“Mad Men” has taken more than its fair share of shots so far this season for not being quite up to par — and chances are you either agree with the complaints, or view them as a depressingly familiar early-season refrain from impatient critics. Either way, to these eyes “The Flood” was the first truly underwhelming episode of Season 6.
“Mad Men” tends to avoid putting major historical events at the forefront of its storylines, but just as the JFK assassination dominated Season 3’s “The Grown-Ups,” the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. loomed large over much of “The Flood,” and neither the characters nor the show seemed to know quite how to deal with it. But even lesser episodes of “Mad Men” still deliver great moments — often supplied by characters we don’t see a lot of, as was the case with Ginsberg and Bobby Draper this week.
[Note: In the spirit of showrunner Matthew Weiner declaring
that this season is about Dr. Arnold Rosen telling Don, “People will do
anything to alleviate their anxiety,” we’re tracking the happiness of key
characters week by week.]
The “Mad Men” happiness index, week four:
1) Roger (last week, #1): Did Roger drop acid with his weirdo “insurance” buddy Randall Walsh (played by guest star William Mapother — Tom Cruise’s real-life cousin and best known to TV audiences as Ethan on “Lost”) or what? When Roger said Randy “talked him off a ledge,” he must have meant it literally. Anyway, we’re still waiting for a follow-up to Roger’s season premiere ennui but got another week of Roger the happy-go-lucky jokester, aside from his very brief eulogy for Dr. King.
2) Peggy (last week, #2): Being the main breadwinner could still become an obstacle in Peggy’s relationship with Abe at some point, but she’s relieved enough to hear him mention their future (“I saw us raising kids in a place with more different kind of people”) that she’s able to get over the loss of that Upper East Side apartment. (Side note: We got a funny vibe from Ted during the award show and are now a little worried Peggy is about to run into something she never faced with Don — a boss who wants to sleep with her.)
3) Joan (last week, #4): She’s obviously upset over the assassination — and we cringed during her awkward (but clearly well-intentioned) hug with Dawn — but otherwise Joan is mostly unexplored in the background again this week.
4) Ginsberg (unranked last week): We don’t often go home with Ginsberg, which makes every visit a treat. His father, Morris (Stephen Mendel), sets him up on a blind date with school teacher Beverly Farber (Nicole Hayden), and poor Ginsberg is so flustered he blurts out that he’s a virgin during small talk at a diner. However that relationship is destined to end up, Morris’ words of advice get right to the season’s core theme: “Now’s the time when a man and a woman need to be together the most — in a catastrophe.”
5) Bobby (unranked last week): Little Bobby Draper makes two major breakthroughs this week — impressing his father with words of kindness for a movie theater usher (“Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.”) and impressing viewers with his first storyline as a major character. It probably says something about both Don and us that Bobby was never very interesting until he was able to recognize and express his own sadness.
6) Megan (last week, #9): She’s still a bundle of insecurities (“Do they hate me? she asks Peggy, when Peggy tells her that her mother and sister watch Megan’s soap) lurking within a talented package (she wins that advertising award she’s nominated for — bringing home a trophy for SCDP and their former baked beans account), but this week Megan also gets a break from the misery of the past two installments. She’s worried Don is becoming too much like her father — burying his emotions with alcohol instead of Marxist rhetoric — but then finds a glimmer of hope in the way Don talks about Bobby. Ever the optimist, it’s entirely possible she saw this as a sign he wants to be a father again.
7) Betty (unranked last week): Despite her annoyance at seeing another child start to act out, Betty is relatively calm and composed this week. She accuses Don of not caring about the kids and finds herself alternately frightened and fascinated by the assassination coverage, but there’s no tenement kids crisis or anything like that. Just Henry Francis telling her he’s decided to run for New York State Senate (in a Republican district where he’s a slam dunk), which could lead to State Attorney General and beyond. (It’s pretty easy to imagine Betty befriending Nancy Reagan in her later years.) She’s happy for Henry Francis, but she’s less happy at the idea of being thrust into the political spotlight while still trying to “reduce.”
8) Don (last week, #10): Don spends most of the hour vacillating between a drunken stupor and a state of panic over Sylvia’s safety in D.C. (At least we think he’s concerned for Sylvia. He keeps mentioning Arnold, probably to make it less suspicious. But there’s still the lingering possibility that Don’s affair with Sylvia has something to do consciously or subconsciously with trying to become Dr. Rosen … so maybe he actually is Don’s primary concern.) But his “Planet of the Apes” bonding session with Bobby reveals the softer side of Don Draper. And when Megan presses him about what he’s feeling, Don’s speech about his inability to connect with his newborn children giving way to genuine love as they grow older — and surprise him with their empathy and curiosity — is a standout moment representing “Mad Men” at its best. (Seriously, why hasn’t Jon Hamm won an Emmy yet?)
9) Harry (last week, #7): Complaining about lost airtime for TV commercials in the wake of an assassination is about as ass-clowny as it gets, and Harry’s hit parade of miserable self-important complaints (following his outburst about Joan during the partners meeting) marches on.
10) Pete (last week, #8): Clearly lonely living in the city on his own, Pete tries to reconcile somewhat with Trudy — and fails miserably. He’s further irked by Harry’s insensitivity and turns Trudy’s declaration that the assassination was “shameful” into his own battle cry. It’s moments like this that we remember we actually feel sorry for Pete … sometimes.
Falling off the index: Dawn (who only had one — very good — after enjoying the spotlight more than usual last week), Stan (although he seemed nicely buzzed) and Cosgrove (who was barely present).