Waxing Episodic: ‘Nixon vs. Kennedy’ displayed ‘Mad Men’s knack for surprise

In HitFix’s new feature “Waxing Episodic,” we reflect on an episode of television we’ll never forget.

Among the many fascinating things to come out of the last two episodes of “Mad Men” is how they’ve provided perfect end points – some happy, some tragic, some in-between – for so many of the characters. If the last I ever see of Peggy is her strutting through the halls of McCann with her sunglasses, cigarette and octopus porn painting, that will be enough. Ditto Betty going back to school in spite of the cancer diagnosis, or Roger saying goodbye to the SC&P office, or Pete getting his happy ending in Wichita with Trudy and Tammy. Hell, if the very last glimpse the series gave us of Don Draper was him sitting on that Oklahoma bus bench, a satisfied grin on his face after divesting himself of all his worldly possessions, I don’t know that I would have wanted anything more. The notion of him finally finding contentment after being stripped of all of the trappings of his stolen life would be just fine, thank you.

So there’s nothing I really need from Sunday night’s finale, other than maybe a Don/Peggy farewell scene. And even there, we got the dance in “The Strategy” and the look they shared in the Burger Chef pitch meeting in “Waterloo.” That they continued interacting for a few more episodes, culminating with him dumping all over her dreams and her storming out of his office, doesn’t take those earlier moments away; if anything, it may be a more fitting commentary on the nature of their relationship that their last encounter was one where he inadvertently made her feel bad.

But the point is, the series finale could feature anything. It could spend the entire time following Don on his hobo odyssey. It could only deal with business in New York and leave it to us to imagine what Don/Dick does with his life after the bus comes. It could feature a time jump, or multiple time jumps, or the whole thing could be a flashback set in the gap between seasons 1 and 2 in which Don and Roger go to a Yankee game to watch Mantle and Maris hit home runs. Matt Weiner has so thoroughly given every character who really matters, and the show itself, an ending, that the finale could be a backdoor pilot about Ho-Ho’s continued quest to build a jai alai empire and I wouldn’t feel like I’d been robbed of closure for the characters I care about.

Nor would that feel wildly out of keeping for a show that has taken enormous pleasure over the years in surprising its viewers and withholding what they most expected or desired.

Which brings us to “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” When I volunteered to do this week’s “Waxing Episodic,” it made sense to pick a “Mad Men” episode, and I wanted to use one that hadn’t made the top 20 list Fienberg and I agreed on, and preferably one I had watched and written about a long time ago. (That left “Waterloo” out, for instance.) It could have been “5G,” or “The New Girl” or any of a wide swath of great “Mad Men” episodes that met those two qualifications.

But I kept coming back to “Nixon vs. Kennedy” because it features one of the most important lines in the history of the series:

“Mr. Campbell, who cares?”

Season 1 to this point had painstakingly set up both the mystery of Dick Whitman and the Don/Pete rivalry so that, when the previous episode ended with Pete accidentally receiving the box containing evidence of Don’s true identity, we would all assume an explosion was coming. Instead, it’s nothing: inscrutable Ayn Rand devotee Bert Cooper shrugs off Pete’s news as irrelevant to the current state of the agency, and sends them both back to work.

This is a big moment, and not just because it bonds the three men together in ways that will reverbate throughout the series (in season 3, Cooper uses this knowledge to blackmail Don into finally signing a contract; in season 4, Pete has to scuttle a valuable account because he realizes it will expose Don’s crime). It’s big because it set up “Mad Men” as a show that the audience shouldn’t bother trying to predict in advance because, much like the series Weiner worked on before this one, it defied narrative convention whenever possible. Every now and then, the audience might be able to guess where the story was going – notably in the case of Peggy’s weight gain, where half the fans guessed that she was pregnant and the other half (me included) insisted a woman would know – but far more often, Weiner and company would take major story and character arcs in directions no one so much as contemplated. So Cooper dismisses the Dick Whitman news, or Lane helps Don steal the agency out from under the Brits, or Don impulsively proposes to Megan instead of Dr. Faye. Even the periodic agency restructurings – ultimately as strong a recurring “Mad Men” element as Don taking a new brunette mistress – seemed to come when we least expected them to.

When Cooper uttered those words to Pete in “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” I laughed, then clapped, then shook my head at the pleasant surprise of it all. I didn’t see it coming, yet in hindsight it made perfect sense from this man, in this era (when Don’s identity theft was much easier to hide), and at this moment (when Cooper and the agency felt so unmoored due to JFK’s victory in the election).

It’s a great moment in a great episode, which throughout its running time offers reminders of how much Weiner enjoyed playing not only with the viewer’s expectations about plot, but about structure. Though “Mad Men” consistently involves clients coming to the different agencies, mixed with personal problems for different characters, but they all have their own rhythms (even the different heist episodes introduce the idea at different points in the hour) so that it’s hard to know what might be coming next, or when.

Take the election night party at the old Sterling Cooper office. It had been so long since I’d watched “Nixon vs. Kennedy” that my memory had expanded that sequence into fully half the episode. Instead, it’s only 10-odd minutes, but it’s 10-odd minutes focusing on supporting characters like Kinsey, Harry and Sal (albeit with Joan around to up the overall star factor), and it’s so rich with incident(*) and meaning that it feels like an entire mini-episode embedded in between all the Don vs. Pete action.

(*) The performance of Paul’s play is a particular wonder, as it shines a light on his wild insecurities while also cluing Joan in to Sal’s secret (check the look on her face after he kisses her), but there’s also that great scene where Paul and Joan discuss their doomed relationship, and images both beautiful (the water cooler filled with Crème de menthe) and unsettling (Ken gleefully tackling Don’s future secretary Allison so he can look up her skirt, and her rewarding him for that by spending the night with him in his office). And it gives us the fall from grace of Harry who – hard as it is to imagine now – was once the most sympathetic member of Pete’s entourage. From time to time after, the show would provide glimpses of what life was like at the office when the partners were away, but this remains my favorite of those.

Character-wise, “Nixon vs. Kennedy” also keeps the audience off-balance with the scene where Don asks Rachel to run away with him, and inadvertently lets her see the real Dick Whitman at the worst possible moment. Jon Hamm so thoroughly upends our view of the character as a master of the universe that, as Weiner once told me, the episode’s editor worried that Weiner would hate the scene because Don looked too weak. Instead, that was exactly what Hamm was supposed to be playing, and he went a step further when the episode’s flashbacks finally showed us exactly what happened between Dick and the real Donald Draper. (For those wondering if last week’s American Legion scene suggested Don was confessing to intentionally killing his lieutenant, the flashbacks in this one make absolutely clear that it was an accident.)

Peggy’s barely in the episode, yet it’s her frustration over inadvertently costing the black elevator operator his job (when he gets blamed for stealing cash from her purse when it was obviously one of the white partygoers) and talk about life’s unfairness that inspires Don to find his guts and face the consequences of Pete’s threat. It’s yet another reminder of the power of their relationship, even a such an early stage before he truly became her mentor, and it makes me very hopeful for one last interaction between them on Sunday night.

The episode ends on the worst aspect of Dick’s original sin: not stealing Lt. Draper’s identity, but abandoning Adam at the train station. By this point in the season, we’ve already seen Don pay his brother to go away, and seen a distraught Adam hang himself rather than face a future with no family. So the scene where he’s on the train as young Adam tries to convince Abigail and Uncle Mack that he saw Dick on the train feels especially low.

Don’s our protagonist, but he’s done some godawful things to people he should have cared more about over the years. He’s also suffered a lot for those misdeeds, and one of the key themes of this final season has been him recognizing how wrong so much of his life went because of his decision to one terrified, impulsive decision involving a dead man’s dogtags. He’s given up most of what he acquired via that initial theft, which leaves both him and “Mad Men” as a whole with a world of possibility ahead for the finale. I have no idea what’s going to happen, who’s going to appear, or anything else.

And more than I ever have before, I can appreciate Weiner’s spoiler paranoia. There were times when it felt like overkill, but with two days to go before a series finale for which I have zero confident predictions, I feel very pleased with how little I know.

Surprise me one last time, “Mad Men,” okay?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com