Episodes like tonight are why yours truly avoids spoilers. Not knowing what’s about to happen makes episodes like this all the more surprisingly, shocking, and enjoyable to behold. We thought we all knew where this season of “Mad Men” was headed: the assassination of JFK. Clearly, that was going to encompass the season finale, right? Right. So what does Matthew Weiner do? Drop it into the first third of the season’s penultimate episode, allowing it to sneak up on us in much the same way as it snuck up on the world on November 22, 1963. Told over the four days from Kennedy’s death to the national day of mourning the following Monday, “The Grown Ups” managed to tie the season’s various loose threads into a singular, almost choking noose.
[Recap of Sunday’s (Nov. 1) “Mad Men” after the break… With spoilers…]
In some ways, the slow but pervasive rise of television crystallized in this moment, both in American society but “Mad Men” as well. This moment wasn’t the first big moment in television history, but it was the biggest: the first time in which the majority of Americans got hooked on television as their primary source of communication as well as community. The “huddled masses” spoken about at the foot of the Statue of Liberty stood huddled over television sets on November 22, baptized by the static-filled glow. Recently, Sterling Cooper had been tasked with selling the already antiquated technology of the telegraph. The assassination of Kennedy (and the subsequent murder of Oswald live on television) only furthered the divide between the then and the now in terms of those that lived through it.
After all, that’s the point of inserting Kennedy’s death into this particular story at this particular time: marking an epochal moment by which all events could be described in their relationship before or after it. Or, to frame it in perhaps a less overtly clinical way, Matthew Weiner constructed his story in such a way that all of his major players were perfectly poised to have this historical tragedy impact them in a way that left them with little in the way of recognizable ground below their feet. What’s left is a world in which Roger cannot find the humor in a situation, Pete chooses morality over work, and Don cannot find the words to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem.
While Season 3 has largely sidelined Roger Sterling, his moments tonight were not only highlights of the show but also highlights of his entire character’s arc. In some ways, he reminded me of The Comedian from Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” tonight: the man who had a gag for every situation, no matter how distasteful, only to be struck dumb and helpless in the face of real horror. Just contrast his pithy wit in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” with his measured, mature actions and words this week. Here’s a man who has realized over the course of this season that he married the wrong woman, acted not unlike someone her own age (if not younger), and has since tried to grown into the type of man that might be worthy of the one person he truly loves.
For anyone that thought Jane might truly be the love of his life last week, I think tonight’s episode puts it to rest. His call to Joan only strengthened my opinion last week that she’s the only one for him, and that his affair/marriage to Jane only happened due to Joan’s engagement to Greg. And now, both find themselves trapped in relationships that pale to the one they hid from Mona. In a pre-assassination era, such a life might have been bearable. Now? It’s clear Roger is sick of being the clown, whether in blackface or not. Joan just might be the only one who truly understands that. And when Greg goes to Vietnam shortly, she might finally have the chance to show him how much she understands.
The season-long “American Idol”-esque approach to the Pete/Ken account management face-off never really brought itself to the forefront this season, along, quite frankly, with the entire takeover of the company by Putnam, Powell, and Lowe staying equally in the murky background. Then again, it’s pretty clear that Ken’s success is murky to everyone, including perhaps Ken himself. Pete works harder at his job, and nominally does everything “correctly,” but his biggest problem? People see him working harder than everyone else, which ironically hurts his image. Ken never seems to sweat, so his clients never sweat.
One need only look back at “My Old Kentucky Home” to see Pete’s progression this year. Then? He puts up with Roger’s insanely racist performance and used Trudy as a prop to literally dance his way into the hearts and minds of senior management. Now? He refuses to go to Margaret’s wedding, unwilling to play a corporate game that 1) has not rewarded him, and 2) goes on seemingly impervious to Kennedy’s assassination. Watching Trudy take off her dancing shoes (quite literally) and stay on the couch with Pete to watch television coverage was simply marvelous: a small yet effective way to demonstrate a new era of solidarity in this new world order.
Trudy suggests that Pete round up his clients and take them to Duck’s company. Meanwhile, Duck’s other would-be conquest, Peggy, seemingly finds herself re-dedicated to Sterling Cooper in the wake of this week’s events. You gotta love that Duck and Peggy were two of the last people in America to know about the events in Dallas due to an ill-times tryst. It’s unclear just how much Duck’s been pursuing Peggy on a professional level over the past few months, but one gets the sense that this particular personal encounter was their last.
While Duck leaves to console his children, Peggy finds herself without anyplace to properly grieve. Her roommate invites their entire building into their apartment, which forces Peggy to Brooklyn. Once there, she’s choked by her mother’s histrionics, which forces her into an otherwise empty office, left alone to rescue an Aqua-Net ad with storyboards that bear more than a passing resemblance to Kennedy’s last moments. It’s fitting that she and Don are the only two in the office that day, as that might be the only place that’s left for them as this point. They briefly discuss the storyboards, choosing to focus on work as a type of balm, but it’s a bitter one at that.
Ah, yes, we’re finally getting to the real nitty gritty here with the Drapers. For me, everything you need to know about the difference in America before and after JFK’s assassination lies in this superficially banal exchange between Don and Betty on the dance floor of Margaret’s wedding.
Don: Everything’s going to be fine.
Betty: How do you know that?
Don: You’ll see.
The key is what happens in between the second and third line of that dialogue. Don leans in to kiss Betty, and the marital fires briefly stoked by their Roman holiday were utterly absent. Gone. Poof. Don senses this, and then in a small miracle of acting, Jon Hamm shows Don trying to “put on” his face in order to assure her. But having lowered his mask to reveal Mr. Whitman the episode before, he finds his difficult to simply assume the disguise again. January Jones, for her part, used Betty’s coldness not as a distancing mechanism but a weapon, almost freezing that look of panic onto her husband’s mug for the rest of the episode.
Betty, for her part, has lost three important men in her life this year, albeit in different ways. She lost her father, which sent her already troubled life careening off the tracks. She lost her husband, in that she lost any illusion of the life constructed around their relationship. Thus, in her mind, Kennedy’s death feels part of a triptych of men that have abandoned her. And while she did campaign briefly for Kennedy is Season 1, it’s clear that Kennedy’s death suggests something more symbolic than personal, something representative of a life in which questions had clear answers and not the vague, listless momentum of the everyday. It’s little wonder then that she instantly reaches out for the only male figure in her life offering her any sort of reliability: Henry Francis.
Is Henry payback for Don’s indiscretions? Seems unlikely, and far less interesting than the fact that what Betty’s has longed to do for a long time is…feel. Simply feel. I’ve taken plenty of pot shots at her inflexibility, frigidness, and timidity, but perhaps it’s high time to look at those traits as indicative of a particular upbringing in which a woman such as herself had no time for the weakness of emotions. So when she sees Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, it’s almost as she herself has been shot, punctured through her psychological armor and left exposed to the world for the first time.
During her phone conversation with Roger, Joan explains her husband’s absence thusly: “Car accidents are still happening… babies are still being born.” In other words, much in the way that life carried on relentlessly after the Cuban Missile Crisis that haunted the end of Season 2, life still marches on in the wake of Kennedy’s death. But, it’s crucial to note that the world is about to move on in a much different way. That unfamiliar ground I mentioned earlier? It’s about to separate people from each other in radical ways, shifts both tectonic and social. The major players all stand relatively close together at this moment, but the plates beneath them are about to violently sway.
What did you make of this JFK-centric episode? Leave your thoughts below!