The latest episode of “Mad Men,” “The Flood,” is one of those iconic episodes in which the 1960s intrudes on the lives of the denizens of Cooper, Sterling, Draper, Pryce and their various family members and friends.
In this case the event is the assassination of Martin Luther King and its violent aftermath. The Atlantic has an interesting discussion about how this episode handles race relations in the late 1960s, but I would like to try a different approach, touching on how too many 1968 felt as if it was the year the civilization itself was coming to an end.
To say that the late 1960s was a time of social unrest is to somewhat understate the reality. For many people, pent up resentments, the desire of political change, or the sheer desire to join in the chaos led to civil violence on a scale that most white, middle class people found shocking. The riots that took place after Dr. King was shot down by James Earl Ray were just one episode, an ironic one considering that he preached non violence.
In the series, the Tet Offensive is already playing itself out, both in Vietnam and, in a way, on college campuses. Bobby Kennedy, both greatly beloved and somewhat overrated, has but weeks to live; he will be shot by a Palestinian extremist named Sirhan Sirhan.
The reaction of some of the characters in “Mad Men” is illustrative of how many reacted to the chaos. While most people tried to keep their heads down and hope for better days, some of the characters have made life altering decisions.
Peter Campbell’s blow up at Harry and Harry’s exasperated response presages the poisonous racial politics that lasts to this day. Peter calls Harry a racist for only worrying about the effects King’s death has on television advertising. Harry shoots back, “That’s the latest thing, isn’t it? Everybody’s a racist!”
Henry, Betty’s husband, begins to wonder whether John Lindsey has bought peace in New York City at a price that will be paid for in years to come. He is right that this is so. Lindsey created problems in New York with welfare for all and a lackadaisical approach to crime control that were only addressed 30 years later by Rudy Giuliani.
Don Draper’s choice of a movie to take his son too was interesting. “Planet of the Apes” was a science fiction work that suggested that mankind was doomed and likely deserved it. Around the same time, another movie had just been released, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that had a slightly more hopeful look at the future. But that wouldn’t have fit into the decidedly gloomy theme of the episode. So we are left with the iconic scene of Charlton Heston screaming at the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and imagining the characters wonder if that is, in fact, their future.