This isn’t a traditional recap of Mad Men’s MLK assassination episode “The Flood,” although it does touch on key plot points. It’s a transcript of a talk I had last night with my friend Aaron Aradillas, a San Antonio–based critic and filmmaker who crashed on my couch in Brooklyn this weekend. I mostly didn’t like the episode. Aaron loved it — to my surprise, considering how little patience he has for earnest liberal dramas about history. We argued about the episode after it aired, then watched it a second time and argued some more. At a certain point I switched my phone over to memo mode and hit the record button. A transcript of our conversation follows.
Matt Zoller Seitz: I was torn about this episode. On one hand, it seems to me a pretty realistic portrait of how upper-middle-class to wealthy white New Yorkers might have reacted to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It doesn’t do anything that you wouldn’t expect a Mad Men episode about a major historical event to do. It’s true to itself in that respect.
But at the same time, this is the episode where, to intentionally mangle a Malcolm X phrase, the chickens of Mad Men’s whiteness finally came home to roost.
I’m not saying Mad Men didn’t deal with the assassination honestly. I think it did deal with it honestly. But there was more they should have done, and they couldn’t do it, because they’d failed to set Dawn up as a character. And yet I think some viewers may look at Dawn’s what, eight lines in this episode, and insist that it’s proof of the show’s integrity — that they couldn’t have gone any further with her because that would have been a clichéd way to deal with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., by suddenly taking this very white show and making it about the only significant black character.
So let’s ask, is this approach a sign of integrity, or a sign of evasion? I’m leaning toward evasion.
Aaron Aradillas: I think it’s evasion from a 2013 perspective. But I think it’s also accurate. It was last season when they hired Dawn, correct?
Matt: Yes, in the premiere of season five.
Aaron: That episode ended by showing the lobby of the agency filled with African-Americans applying for jobs while Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” played on the soundtrack. And I think Mad Men is very smart to have shown this very slow integration that went on in America.
Yes, there is a civil-rights struggle going on, and some of it is happening in the streets. But the fact is, all in all, that struggle was very gradual. Last season was 1966 into 1967. Now we’re in 1968. In our pop-culture mind, we think, “Oh, yeah, that year was tumultuous.” And it was. But the actual day-to-day change was a slow grind. We were still busing black kids to white school districts in the seventies and eighties! The hiring of Dawn was an acknowledgement of that. I think audiences are conditioned by other kinds of movies and TV to think, “Oh, yeah, now that we have a black character, we’re gonna have a black perspective.” But Weiner knows, “No, it’s not that schematic.”
Matt: I feel like there’s got to be a way for the incredibly creative group of people who make Mad Men to at least represent Dawn’s experience. To represent not The Black Experience, but a black experience. Especially when you consider that they’ve given themselves permission to represent all kinds of personal stories that aren’t directly connected to the main characters! Michael Ginsberg is Exhibit A. I love that character, but I’m not convinced that “The Flood” was the best possible venue in which to show Ginsberg’s dad trying to hook him up and get him married.
I love this show, but let’s be honest: Matthew Weiner has not engaged with race as enthusiastically as he’s engaged with feminism, anti-Semitism, the changing of the generational guard, and other subjects. I think he’s afraid of it. He’s afraid of doing it wrong. He’s afraid of doing it badly. And this fear has come through in the show.
And this is a show about politics — about the lived experience of political history, and how if affects or doesn’t affect individual daily lives.
Aaron: I would posit that the show’s approach is defensible. Even though New York has always been a melting pot, Weiner is showing that even back then, when things were starting to mix, in the segments of New York circles where people were liberal and accepting, supposedly, there was still an unspoken segregation.
Yeah, you had the counterculture and civil rights affecting people’s consciousness, and the remnants of the Beat scene. But there is still a dominance of whiteness in all of those scenes. To try to rewrite that and make it seem more integrated would be wrong. That’s why Weiner doesn’t do it. He knows the images we have in our heads of recent history are wrong. Go back and actually look at the hard data, even in the most liberal circles of the most liberal movements, there was still a hierarchy that was white-dominant. It was white top-down.
You bring up the Ginsberg thing, with Ginsberg’s dad trying to hook him up on a blind date. Yes, it is kind of superfluous. It has nice moments, like Ginsberg’s incredibly fatalistic attitude on hearing the news of MLK’s assassination. You’re right, it doesn’t feel connected to everything else. But for me, that disconnectedness works. It’s of a piece with the disconnectedness of the other characters.
One of my favorite recent movies is David Chase’s film Not Fade Away, which I feel is one of the more accurate portraits of the sixties, as most people probably experienced it. It doesn’t use the easy signifiers of the sixties: the long hair, the hippies, the protest signs, Buffalo Springfield on the soundtrack —
Matt: Oh, I love that about Mad Men, the fact that it doesn’t always go to that well. But I don’t think it has to be either/or, you know? Those scenes where Don takes his son to see Planet of the Apes are great examples of how Mad Men could have done more with this. You’ve got the kid reacting with horror, sorrow and empathy to this movie. But the scene also gets into the feelings that the kid’s dad is having as he sits there watching a movie that he hoped would help him escape from the outside world, and from the voices in his own head.
Then comes that moment with the boy reaching out to that African-American theater employee. I think the employee thinks that the kid’s remarks are related to MLK, and maybe they are, in a way. But they have a hell of a lot more to do with what’s going on back home with Betty and Francis, and him manifesting his unhappiness by peeling wallpaper off the bedroom wall, which is a nice metaphor for what Mad Men so often does to our perception of history.
And then you’ve got Planet of the Apes itself. That was at the time, and still is, a racially loaded science-fiction movie, intentionally so. Not just the first film in the series: the whole franchise! This theater scene is a loaded, potent, rich scene — though awkwardly scripted, as Mad Men sometimes is. I don’t think the rest of “The Flood” rises to that level, pardon the pun.
Aaron: That’s the emotional climax of the episode, that stuff in the theater; the scenes from Planet of the Apes itself, and the scene with the usher. The scene releases what’s been percolating throughout the episode. That image of Heston crying in the surf resonates with what’s going on the episode — with the violence going on in the streets. You kind of exhale afterward, particularly when Don’s son says, “When people are sad, they go to the movies.”
Matt: For most people, there are two more words in that sentence: “… to escape.” And that’s ironic. People go to movies to escape. And yet movies are not really, mainly about escape — the good ones aren’t, anyway — and on some level we know this, or should know this. Movies are about confrontation. A lot of times they confront by seeming not to confront. Often they do this through metaphor.
There’s an aspect of that in this episode, and that’s what keeps me from actively disliking it. The assassination of Martin Luther King is depicted as the thing that’s hanging over everyone, and yet at the same time it’s also about all the feelings that the assassination dredges up.
That confrontation between Pete and Harry, for example, is about MLK, and yet it’s not about MLK. It’s about the resentment simmering between these two guys who work together. It’s about Harry kind of preening over his belief that he’s the only guy keeping his professional composure. And it’s about Pete acting out his anxiety over having been kicked out of his own home by Trudy.
Aaron: Let’s run down how the assassination affects all these people, starting with Pete and Harry. Their antagonism comes to a boil. Pete wants to come home and comfort his family, and Trudy says no.
Matt: Pete’s “It is a shameful, shameful day” seems to be about the assassination, but it’s also about his own predicament.
Aaron: He can’t go home again.
Matt: And that line about MLK as a man with a wife and kids suggests that he sees himself in Martin Luther King, on a basic human level.
Aaron: And then you’ve got Peggy and her boyfriend, Abe, who ends up covering the assassination’s aftermath for the Times. The assassination forces out resentments that have to do with Peggy being the couple’s main breadwinner. Their apartment search connects with the assassination through all the talk about where they’re going to live. At the start, they’re looking to close on an apartment in a quote-unquote good neighborhood.
Matt: The Upper East Side of Manhattan. Not the Upper West Side, where Abe is perfectly comfortable being. He says something like, “All we’d need is a fresh coat of paint.”
That stuff about Peggy wanting to live on the Upper East Side, then maybe being forced to think about why she wants that, is a wonderful echo of the last really meaty subplot that Dawn got, back in season five’s “Mystery Date.” Dawn stays overnight at Peggy’s place because she’s afraid of street violence. They have that uncomfortable moment where Peggy thinks about taking her purse out of the living room where Dawn is sleeping, then decides not to. We get a sense that Peggy, despite being very forward-thinking and liberal in many ways, still harbors certain white working-class ethnic attitudes about race.
Aaron: And of course, Roger is just Roger.
Matt: Of course.
Aaron: He knows exactly how tragic this is. But he also realizes he has no control over what’s going on. He’s not insensitive. But he’s not gonna come in hanging his head in sorrow, either, because that’s not him.
Matt: In some ways Roger’s reaction did feel more honest and true than the magnified suffering of a lot of the other white characters. And speaking of Don and Megan …
Aaron: The assassination does affect Don and Megan, and it also affects Betty and Henry. Henry is working for New York mayor John Lindsay. Betty is petrified that the world is gonna go up in flames, and the flames are gonna creep up to her door. She doesn’t want her kids to see the world burning on the TV. She denies it all, to the point where she guilt-trips Don into picking up the kids for the weekend and not breaking their child custody routine. And that ties into MLK’s assassination in another way, by indicating that everyone’s routines are slowly but surely starting to break. That’s something Betty isn’t willing to acknowledge.
Matt: I like Henry using the crisis as a way to rethink his professional life and run for office.
There are other examples of opportunism in “The Flood” as well. One is Harry talking about how the sponsors want “make goods” to compensate for the ads they bought on programs that got preempted by coverage of the assassination. Another is the real-estate agent brokering the sale of the apartment using the chaos and the fear of more rioting to get Peggy a better deal.
Aaron: Then you’ve got the property insurance guy, played by William Mapother of Lost.
Matt: I laughed at Don telling the guys to make sure the guy doesn’t get lost on the way out. Mad Men doesn’t do pop culture in-jokes too often, but when it does, they’re pretty funny.
Aaron: The insurance guy’s pitch is crazy.
Matt: He presents it as proof of his empathy and sensitivity, and says the ghost of Martin Luther King gave it to him personally, and yet it amounts to, “Buy our insurance in case angry black people try to burn down your business.”
Aaron: This is a rare scene where all the main ad guys show some solidarity in a meeting — particularly Don, who tells the insurance guy that the idea is, was, and will always be offensive.
Ultimately, how does all this affect Don? The assassination of Martin Luther King gives him another reason to drink heavily.
Matt: Like he needed one!
Aaron: But it also gives him an opportunity to rethink his role as a parent, to think about his shortcomings and insecurities.
Matt: Speaking of personally exploiting the assassination: I think Betty’s right when she accuses Don of using fear of rioters as a pretext to get out of his parenting duties.
Aaron: Oh, totally! And it’s a real stinger, a twisting-the-knife line, when Betty tells him, “You’d go to Canada on your hands and knees to pick up your girlfriend.”
Matt: I love that Betty refers to Megan as “his girlfriend” even though she’s his wife.
Aaron: That line reverberates another way for me. It made me wonder if Betty has intuited that Don has a mistress by now anyway.
Matt: Oh! I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Aaron: My reaction to that line was: Ah, she said, "your girlfriend," and as it turns out, Don actually does have a girlfriend!
Matt: Don does have a girlfriend, Sylvia, and she’s not in Canada, she’s in Washington, D.C., where riots are going on.
Aaron: That’s another way in which Martin Luther King’s assassination affects Don personally: It makes him go crazy with worry about his girlfriend, who’s in D.C. with her husband. So it turns out that Betty’s insult was really only off geographically.
Matt: What would you call that kind of statement? It’s not a Freudian slip because it’s revealing information she couldn’t know. Freudian clairvoyance?
I also like Megan’s one-sided phone conversation with her professor father — her getting off the phone and saying she’s sick of his Marxist bullshit, and that he applauded the “acceleration of decay.” That is a really potent slap at a certain kind of white liberal radical whose caring is ostentatiously theatrical.
Aaron: It’s a really weird perversion of white superiority. It’s like, “Well, if I’m gonna be a white liberal, I’m gonna be the most extreme white liberal — more liberal than anyone can even imagine!” It’s another way for white people to dominate everything.
You realize that in this discussion, we’re doing what we accuse Weiner of doing, which is avoiding the thing that ought to be central. Let’s go back to talking about the scenes that involve Dawn.
Matt: They mean well. They have good moments, the best of which is Joan going for the hug and Dawn just kind of freezing up. I wish the dialogue in the scenes weren’t so horrible, as Dawn’s dialogue often is. Her dialogue just doesn’t sound plausibly human in the way that the other characters’ dialogue does! And she’s still not fleshed out, even as a minor character. She’s the only significant recurring character who feels more like a cipher, even a symbol, than a person.
Aaron: Remember, Dawn is still relatively new to the show. She hasn’t had time to deepen, to ripen, like other characters have.
Matt: See, but Aaron, I gotta call b.s. on that. Mad Men has introduced all manner of additional characters, including Ginsberg and his dad, and Megan’s family, and the Drapers’ downstairs neighbors, and fleshed them out in pretty economical strokes. Yet they haven’t been able to do this with Dawn. Why not? Because for whatever combination of reasons, the show chose not to develop her.
And here I want to distinguish, one more time, between Mad Men doing what Mad Men always does — and doing it pretty well here — versus the wider systemic issue, which is that the white people who run the entertainment industry are still unwilling or unable to imagine their way into the lives of people who don’t look, talk, or think exactly as they do.
Aaron: Would you agree that race is one of this country’s defining issues, and the thorniest to tackle?
Matt: I would agree with that, maybe more so now than a decade ago, because we’re into Obama’s second term. His election was like a rock thrown at the beehive of racism in this country. There are a lot more bees out now.
Aaron: Weiner is fully aware of that, I think. That’s what you view as hesitation, I don’t view as hesitation. He knows you need to use kid gloves with this. The approach he’s taking is the right approach for this show at this point in our history. The feminism, the anti-Semitism can be dealt with more bluntly, more brazenly, and he can kind of be on good footing. And if he’s not on good footing, he can defend himself or do a mea culpa and it’ll be OK. But not with race. To me, the treatment of race seems all of a piece with how the show has been executed from episode one.
Matt: But to paraphrase another catchphrase of social justice, if not now, when?
Matt: I think the JFK assassination episode did a better job of the sort of elliptical dramatic approach you’re praising in “The Flood.” And even better than that was “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” a.k.a. The Lawnmower Episode, which Amanda Marcotte and Kevin Lee persuasively described as the show’s first “real” JFK episode, dealing with the assassination in metaphor.
I wish the show would take more cues from that episode, honestly, and from movies like Planet of the Apes, and be more indirect than it is already.
Aaron: But how do you know that this episode isn’t a setup for something later in the season?
Matt: I don’t.
Aaron: The chickens could really come home to roost, in a positive way, in the next three episodes. On the timeline, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy is coming up.
Matt: I still don’t now how I feel about this episode. But I do feel that I have more information now than I did before we talked.
Aaron: I don’t think “The Flood” is an episode that we can resolve through one of our white man–Mexican man discussions. Our civil-rights détente. But I like the unresolvedness of this episode. And I don’t think we could have had this discussion if the episode weren’t working on some level.
Matt: So, as we sit here pointing out all the things about the episode that don’t work, it’s working.
Aaron: Yeah. Even people who hate this episode, who go on about how it’s a white show, and who sit there listing every single thing the episode shouldn’t have done, or could’ve done better, they’re gonna be talking about race. And even if the discussion devolves into a cacophony of white-white-white-white-white, people are still gonna be talking about race.