FilmFisher is proud to host a collaborative series of “Inside A Scene” essays on the television show Mad Men, covering crucial scenes from each of the show’s seasons. Last week, Timothy Lawrence discussed the tragicomic dimensions of a memorable fistfight in the fifth season.
Like “Meditations In An Emergency,” which I previously wrote about for this series, Mad Men’s sixth season episode “The Flood” revolves around the way its characters struggle to react to events that carry great import but seem distant from the reality of their lives. Here, the tragedy in question is the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the responses range from callous selfishness to outraged hysteria. Harry Crane complains that special broadcasts are costing the firm money, and Pete Campbell immediately berates him as a racist, crying, “It’s a shameful, shameful day!” Pete’s outburst expresses a proper sentiment, but rings false because we sense that he is parading his moral superiority as much as he is sincerely lamenting the death of a great man. “The Flood” is ultimately an examination of the hazy middle ground between these two responses. Because people are naturally selfish, their attempts to act unselfishly tend to be fumbling, awkward, and, in a certain sense, insincere – but perhaps fake virtue is often a precursor to real virtue, in which case we ought not to judge these feeble beginnings too harshly.
The contrast embodied by Pete and Harry can be seen in the members of the Draper family and their varied reactions. On the day after the assassination, Megan, Sally, and baby Gene are going to a vigil in the park, but Bobby feigns illness so he can watch TV, and Don volunteers to stay home and watch him. Sally reprimands her father, “I knew you wouldn’t come.” Megan and Sally want to translate their feelings of grief into action – “I feel like I have to do something,” says Megan. In contrast, father and son soon find themselves at the theater, doing nothing more than watching Planet of the Apes twice in a row. Don and Bobby share the inclination to avoid facing reality, escaping into fantasy instead. Between showings, Bobby strikes up a conversation with an African American attendant – someone impacted by the tragedy far more directly than himself, though he is still a young child and it is unclear whether he understands this. Nevertheless, he is old enough to observe: “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.”
We next find Don sitting alone on the edge of his bed, with a glass in hand. Megan enters, having put the children to bed, and berates him for withdrawing: “No one knows what you’re feeling.” Like Pete confronting Harry, Megan accuses Don of failing to demonstrate his response to the tragedy, instead numbing himself with entertainment and alcohol. Megan’s reaction, like Pete’s, is well-meaning, but it is in Bobby that Don finds the acceptance and understanding that he craves, and it is this that fires him with the desire to accept and understand his children in turn. “You’re better with them,” he tells Megan, but she presses: “Is this really what you want to be to them, when they need you?”
Don’s response is simple: “No.” Though Don truly wants to be a good father, he is painfully conscious that he is not one, and more often than not does not even want to be one. His monologue to Megan reveals the depths of his inadequacy:
“I don’t think I ever wanted to be the man who loves children… That baby comes out and you act proud and excited and hand out cigars… But you don’t feel anything… You want to love them, but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your father had the same problem. Then one day they get older, and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.”
In the scene with Bobby, Don put his arm around his son, who looked pensively downward and revealed himself. Here, with Megan, the positions are reversed; now she puts her arm around him while he looks down and bares his soul. In both cases, the act of self-revelation creates intimacy, whether between parent and child or between wife and husband. However, this moment of authenticity is preceded by practice – by “faking,” as Don puts it. He is able to feel genuine love for his son because he has practiced loving his son even when genuine feeling is absent.
Much of Mad Men is about the act of pretending. Dick Whitman pretends to be Don Draper, and in the same way, we all impersonate the people we want to become. Earlier this year, Robert Heckert, writing about another scene from the show’s sixth season, examined Don’s need to acknowledge the repressed elements of his psyche. Indeed, the series frequently examines the way a culture of advertising sets up ideals that foster falseness, inauthenticity, and artificiality. In “The Flood,” however, we see that pretending is not, in itself, a bad thing to be straightforwardly condemned. Our culture tends to value authenticity above all, but “authenticity” is often a shallow concept, offering nothing more than a license to indulge any given whim at any given time. Virtue often feels inauthentic to us because we are vicious; goodness rings false because bad things touch us more closely. We are not yet good people, so we impersonate good people, and this imitation, by God’s grace, is the beginning of transformation. Nowhere have I found the risible colloquialism “fake it till you make it” truer than in my own practice of Christian holiness. I often find that I simply do not feel like being a Christian, do not even want to be a Christian, at which point I tend to find passages condemning hypocrisy swirling through my head, and must remind myself that God promises to requite my desire for Him, no matter how feeble it is. American Christians are fond of saying that their faith is not a religion, but a relationship. Too often this means that their God is little more than a buddy to get in touch with every now and then when the impulse strikes. However, any relationship worth its salt is religious, involving rituals that shape the self into a good spouse, a good parent, or a good friend. Love often springs up naturally in a marriage or friendship, but it must be tended to and shored up with practices if it is to flourish – otherwise the fowls of the air will come and devour it up.
There is something intrinsically selfish in the way Don’s love for Bobby first makes itself felt when he recognizes himself in his son’s behavior. Going to a movie during the day and commenting on the phenomena of human psychology is as good an imitation of the father as Bobby has ever done. Nevertheless, Don’s love for Bobby reveals his separateness. When Don finds Bobby lying awake in bed later, he thinks the movie is keeping him from sleep, but he is mistaken: Bobby cannot sleep because he is frightened that someone will assassinate Henry, his mother’s second husband. Don and Bobby both react to tragedy by seeking solace in fantasies and fictions, but it turns out that these are only roundabout ways to facing reality again. If our imitations of good are to be effective, we ought not to kid ourselves about how bad we actually are. “The Flood” concludes with Don wishing his son a good night, as a good father should, before going out onto the balcony to listen to the police sirens below.