Mad Men season 6 episode 5 review: The Flood

Bobby Draper’s misaligned wallpaper. No, not the name of a prog rock band (yet, anyway) but the cause of one kid’s angst, and the catalyst for an examination of Don Draper not as a gigolo, ad genius, or cypher for post-WWII ennui; but as a father. Okay, and maybe that last one a little bit too.

Who among us couldn’t compile a list of overblown potential readings for Bobby’s irksome pattern mismatch? It signified the sixties generational schism, a sign that the world is off-kilter and time is out of joint, proof that baby boomers are preoccupied with shallow materialism (hell, when Dick Whitman was growing up, they didn’t even have wallpaper)… This is what Mad Men does. It builds its stories around metaphor and symbol, and in so doing, makes high school poetry students of us all.

On the subject of high school poetry, the best episodes of Mad Men provide us with what you might call Daffodils moments, scenes to keep in your mental Kodak carousel and revisit at will. Wordsworth got his kicks from spring flowers, but when oft upon my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood, it’s Betty aiming a rifle at those pigeons, or the ride-on lawnmower accident, or Don and Peggy’s mouse hunt that flash upon that inward eye. The Flood gave us one such moment: Don’s bedside confession that he didn’t feel love for his children until it lurched at him unawares.

That scene – beautifully acted by Jon Hamm and Jessica Paré – was much-needed at this point in Mad Men’s timeline. For the last few weeks at least, Don Draper has been detestable. Cheating (again), hypocritical (again), a bad-tempered drunk (again)… All this time though, we’ve been hating him when we should have been pitying him. Don was an unloved child, and it left him irreparably damaged. So damaged in fact, he’s spent six seasons searching for parental affection in the bed of every well-heeled brunette in Manhattan. The philandering bastard has spent decades faking it, so when he finally feels love – prompted by Bobby’s words of childish empathy to an usher in a darkened cinema – he’s left punch drunk and maudlin, unable to express himself through any other means than a packet of Milk Duds and a bottle of scotch. Here I was thinking Don was just being inscrutable all this time. It turns out he wasn’t feeling anything at all.

Something of note about Don’s confession to Megan was its style. A repetitive list of second person, present tense clauses: ‘you feel’, ‘you pretend’, ‘you realise’… it was the same language he uses to pitch, prompting the question of where Don Draper the boardroom construct ends and Don Draper the person begins… Apologies, I realise the ‘insufferably pretentious Mad Men musings’ needle has just been tipped into the red there. We’d better move on before I start on how Bobby’s torn wallpaper is really all about Vietnam.

In the week that saw the black civil rights movement lose its figurehead, fatherhood was a theme of The Flood. Well, that and impending apocalypse, but let’s start with the dad stuff. We saw estranged fathers – geographically in the case of Pete, and emotionally in the case of Don – and one all-too-proximate abba in the case of Ginsberg.

Pete’s separation from wife Trudy saw him hurt, isolated and looking for amity from a stranger who didn’t even speak the same language. The fallout from Martin Luther King’s assassination had sent Mad Men’s characters fleeing to the bosom of their families (or in Abe’s case, on the trail of a hot scoop), and Pete found himself with nowhere to go. Both the national and personal tragedy appeared to dredge some decency out of the usually unscrupulous Campbell, who took on callous Harry’s complaints about lost revenue and makegoods to decry this “shameful day”.

If the slanging match had come to blows, Pete could have chalked up a third office punch-up in his lifetime on the show. He’s already defended portly Peggy’s honour (or more likely, his own bruised ego) by lamping Ken in season one, taken on the dearly departed Lane in a game of fisticuffs in season five, and now called Harry out on his lack of tact at a time of public mourning. While I’d like to believe Pete has a right-thinking heart and conscience, it’s more likely that we wouldn’t have seen this week’s heroic performance if the character had had a hot dinner and a hotter wife to go home to.

Joyfully, Ginsberg was given multiple scenes this week, and even shared too much information in one of them. We learnt on his Woody Allen-y blind date that he’s still a virgin, and at home that he takes on the duties of an ersatz wife to his disappointed father. At home, at work, or on awkward dates, Ben Feldman’s Ginsberg is an absolute tonic. More tragi-comedy from him please. Likewise more from the upwardly mobile Peggy, who this week received the proposal – of sorts – from Abe that she was denied last season, a moment Elisabeth Moss played with characteristic charm.

Disappointed in her father was Megan, who drew a sharp connection between her dad’s Marxist bullshit and Don’s unavailability to his kids, “You don’t have Marx, you’ve got a bottle” she spat, prompting that golden monologue about his emotional aridity and the flood of fatherly love that knocks him off his feet when it belatedly arrives.

Between lying about the wallpaper and feeling too sick to attend Dr King’s vigil, it seems little Bobby Draper is a chip off the old block. Who doesn’t love a Mad Men trip to the movies? This week’s Planet of the Apes double-bill gave symbolism-seekers rich pickings. Impending doom, analogies for slavery and race conflict… it was all there this episosde. What has Mad Men ever been about if not man destroying himself? (Oh, and anyone complaining that them showing us the end of the movie was a spoiler, be a dear and show yourself out).

The assassination of Martin Luther King was the common thread drawing together The Flood’s scattered stories, a polarising event that showed the characters up as either ruthless and self-interested or empathetic and maladroit (Joan and Dawn’s hug a case in point). In the crisis, we saw where everyone’s priorities lay, with their family, career, or in Don’s case, mistress (Betty was spot-on with her “I guarantee you’d go to Canada on your knees to pick up your girlfriend”).

Amid the doom and mourning though, there were leavening moments of comedy, not least Roger’s space cadet insurance man. Was that a real, or metaphorical roof he talked Roger off? The rest of the laughs came either from Ginsberg, or Don’s cattiness about Peggy and her laxative radio spot, or Henry, whom he assures young Bobby “isn’t important enough” to be murdered.

In response to the King assassination, Mad Men’s cameras suddenly paid attention to the racially diverse peripheries of wealthy white Manhattan. As the episode went on, black bellhops, busboys, waiters and cinema ushers came out of the scenery and became visible, as if the show’s race blinkers had finally been shaken off. The best line of the episode in fact, was given to Peggy’s secretary Phyllis, her quietly strong “I knew it was going to happen. He knew it was going to happen. But it’s not going to stop anything”. Now that Dawn and Phyllis are being written into shape, let’s hope the all-white filters don’t come back once Dr King’s murder and the DC riots are no longer front page news, and the show’s black characters are given more to do than just react to national tragedy.

On that note, kudos to the cast and writers who staged the breaking news of King’s death with something unexpected: real pathos. The aftermath was played so well, and in such a variety of honest ways that the storyline wasn’t cheapened by being treated as just that: a storyline. Any drama that can make you grieve anew for an historical death that’s been insulated from shock and pain by the distancing honour of national holidays and street names is doing a great deal right.