And so we come to "The Flood," the fifth episode of the sixth season of "Mad Men," and what was probably the most complicated, layered, interlaced episode of the entire run: Full of symbols, historic tangents, backstory, front-story, foreshadows, old shadows, new shadows, pop culture references and touchstones, character development, inter-family complexities, emotional riffs and .?.?. wallpaper. Everything refracted, twisted, refined and ultimately reduced by one of the singular events of American history, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Did "Mad Men" — usually reasonably careful about not succumbing to the "Lost" impulse of stuffing too much into one episodic bag — succumb to that impulse Sunday? Probably — simply because it's trained everyone (viewers, fans, and particularly hundreds of professional "Mad Men" bloggers) to think about the relationship of ideas, themes and images, and not in just one episode but how they figure into the series as a whole. Nothing's ever left to chance here, or so we've been taught, and when too many ideas come flying out of the screen, most of them are bound to end up on the living floor, a twisted pile of Matt Weinerian bain puzzles .?.?.
Except .?.?. Sunday worked, and worked well. The reason is that in the final analysis it really was all just about one "thing" — the assassination of MLK and how that forced "Mad Men" onto a whole new plane of reality. The whole world, the whole messy world of racism, injustice, violence, prejudice and bloated human passion finally blasted through the doors of SCDP, tumbling into the messy mental inner sanctums. Usually — no, make that always, "Mad Men" has been about the inner lives of its character and how those lives play out against a backdrop of a world in change.
But Sunday reversed all that: The historic event itself became the central focus, and the characters became subsidiary to it — and changed by the utter magnitude of the crime.
So maybe it's just best to approach this episode as a compilation of obvious hints and dramatic gestures, all formed by the huge event that blasted everyone off their comfortable, reliable, predictable perches.
For example, the meaning of Bobby — Betty's "Little Liar" — picking at the wallpaper in his bedroom? Probably not much more than the obvious — the world is coming apart too.
Roger's acid popping pal and insurance magnet (played by "Lost's" and "Justified's" William Mapother) ruminating about his dream where he was visited by Martin Luther King or quoting (sort of) Tecumseh?
Quite possibly nothing more than a cautionary tale of the ill-effects of acid on the human mind .?.?. (And priceless watching Stan rumble with laughter in the background .?.?.)
Don's confession to Megs about the failure of his ability to love his children and then the sensation of getting "that feeling that you were pretending to have .?.?. and it feels like your heart is going to explode?"
Merely long-repressed Don becoming unrepressed, and a flashback to Season 3's "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" — right after the assassination of JFK — when our anti-hero shuffles through a series of memories of his own father, and witnessing his demise — a kick to the head by a horse .?.?.
Remember Don's most famous quote, from some episode somewhere? "You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one."
The death of Martin Luther King Jr. demolished that rule, forcing Don to grow a little more into his humanity. There is in fact a "tomorrow." Don's just not sure how — or if — he has a place in it or if anybody does for that matter.
Best then to hold on to what matters, or at least learn what matters. It's a sentimental reading (and viewing) of "The Flood," but then maybe Don is getting sentimental in his old age, too.