Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: Where Were You When?

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, slow the playback to one-quarter speed and watch last night’s Mad Men.

As a period drama set in the ’60s, Mad Men had a choice to make: it could depict its characters against the big historical events of the day–which have been treated over and over in movies and TV–or it could skirt around them. Since the first season, Mad Men has committed, more than I would have guessed, to the head-on approach–ending the first two seasons around the 1960 election and the Cuban Missile Crisis–but focusing on how the events affect or reflect the personal lives of the characters, as opposed to “How we all lost our innocence,” &c.

Last night, Mad Men faced the Big One, the Kennedy Assassination, which has loomed over this season since it jumped to the year 1963 and showed us the invites for Margaret’s wedding–on Nov. 23, 1963. The episode brought the news in as if it were the Cloverfield monster, weaving in and out of scenes in which it came this close to pouncing on the characters: CBS News breaks in with a special bulletin just after Harry turns down the volume to talk to Pete, the scene cuts to Don arguing with Lane Pryce, Duck unplugs the TV after first news of the shooting.

And then, suddenly, it’s everywhere: on every screen, in every head, every phone ringing at the Sterling Cooper offices. And, as happens in times like this, the TV stays on, through the workday, through the wedding, into the night and the weekend and through Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. Which, as Betty’s horrified reaction starkly showed, was maybe the moment when it seemed that more than a tragedy had happened: everything, everywhere, had just gone crazy, all the sublimated violence bottled up in America was now right out there on the surface and on live TV, and maybe it was just never going to stop, ever.

Then, as they say, everything changes–in the lives of a few of the characters, at least.

A personal digression, for just a minute. My first, knee-jerk reaction to Mad Men using the assassination this way (as the moment when Betty decides things are over with Don and when Pete and Trudy decide things are over with Sterling Cooper), was that life doesn’t really work that way. History is history and life is life and connecting big events in one with big events in the other is artificial.

But then I thought about the closest thing I’ve experienced in my adult life, 9/11, which I was in New York for. And I had to admit that it does work that way, at least sometimes. I won’t bore you with the details, but I made decisions afterward–nothing as momentous as here, but still–that were directly prompted by the fact that, one morning, 3,000 people were killed out of the blue because they took a ride on an airplane or showed up to work at their desks.

Now, would I have done anything differently if the hijackers were caught and 9/11 never happened? I don’t know. I can’t know. Certainly there were other personal factors in my own decisions: I’d just become a father, for instance. It may be that 9/11 changed me; it may be that it crystallized things that were in the back of my mind; or it may be that it simply gave me permission to do things that, in the back of my mind, I already wanted to do. And before long, other people I know told me they’d done the same.

Bottom line, though, it made people make personal changes–not everybody, of course–even though, had you written it into a script before, it would have seemed forced.

Digression over. Last week, there was that scene of marvelous ambiguity after Don’s forced confession, when Betty saw him the next morning, handed him his sandwich and seemed stronger and more at peace than we’d seen her in a long time. Were things over, or was their marriage actually on the mend for Don’s having come clean?

Well, three weeks passed and Don and Betty are still together. Then comes The Big One. And then Betty sees Henry at the wedding. Is it the assassination–or that world-gone-crazy Jack Ruby shooting–that forces Betty to decide that she doesn’t love Don anymore? Is it that Henry asks her to marry him, and she sees a practical future after Don? Is it her loveless kiss with Don? Or is it simply something she already knew, but that the holiday of the national trauma–normalcy is suspended, the routine is broken–gives her permission to say out loud?

Last season, the Cuban Missile Crisis arguably saved the Drapers’ marriage, pushing them closer together at the possible end of the world. Last night, it may just be, the country’s next crisis ended their marriage: “There’s no point. There’s no point, Don.”

“The Grown Ups” did a nice job of showing how various characters reacted to the news in their own way. Don’s response coming home was spot-on: his first instinct is to shield the children from the news and get them away from the TV–though he relents and talks to them about the assassination instead, in terms that you might use to talk to kids about, oh, say a divorce. We’ll be sad for a while, but we’ll be OK. Peggy, meanwhile, sits bolt upright in bed at the news, shocked, but later–like Don and yet unlike him–goes into the office to immerse herself in her work.

Everything does not change for everyone; Margaret’s wedding still goes on, though her meltdown early in the episode suggests she might have welcomed an excuse to call it off. (Before the assassination, she gives up when Roger calls her bluff on that.) The wedding is, on the one hand, awkward and uncomfortable–especially since, as Pete notes, the room is full of people who never liked JFK to begin with.

And yet there are no good answers here either way. In his eyes, forging on with the wedding is his grown-up responsibility to his daughter. It’s horrible, as Roger later admits to Joan–he’s not stupid, and he’s not unaware of the inappropriateness. Roger has been contemptible in a lot of ways, leaving his wife and sousing his way through his work. But ironically, in this most uncomfortable moment, he’s strangely sympathetic, even as he throws a party while the country is burying a President. He’s slogging through an ugly situation that he knows is ugly, and, as Joan perceptively points out, he’s doing it without his chief weapon: “My God, you’re really upset.” “What’s that about?” “Because there’s nothing funny about this.”

Meanwhile, Peter has been taken down by the slow-motion train that Lane Pryce set on the track toward him in the first episode of the season. There’s no deus ex machina or family connection to save him. He loses the Accounts job, and he loses it to Cosgrove in exactly the same way and for the same reason you would have predicted. Because Cosgrove is blessed. Pete can up his game, he can buckle down, he can have insights like the opportunity to market to African-Americans. None of it matters because Cosgrove can do the job better without even trying–just as when he published his short story in the Atlantic.

It’s strange that Pete should become a figure of sympathy for this; after all, he was born on third base. The only reason he has his job is because of his old-money background and his old-school contacts. But he’s run up against the one thing that he can’t beat, which is Ken’s effortless ability to have diamonds fall from the sky into his lap.

And this crushing blow comes after we’ve seen, over three seasons, that for all his unfair advantages, Pete actually does have talents and abilities. Most important, he has a vision that the rest of hidebound Sterling Cooper is unable to appreciate or even notice. He–this kicked-around scion of a blueblood family–somehow became the one person at Sterling Cooper with a sense of where America is heading. (Not always an idealistic sense, either, if you’ll recall how eagerly he picked up on the chilling nukes-and-rockets aerospace presentation last season.) He’s the one who saw Admiral TV’s situation clearly, and got reprimanded for it. He’s the one who saw that the future belonged to young people who didn’t wear hats, like Elvis.

And–bringing it around to the terrible news–like JFK. After the assassination, he sees the situation in a way that sounds like he’s talking about his own career: “It felt for a second like everything was going to change.” But this is not just solipsism talking: it turns out Pete really is a Kennedy man. And while LBJ’s taking over the Presidency may reflect his view of Sterling Cooper–the old guard is reaffirmed, the older generation is back in charge–it also cuts to something deeper and more idealistic. He realizes that he’s just not like them. And more important, Trudy does: in another excellent performance by Alison Brie, who I just praised for her much-different work in Community, she comes around to the idea that Pete can’t simply stay on at work as if nothing is different.

Again, who knows what’s the chicken and the egg here? Does the assassination make Pete see that it’s time for him to make a move? Is he even characterizing his coworkers fairly, or does his petulance over losing his job color the way he sees the assassination? (We never actually see or hear, you’ll note, the horrible comments that he tells Trudy people made about the shooting, and the one specific he offers when asked–“He made a lot of enemies”–is kind of weak sauce.)

In the end, it’s a philosophical question. In the end, for whatever reason, and whether it’s a cliché or not, everything changes.

And now for the–I don’t mean to be inappropriate, but this blog has traditions too–hail of bullets:

* The entire scene between Pete and Lane is well-played by both Vincent Kartheiser and Jared Harris (Pete contains his emotions but you can see his feelings in the way he sinks back on the couch), but the beauty moment came when Lane removed his glove to shake Pete’s hand. Nice touch.

* So Peggy and Duck are a still thing! We had a big discussion when they hooked up over my (and others’) “ewwww” reaction to Duck as Lothario; sorry, but–besides the ickiness of his coming on to her in the context of a job interview–I couldn’t help remembering him as the weaselly, alcoholic sad sack we met him as. (Which, I don’t know, may be why I react to him differently from fellow drinker and age-inappropriate dater Roger; Sterling can be contemptible, even loathsome, but he’s not pathetic in the same way that Duck was.) But maybe Duck’s changed; in any event, I hope we’ll see more of what draws Peggy to the relationship (if it is a relationship beyond sex). I just want our Peggy to be happy.

* Walter Cronkite’s announcement of JFK’s death is probably the definitive anchor moment of the assassination, so it was good to see Mad Men not go only to that footage but also mix in NBC’s coverage.

* I’m almost surprised that Pete isn’t more resentful of Harry, who–as he himself pretty much acknowledges–had one good idea in his career and is living on the result. (Though he also notes that he’s plateaued; he’s going to die at his desk unnoticed, which may mitigate any jealousy of Pete’s.) It’s only fitting, then, that Harry, whose only job it seems is to watch TV–not that that’s a bad thing!–is five feet from a television when he misses the most important program interruption of his lifetime.

* One last ambiguity to think about. Roger carries his drunk child bride into the bedroom and calls Joan. Maybe it’s true that, at long last, Joan is The One for him–but you have to question his credibility on that judgment. Is he really finding out now what he really wants, or is Joan only The One when she’s unavailable to him?