weiner crafting an MLK Jr. assassination episode that also mirrors the fifth circle, "Anger," or the seventh circle, "Violence"? That sounds about as compelling as watching an interpretive dancer do an interpretive dance about interpretive dancing.

While we're on the subject, though, can you imagine sitting down to write an MLK Jr. assassination episode at all? Because, although historical events are obviously looming in the background of this show at all times, this one is particularly fraught. On the one hand, it would be impossible to set this season in 1968 and then plow over King's murder. On the other hand, trotting out this tragic event as a plot device feels unsavory, somehow. Yes, I know, there was the JFK episode. That one worked, though, whereas this one felt like it was lifted straight out of "The Wonder Years" – only less poignant. As Pete puts it to Harry Crane, "This cannot be made good! It's shameful! It's a shameful, shameful day!" (It's telling that even the line "It's shameful!" feels a little shameful in this context.)

Even so, Pete's passionate reaction may have been the highlight of this otherwise somewhat anemic episode. Those who love to hate Pete will say his reaction was annoyingly disingenuous. To me, his rage underscores what makes him one of the show's most riveting characters (and it reminds us, at a particularly moralistic moment in "Mad Men's" trajectory, that the show's moralism is never all that easily delineated). Despite having seemed utterly cavalier and prideful about his split from Trudy, Pete calls her to see if she and the baby need him to come home. (They don't, or Trudy pretends that they don't out of pride.) Unlike Don, who doesn't want to face the ugliness of what's happening around him, Pete is openly horrified. He tries to address his shock and anger at work, but old-school Bert Cooper tells him to simmer down. The answer, we're repeatedly reminded by the older characters, is to "go to sleep" and pretend the world isn't coming apart at the seams.

Don and Megan have a particularly disconnected conversation in the wake of the assassination, in which they each seem to be talking to themselves instead of each other. "Do you think your secretary is OK?" Megan asks Don, by which she really means, "I'm not OK" (since she is also Don's secretary). Don ignores her, and says that Sylvia and Arnold are in D.C. It might seem like he's starting to feel real love for Sylvia, but more likely he's just using his affair to shield himself from the pain of the current moment. (The affair still seems to spring more from Don's admiration and envy of Arnold than it does from his appreciation of Sylvia.) Megan ignores this, and tells Don, "My father just hides behind his intellect. He doesn't want to feel any emotions." Of course, she may as well be describing Don himself, who replies, "Let's watch inside. Maybe we can fall asleep." We're meant to understand that Don doesn't believe in talking about his feelings, or working through trauma with other people. The only choice is to turn inward, and then fall asleep.

Likewise, Betty tells Bobby, "Please just go to sleep." Don also tells Bobby to go to sleep, at the end of the episode. Their matching recommendations stand in sharp contrast to Pete, who can't sleep.

Although there aren't a lot of moments in this episode that do justice to the events in play here, I do like the contrast between Don's and Pete's reactions. At times Pete seems far more corrupt than Don. At work, Don often takes the high ground at times when Pete chooses a more self-serving path. Obviously, Pete has all of the self-control and personal honor of an angry toddler. But unlike Don, who makes some pretty egregious missteps to escape his existential despair, Pete isn't merely running from the truth about himself. Last season, he seemed to be following in Don's footsteps by getting an apartment in the city, setting himself up to wine and dine the ladies. Instead, he fell madly in love and became obsessed with one woman in particular – and he longed to "save her" from her insensitive husband. Unlike Don, Pete doesn't really seem to have an insatiable appetite for other women. While Don clearly enjoys and savors his affairs, Pete is pretty bad at the whole routine. What Pete mostly wants, beyond having his ego fed, is a life that doesn't feel like a slow death. His soul wants more than what he's been given. As shallow as Trudy can seem, she's also more reflective than Betty Draper ever was. In some ways, Trudy and Pete are the perfect match; they're both skilled at the superficial dimensions of their lives, but they both want much more, too. They're just too rigid or too proud to break out of their prescribed roles.

Pete has plenty of feelings, almost to a fault. He's temperamental, romantic, vengeful, lost, regretful. Don's big problem is the opposite; he can barely feel anything at all. Drunk late at night, he lays it all out for Megan (who's angry at him for disappearing to the movies with Bobby instead of spending time with her and the other two kids). "That baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars, but you don't feel anything," Don tells Megan. "Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them but you don't." (I can't believe Don just used the words "difficult childhood." Are we listening to Don Draper talk to his wife, or listening to Matthew Weiner talk to Terry Gross?) It is interesting how Don says "you don't feel anything," since Megan, despite her similarities to Don, is pretty different from him in this respect. It's hard to imagine her feeling nothing for her baby. "Then one day they get older," Don continues, "and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode." Don seems to be talking about Bobby asking the theater attendant if he can watch "Planet of the Apes," too because "everybody likes to go to the movies when they're sad." But because we don't know Bobby that well, and the movie usher isn't exactly jazzed to see a racist allegory at this moment, Don's big feelings here don't do much for us. Sure, the message is clear: Some people turn inward, others turn outward. Some try to reach out to each other, others retreat. Still, like watching Michael Ginsberg watch the cooks at the diner drop their plates and cry, this scene feels a little off. The show's oversimplified battle lines – between blacks and whites, between unfeeling older characters and passionate younger characters, between a sober-ish Don who wants to sleep and a blind drunk Don who had a difficult childhood – sometimes dull the impact of big events instead of amplifying them.

What did feel pretty sad, though, was that, when Don crawled into bed with Bobby and asked him what was wrong, Bobby said he was worried about Henry, not Don. "Henry's not that important," Don replied, but nothing could be less true.

The big message of the episode, though, came earlier: "This is an opportunity," said Randy the insurance guy, an awkward, on-the-nose moment in an episode filled with such moments. "The heavens are telling us to change." But even if Don wants to change (which he keeps saying) and tries to change (what could be more of an attempt to change than spending time with his son?), it's not clear that he can change in any permanent way. Sometimes redemption doesn’t come so easily.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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