Show creator Matthew Weiner has often said in interviews that he was reluctant to take on the Kennedy assassination, arguably the seminal event of the sixties, because it had been explored to death in more films and television shows than you can count and he felt he couldn’t bring anything new or fresh to the story. As the episodes piled up this season and those of us who obsess over this sort of thing took note of the dates, it became obvious that he had changed his mind and the event was going to be examined before the season ended. Unfortunately, after watching this episode, we have to say his initial instincts were correct. There was nothing particularly new or interesting in this version of the tale. Most dramatic explorations of the assassination from the view of the general public hit two major tropes: people watching TV in horror, and people reacting to the shock of the event by questioning their own lives. We got plenty of both last night and it made for what we would consider the most disappointing episode of the season.
Of course a disappointing episode of Mad Men is still better than 95% of what appears on television and there were plenty of interesting scenes and interactions plus one major shift in the plot at the very end. And to be fair, almost any episode was going to have a very hard time following last week’s episode which, as we said, was probably the best in the entire series.
But let’s talk about the assassination before we get into what we think was the major theme or motif running through the episode. Here’s what we think they got right and what we think made perfect sense for the characters:
♦ Pete and Harry, having a whinefest (because let’s face it: they are the two whiniest characters on a show full of them) about their careers, so caught up in their own drama that they don’t even notice the flash on the television informing them of the assassination.
♦ Betty, after a year full of disappointments, finally has the emotional reaction she couldn’t have when her own father died; she cried. And she spent the rest of the episode floundering around, looking for someone to explain it to her or at the very least validate what she was feeling. “What is going on?!” she cried out in anger, and the only answers she got back were “It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be alright,” answers that she didn’t believe and didn’t want to hear.
♦ And what we thought was the best touch of all and handled with great subtlety, Carla, all barriers momentarily forgotten, slumps down on the couch next to her employer, takes one of her cigarettes and cries too for the man many African-Americans of the period considered their greatest hope.
♦ Sally and Bobby, too young to understand but nevertheless fascinated by what’s playing out in front of them. Adults didn’t cry in their world and suddenly all of them were doing so. We have a slight quibble with Sally’s reaction, though. She’s old enough and the show has demonstrated time and again, insightful enough, that we would have thought she’d demonstrate a more knowing reaction than that.
♦ And then there’s Don, completely dissociated from his emotions and the emotions of others, advising Betty to lie down and medicate herself and chastising her for letting the kids watch the events unfold on television. Much like in Season 1 after her mother died, Don simply can’t be there for Betty when she has emotional responses like this. Not because he doesn’t want to – this episode made clear that he’s tip-toeing around her and trying to be the best husband he can be after last week – but because he’s spent his whole life hiding the truth and subsequently doesn’t have the capability to show empathy or to be in touch with his own emotions.
If you lived through these events or if you were the type of people (like us) who loved hearing the stories from people who did, you could probably come up with stories that were as interesting or moreso than the reactions we saw this episode. That’s what made it somewhat disappointing. Clearly, they wanted to, but the show creators simply didn’t bring anything new to the table and there were no real revelations to be had.
Now, having got the bitching out of the way, let’s take a look at the real motif of the episode. With the nuptials of Margaret Sterling and her (we have to say, distractingly cute) fiance, the theme was couples: married, unmarried, used-to-be married, wanna-be married, and should-have-gotten married. Betty and Don, Betty and Henry, Roger and Mona, Roger and Jane, Roger and Joan, Peggy and Duck, and in a huge surprise to us, the couple that went from being our least favorite on the show (we once said they were horrible people and we’d never want to be stuck on an elevator with them) to becoming our new favorites: Pete and Trudy.
How did that happen? How did this whiny boychild and his spoiled rotten wife become the fabulous young couple whose every scene illustrates how good they are for each other and how sweet they are together? From the only-a-married-couple scene of Trudy leaning in to Pete and asking “Do I have bags?” to the two of them curled up on the couch and exploring their horror at the events on their TV, to her support of him after his career disappointment, they’ve become the new golden couple after the previous years’ model (Don and Betty) has deteriorated to the point of no return.
The ending of last week’s episode made it seem as if the crisis may have passed in the Draper marriage and that might have held true if the assassination hadn’t happened. Unfortunately, Betty was at the end of her rope emotionally after the birth of a child she didn’t particularly want, the death of her father, the revelation that her husband has been lying to her the entire time she’s known him, and the confusion brought on by her feelings for Henry. It was all just too much for her and the assassination lit a match under her and set her off.
And maybe if she hadn’t run into Henry at the wedding (We have to say, we loved her little smirk and “Of course” under her breath when he walked in), she wouldn’t have come to the conclusion that she did. But sometimes life lays out your choices for you very clearly and Betty saw both her husband and the man she’s most intrigued by standing side by side and looking at her with adoration and in that moment, it appears she made her decision. Actually, that’s not true. Betty made her decision when Henry announced his intention to marry her. She’d never leave Don to be a single divorcee like Helen Bishop, but she’d do it to become another man’s wife, like Happy Rockefeller.
So Betty wants out and we can’t say we’re surprised by that. When Betty announces the end of her feelings for Don he typically tries to play it down and doesn’t display any emotion until he’s alone. Do we feel sorry for him? Sure. A little. But take a second and run down all the shitty things he’s done in his marriage over and over again and any sympathy we have gets watered down quite a bit. We feel bad for Don, but we can’t say he doesn’t deserve it.
On the one hand, we’d be sorry to see the Draper marriage end because a single Don doesn’t sound all that interesting to us and a Betty married off to someone else would likely mean she’s off the show for good. We know we complained that there was too much focus on their marriage this season, coming on the heels of last year’s season-long examination of their marital troubles, but like it or not, they are the center of the show. Without the drama inherent in the perfect Drapers living the dream life and dying a little inside, we don’t know what the purpose of the show would be.
But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe next episode they’ll run back into each other’s arms, just like they did at the end of last season. If that’s the case, color us bored and disappointed. How many times are we supposed to see them almost break up and then come back together at the last minute?
In other news, Peggy is once again revealed to be a junior Don Draper. She’s as dissociated and unempathetic as he is. Although we have to give her a lot of credit. So focused is she on her career and so good is she at it, that she had the presence of mind to realize that the upcoming shoot of their proposed Aquanet commercial – the one depicting two couples in a car with the top down – would be a disastrous idea in the wake of the assassination and like a good little soldier, was in the office all alone trying to figure out how to rework it and trying to avoid the emotion of the day. Once again the show examines how the major events of the day were repurposed (or in this case, avoided) in order to sell products.
But while she may be good at her job, she keeps demonstrating her lousy taste in men. Duck is so wrong for her it’s not even funny and we have to echo her room mate’s question: Why is she with him? Is she acting out a Don fantasy with a surrogate? Because she better realize soon that Duck is no Don. In fact, Duck is using her as a substitute for his alcohol addiction. He acts just like an addict when it comes to her: completely impulsive, focused solely on getting what he wants, acting like a big shot and doing what he has to to make sure he gets his fix. He knew if Peggy walked in and saw the news on the TV, his nooner would be over so, like the asshole he is, he kept that information from her until he got what he wanted out of her.
And then there’s Roger, surprising himself with his somewhat emotional reaction to the assassination, demonstrating great affection and respect for his former wife, trying to be a good father to his daughter and possibly coming to the realization that his new wife is something of a mess and possibly more trouble than she’s worth. We don’t know what his thinking is regarding Joan, but we have to say we love those phone calls. Those two know each other on a level that no one else in their lives do and each phone call makes us wish more and more that they had both made different decisions.
Pictures courtesy of amctv.com