Your ‘Mad Men’ Season 6, Episode 5 Talking Points: The MLK Test

No current TV show generates more Monday morning conversation than Mad Men. With that in mind, Flavorwire is recapping Season 6′s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce by giving you a handful of talking points to spark your own water-cooler debate. Last night’s episode, “The Flood,” revived one of Matthew Weiner’s favorite formulas; as with Season 5’s “The Other Woman,” which found Joan making partner by sleeping with a client, it forced everyone to react to a difficult situation, thereby taking the moral temperature of each character. The difference is that, this time, the crisis — the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. — was society-wide.
From Joan awkwardly hugging Dawn to Peggy awkwardly (yet sincerely) hugging her secretary — and then sending her home after deciding that some things really are more important than work — “The Flood” not only revealed where the characters stand on Civil Rights, but also examined their capacity for empathy. While some (Betty, Harry Crane) were unable to see beyond the personal inconvenience of riots and somber news updates, others were devastated, and couldn’t help questioning their own existences in light of King’s murder. Let’s examine the three most fascinating reactions:

Dawn: Despite the fact that many of Mad Men‘s white characters were shocked, upset, and even moved to tears by the news of King’s death, what’s most frustrating about “The Flood” is the way in which so many treat the tragedy as a loss for the black characters in their lives, rather than society as a whole. They mean well, of course; they’re trying to show empathy. But their reactions also reveal that they see their colleagues of color as “the other” — and Dawn refuses to let the SCDP treat her this way. “I’d really rather be here today,” she tells them, refusing their offer of a day off.

Abe: At first, Peggy’s boyfriend seems like your typical opportunistic journalist, rushing off to Harlem to report on the reaction to King’s death and leaving her to finish out the awards ceremony on her own. But his revelation, late in the episode, that he doesn’t want to move to the Upper East Side because he “saw us raising our kids in a place with more different kinds of people” is one of the episode’s few examples of a character really thinking about King’s integrationist message.

Pete: Is Pete Campbell growing a soul? For once, he’s on the right side of a moral debate, calling the increasingly horrifying Harry “a bona fide racist” for whining about how King’s assassination is affecting his TV clients. “That man had a wife and four children,” says Pete, who seems genuinely shaken up. But, of course, his grief isn’t as unselfish as it first appears: clearly Pete is thinking about King’s family losing their father because he’s a father who’s just lost his family. He offers to come stay with Trudy after the news breaks — although it’s clear he needs her more than she needs him — but she won’t have it, and he’s left trying to make conversation with an uninterested Chinese food deliveryman. The question is whether this moment of loneliness and despair will truly be a turning point for Pete, or whether it will send him even deeper into solipsism and self-indulgence.

Don: It’s hard to tell what Don Draper is ever reacting to; sure, MLK is on everyone’s mind this week, and it’s a moment of (touching, if also awkward) empathy between his son Bobby and a black movie theater usher that turns him philosophical. Several drinks in, Megan complains that she can never tell what he’s thinking, and Don launches into a monologue about how he spent years pretending to love his children because his own bad childhood made him unable to connect as a parent. But, he tells her, there’s a moment when “you feel the feeling you were pretending to have [for your child] and it feels like your heart is going to explode.” It may take drunkenness to get Don to be so candid, but still — we’ve never seen him be so honest with the woman in his life. Perhaps this marriage isn’t doomed, after all?

Additional talking points:

  • Bobby is finally a character: Here’s hoping the new actor sticks around, because it seems we’re finally going to know something about Don Draper’s son.
  • Planet of the Apes: It’s significant that the movie that made such an impact on Don is about returning to the world you came from, way back in the past, and not recognizing it as your home. That is, of course, one of Mad Men‘s most enduring themes, the idea that times change and the world leaves behind people who can’t adapt.
  • “The heavens are telling us to change”: Which brings us to the show’s most portentous line, uttered by acid-dropping insurance oddball Randall Walsh — who wants to capitalize on the riots by building an ad around a Molotov cocktail, for some apparently cosmic reason.
  • “He said he applauded the escalation of decay”: Gotta love Megan’s Marxist father and his infuriating detachment from the emotional impact of political events, eh?