Reminiscent of the season three episode, “The Grown-Ups,” which revolved around the Kennedy assassination, “The Flood” portrays the characters’ reaction to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Changes in everyone’s lives play out against the background of the murder of the nation’s leading civil rights leader in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Early in the episode, Paul Newman addresses an advertising award ceremony attended by most of the main characters. An opponent of the Vietnam War, Newman expresses his support for Senator Eugene McCarthy, praising him for challenging Lyndon Johnson over the war before Robert Kennedy entered the race. Indeed, antiwar forces wanted RFK to run against LBJ, but he turned them down. McCarthy accepted and with the assistance of an energetic group of young volunteers, nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Only after seeing Johnson’s weakness did Kennedy enter the Democratic race. Abe Drexler, the most politically progressive character on the show, applauds Newman’s remarks.
Everything changes when someone shouts out that Martin Luther King has been killed. Still working for New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Henry Francis leaves his Westchester County home to help out, telling Betty “they’re going to burn down the city,” a reference to the urban riots of recent years, notably Watts in 1965 and Detroit and Newark in 1967. Abe leaves the ceremony and goes to Harlem to report on the black community’s reaction and news reports follow about how King was murdered while advocating for sanitation workers in Memphis.
Pete returns to his apartment in the city and calls Trudy in the Connecticut suburbs. Whereas the couple held each closely while watching the coverage of the Kennedy assassination five years earlier, they are now estranged. The separation is cemented when Trudy rejects Peter’s suggestion that he come stay with her and their child during this difficult time.
The next day, Henry confirms to Betty the newspaper’s accounts of the previous night. Along with a few advisers, Lindsay walked into Harlem to try to calm an angry crowd and was largely successful. Though there was a small riot that night, the city avoided the troubles that plagued Washington, D.C. and other cities that night (Cannato, 211-215). Indeed, riots occurred in 125 cities across the nation that night. Later in the episode, though, Henry expresses frustration that the city achieved calmness by paying off urban militants. Indeed, some have criticized the Lindsay Administration for funneling money to radicals in the late 60s and early 70s (Cannato, 130-131).
Harry Crane and Peter have a confrontation because Harry is worried about advertisers losing money because news reports are preempting the prime time schedule. Crane is annoyed by all the network special reports, a common phenomenon in the days before cable news and Internet when the three networks were the only game in town for news. Peter, who has been a relative liberal on race, including pushing clients to pursue the African American market, is furious about Harry’s greed in the face of a national tragedy, calling him a racist. “No one will be happy until they turn the most beautiful city in the world into a shithole,” responds Crane.
Meanwhile, Don seems unable to relate to his kids during the aftermath of the tragedy and finds solace in (surprise) alcohol. While Megan, Sally and Gene go to a vigil in the park, Don takes Bobby to see “Planet of the Apes.” With its depiction of the decline and destruction of humanity, the film very much reflected the dark mood of 1968. For more on the movie, see http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2011/08/return-to-planet-of-apes.html
For the most part, the episode is replete with white people upset over Dr. King’s death while providing solace (albeit awkwardly) to black co-workers. While this no doubt occurred in some instances, it is important to remember that King became a much more polarizing figure than remembered during the final years of his life. His opposition to the Vietnam War alienated many Americans and his focus on economic issues, which included talk of income redistribution, was also controversial. King moved to address class divisions in America and was in the midst of preparing for his Poor Peoples’ Campaign, which was to include a march to Washington, D.C. where he and his allies would camp out until Congress legislated greater funding to combat poverty.
“The Flood” proves to be the best episode of what has been a relatively weak season to this point. With the Tet Offensive and King assassination behind them, more turmoil awaits our friends as the summer of 1968 arrives on “Mad Men.”
Sources: Vincent Cannato, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York (New York, 2001)