I typically don't read episode reviews or recaps until I've written mine, because I don't want any thoughts that aren't my own to seep into my work, but I made an exception today and read The Hollywood Reporter's takedown of Season 6, Episode 5 of what I contend is still the best show on television.
The review called this episode,"The Flood", "Another weak Mad Men Episode..." in its headline, and proceeded to take issue with how the show dealt with the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. The writer, Tim Goodman, wrote a similar piece a week ago, where he lamented that the show needed to "get back into Don's head before it's too late", only to say this week that "This season’s most uneven element has to do with Don not evolving, not questioning things about his existence or how he’s living it. An affair with Sylvia is more of the same and, coming in Season 6, is just too much running in place for the show’s main character."
So, this writer, and perhaps a growing segment of the Mad Men audience, wants to get back inside Don's head, but when we spent a good chunk of this episode there, they didn't like it.
They are frustrated... why exactly? Because Don is too one-dimensional? I think I've been watching a different show. Don Draper is one of the deepest characters I've ever seen on television. Are people frustrated with the show because Don doesn't change? Because he makes the same mistakes, commits the same sins time and again?
To get frustrated with that, I think, is to get frustrated with one of the fundamental questions that the show asks its audience: Can people change?
"This is an opportunity. The heavens are telling us to change." -Randall Walsh, Roger's LSD-addled, insurance executive friend
"I just keep asking myself, what am I doing?" -Henry Francis
As Jon Hamm stated in a TIME Magazine feature in 2010, "the show is not a travelogue through the '60s", but Mad Men used the April 4, 1968 slaying of Dr. King much in the way it used the JFK assassination, back in Season 3.
Just as in 1963, we saw the collective shock to these character's systems, and what they did with those feelings. The Kennedy assassination gave Betty the impetus to divorce Don. Here, we saw Pete try to run back to Trudy, only to be rebuffed, Peggy and Abe nesting, Henry and Betty gearing up for public life, and Roger Sterling doing Roger Sterling things.
But the key story in "The Flood", was how Don reacted to the events. He ran to what he always runs to when he's trying to avoid something: the bottle, cancer sticks and the movies. Yet in trying to run away from feelings, Don ran right into a whole mess of them.
He took his son Bobby to see "Planet of the Apes" while Megan took Sally and Gene to a vigil for Dr. King. In witnessing an interaction between Bobby and an usher at the theater, Don realized that he loves his son. For someone who doesn't feel much of anything, that was a powerful revelation.
Later, while opening up to Megan, Don delivered one of my favorite monologues in the history of the show:
"I only ever wanted to be the man who loves children. But from the moment they're born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars, but you don't feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don't. And the fact that you're faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own 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." -Don Draper
The episode ended with Don, on his balcony, with sirens wailing in the distance. Perhaps Don has reached a critical moment in his life, where if he can't pull it together for his own sake, maybe he can try to change for the sake of his children. Or maybe he's now capable of feeling all sorts of things, now that he knows he feels something.