While Mad Men has yet to fully establish a black character with any kind of depth or a significant storyline, its handling of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on last night's episode was still really honest for its portrayal of how a white, wealthy, alcoholic man would've reacted to the tragedy: by making it all about him.
It's not unusual for Mad Men to pivot a storyline off a major historical event, but rather than get mawkish or preachy, history is instead retold through the characters' personal experiences and what was going on in their lives at that time, which is actually how we all record the big shit we live through. I mean, we all have a 9/11 story, even if we weren't anywhere near NYC, DC, or Shanksville, PA.
And so we get Don Draper's MLK assassination story. What's different about this, as opposed to, say, Don Draper's JFK assassination story, is that when JFK was murdered, it was sad and shocking and it was a tragedy that belonged to the entire country—but it was also an attack on one man. When MLK was murdered, it wasn't just an attack on one man but on an entire movement. And—as evidenced by Joan awkwardly embracing Dawn and Peggy giving her condolences to Phyllis—many white people understood that some had more ownership over this particular tragedy than others, which is why it was the perfect cultural backdrop to further demonstrate just how selfish and and self-centered Don is. The city where he lives is in peril, people are grieving, and his own children are confused, but Don can only think about one thing at a time like this: himself.
Outwardly, it appears that Don's worried about his mistress Sylvia's safety, since she was on a business trip with Dr. Rosen to D.C.—one of the cities that experienced some of the biggest riots in the wake of the King assassination—but that was so much more about making himself feel better than any real concern for her. And during that whole thing, he had actually completely forgotten about his children, and failed to pick them up for the weekend. Betty called to remind him, and poo-poo'd his protestations about driving through Harlem. While she was ultimately right, the truth is that she was more in love with the idea of ruining Don and his "girlfriend's" weekend than she was concerned for anyone's safety. Betty and Don are both shitty, self-absorbed parents, and now that the kids are getting older, we're getting a chance to see just how much they're fucking them up.
Enter Bobby: the kid who was so insignificant up to this point that he was played by different actors and it didn't even matter. Now he's finally getting some face time. We see him in his bedroom staring at his wallpaper, clearly perturbed that it doesn't line up seamlessly. The imperfection causes him to pick at it, rip it, and basically ruin it. (It's practically an allegory for Don and his marriages. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) As his punishment, Betty forbids him to watch TV for a week.
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Don is good at getting around Betty's punishments, and takes Bobby to the movies, because it's technically not a violation. They see Planet of the Apes, and both get their minds blown by the twist ending. Don is impressed that his kid not only understand and appreciated the film, but also with something that Bobby said to a black usher, "Everybody likes to go to the movies when they're sad."
It's like Bobby was assuring the usher that the white people in the theater weren't being irreverent, they were just dealing with their grief in this manner. Don hadn't done anything to explain the events or their cultural significance to their children, but Bobby, at least, managed to figure it out on his own. In that moment, Don was really proud of his kid. And he realized that it was the first time that he ever had a genuine feeling regarding his children—he recognizes how fucked up that is and it caused him to drink.
But anything causes him to drink these days. It's gotten so bad that Megan points out to him that it is his crutch. Then he goes into a monologue about how he doesn't really love his kids and has been faking it the whole time, which leads him to wonder if his own father faked his love for him. He finally realized that he loves Bobby and feeling feelings is just too much for him that he has to drink.
"Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents," according to anthropologist Margaret Mead, who's been referenced on the show before. Being a divorced dad with a custody agreement has probably forced Don to be more involved in his children's lives than he would've been had he stayed married to Betty. But that doesn't mean that he's taken the role any more seriously. Perhaps Don is starting to understand that his own "social accident" of fatherhood is more like a "social disaster."
At the movie theater, he saw that his kid is growing up in spite of the lack of parental guidance. And while it remains to be seen if his kids are going to be OK, it evident that Don's lack of involvement is still influential on them: Bobby wasn't awake at night worried about Don. He was worried about Henry. It had to hurt for Don to hear that one.
Here's the whole country, mourning the death of one man (another noted philanderer), but Don isn't sure that his own kids would even miss him if he were dead. It's that kind of thinking that plays into suicidal ideations, and it seemed like Don was toying with that idea, drunk and lonely on the balcony. He didn't jump, of course, but he's falling and it seems like he's going to hit rock bottom pretty soon, and when he does, it will be hard.
The episode was titled "The Flood" in reference to Ginsberg's dad's mention of Noah's Ark. In that story, the flood was how God sought to reboot the world, because mankind was fucking it up. The flood was the really shitty part that was a necessity in order for everyone to start over. Right now this is Don's flood. It's his Inferno. It's his shitty party. Will he be able to navigate the roughness of the water in order to reach his fresh start?
Fitting in with the theme of fatherhood, Noah was a famous patriarch. And he saved himself and his family (and a bunch of animals) through his trust and faith in God, his higher power. It's something that you have to do in AA. (Ironically, after the ark, Noah became a vineyard farmer and an embarrassing drunk.)
So far this season has been about change, and whether or not that's possible. Can Don be granted the serenity to accept the things he cannot change, the courage to change the things he can, and wisdom to know the difference? It's looking more and more likely that he will need to stop drinking, but there will need to be some kind of impetus for that to happen.
The wacky insurance guy (Ethan from Lost!)who came into the ad agency with his weirdo Molotov cocktail idea (he was clearly a friend that Roger made during his LSD experimentation) wasn't just some comic relief in an otherwise weighty episode. Yeah, it was funny, but before he left, he said something that will surely come back to haunt Don:
This is an opportunity. The heavens are telling us to change.