There’s no way Matthew Weiner and the other producers of Mad Men could have planned it.
Two weeks after our country endures the Boston Marathon Bombing and the ensuing manhunt, AMC airs “The Flood,” an episode in which the mid-century modern clad characters in the show grapple with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The reality/fiction continuum collided for one hour as I watched the narcissistic characters of Madison Avenue ad agencies mourn the loss of a national figure. I got chills when I saw Don Draper — the nihilistic, disconnected protagonist — lose his unflinching composure and look to his current wife, Megan, with an unnerved expression. Existing as we are in the current post-Boston Marathon Bombing world, for the first time in my life I was able to feel on a guttural level the loss of Dr. King. The producers of Mad Men attacked this great national loss with courage and tact, and it would have been powerful regardless of any tragedy du jour. But having it line up with the Boston Marathon Bombing, made the episode absolutely affecting.
Even more arresting was the fact that we who live in reality are grieving alongside these characters we’ve grown to know deeply over the past six seasons. There was a breaking of the fourth wall. Their grief was our grief. Their fight for meaning in the midst of national loss was our fight. Their looks of sadness and confusion were our looks. Fiction and reality blurred. I felt an authentic connection to these characters, not a cheap, manufactured kinship.
It was haunting television.
The wound of the Boston bombings hasn’t yet healed to a scar, allowing us to coexist in a common emotional space with the characters of Mad Men. Draper taking his son to Planet of the Apes turned from simply being clever commentary on our species at the tempestuous time of Dr. King’s death, to being a beautiful act between a father and son in a time of national chaos. An act many of us can relate to these days.
When Draper gets drunk at the end of the episode instead of being a strong father for his children, I didn’t judge him. If it weren’t for Boston, I would have.
And when he gets in bed with his fear-ridden son at the end of the episode, it was all of us at the end of a tragedy-filled day — be it JFK’s assassination or 9/11 — clutching our loved ones as we try to make sense of a senseless act.
“The Flood” is a supreme example of fiction allowing us deeper into the human experience, unplanned though it may have been.