When Matthew Weiner was discussing this season of “Mad Men” this summer, he said that while the show would certainly touch on the epochal events of the show’s time, he wanted very much to filter them through the lives of his characters.
“It’s been a great intellectual experience, if not a creative experience, to say, ‘How does history actually affect us on a daily basis?'” Weiner said in late July. “… I try to focus on people’s individual lives and say, OK, every once in a while there’s an event like the Cuban Missile Crisis that really affects the way we interact. … But a lot of things happen all the time that we don’t even know about.”
And so the most important moments of the episode was not the Kennedy assassination and Jack Ruby shooting Oswald on live TV, but Betty telling Don, “I don’t love you,” and possibly seeing a path in life that no longer includes her husband. It was Don at first refusing to listen to her, then sitting in silence as what she’s told him sinks in. It was Roger once again finding solace in Joan, and Pete having an existential crisis over not getting a promotion.
All those things, of course, were influenced in some way by the real-life events the characters experienced, and you could argue that it was the spark that drove Betty to Henry Francis and at least not reject his sort-of marriage proposal. But the episode was emphatically not all about JFK, and in that way Weiner was absolutely true to his word.
The first news bulletin about Kennedy being shot plays in the background as Harry and Pete commiserate over their standing at Sterling Cooper. Duck — who hasn’t been able to woo Peggy professionally but is apparently doing just fine personally — unplugs the TV so he and Peggy can have their nooner. Don is more concerned with the Brits’ refusal to hire a new art director and doesn’t know what happened until he leaves his office and sees everyone crowded around Harry’s.
I think there’s a sense, especially among those of us who didn’t experience it firsthand, that because Kennedy’s assassination was one of those few “where were you?” moments, everyone knew about it at the same time and felt it in the same way. Of course that wasn’t the case, and the show illustrated that pretty brilliantly.
And as we go into the season finale next week, the four words that matter most are not “The president is dead” but “I don’t love you.” Don has as much difficulty processing that as everyone else did processing the larger news, because on some level he knows that they have the power to change the foundation of his life — certainly way more than what happened in Dallas did.
I’d really like to hear your thoughts on the episode, so I’m going to skip to the bullets a little sooner than usual. But I’ll be reading your comments and chatting with you on Monday.
Other thoughts on “The Grown-Ups”:
- One of the things that struck me about the episode was the very grown-up reactions of people normally shown as childish. Pete is deeply wounded about being passed over, but he keeps it together in the office and senses that his job status is not the most important thing right now. Roger’s daughter Margaret does an even bigger turnaround. We first see her acting like a baby over Jane’s presence at the wedding, then wailing “It’s ruined” after hearing the Kennedy news. By the time the reception rolls around on the evening of Nov. 23, though, she seems just happy to be married and at peace with everything else.
- Jane, though? Pretty childish. Early on she’s willfully oblivious of the antipathy Margaret feels for her (and unable to understand why Roger would defend her; because she’s his daughter, maybe?), and by episode’s end is revealing herself once again to be a really bad drinker — as in, just not good at it. That could be a real hazard when you’re married to Roger Sterling.
- For the second consecutive episode, Roger and Joan have a phone conversation, and it became even clearer to me this time around how much Roger really respects her and values her. He may have called her “the finest piece of ass I’ve ever had” a while back, but it’s turning out to be a much deeper compliment than it seemed initially. She’s the one he turns to when he needs an anchor.
- Peggy was sort of tangential to the story this week, but there were a couple of really interesting beats with her. I think I’m with her roommate — I’m not quite sure what the connection is there. She’s also the only one other than Don to come to the office the following Monday, hoping to salvage the Aqua Net campaign — because a TV spot with two men and two women in a convertible isn’t really going to fly anymore.
Your turn: What did you think of “Mad Men” this week and how it incorporated the Kennedy assassination into its story? If you were alive then, did it jibe with your first-hand experience? What do you think becomes of Don and Betty, and where does the season finale go?