I don't know where to begin. I want to scream at you for ruining all of this...But then you tried to fix it, and there's no point. There's no point, Don.
A season of monumental changes for "Mad Men's" central players came to its near-conclusion with a storyline that grabbed those of us at home by the throat, shook us up and left us in mourning for the loss so profound, and yet still so hard to define, even 46 years on.
"Mad Men" is particularly involving for viewers because there's so much to choose from, between the stable of fantastically rendered characters and the period touches that can provoke so much thought about the way we lived then, and now. But there was no choosing in this episode. The JFK assassination is something we've all lived with as a part of our collective consciousness, in too many ways to detail here.
So, to borrow a phrase from the "Mad Men" blogger I admire most, Alan Sepinwall: Damn. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. This was an impossible assignment, very, very, very well done.
After my first viewing of this episode,"The Grown-Ups," I barely processed the developments for Betty and Don, Betty and Henry, Pete, Peggy and Roger. By the time the angelic, and so purely American, voice of Miss Skeeter Davis sang of heartbreak, with her 1962 hit "The End of the World," over the closing credits, I just felt incredible sadness -- not sobbing sad, but a kind of aching in my bones, no kidding. Because this was no dramatist's concoction. This all happened in the world as it was just six years before I was born.
And as my husband always says, for all the endless noise about conspiracy theories, the most disconcerting scenario of all is that the assassination of the president was accomplished by a lone gunman. The hard reality is that one unbound social misfit with a shotgun can change the course of history in an instant. (Just ask my husband, who turned eight on Nov. 22, 1963.)
Once it was determined that this season was set in 1963, there's been lot of speculation about how, or if, the show would handle the Kennedy assassination and its immediate aftermath. In hindsight I should've known exactly how it would unfold -- as a shock that reverberated around the world with no warning on a Friday afternoon in November, magnified, of course, by the round-the-clock television news coverage that was defining for the country and for the medium. These landmark broadcasts were deftly spliced in to this episode, written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner and helmed, with incredible, non-showy effect, by Barbet Schroeder.
Of course, I should have known what was coming by the very deliberate glimpse of the shotgun in Pete Campbell's office in the opening scene -- the same shotgun he cradled at the end of last season's finale as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded.
But no. I only got it when the CBS "News Bulletin" slate -- the famed Walter Cronkite clip we've seen in so many JFK docus -- comes on the TV screen in Harry Crane's office as he and Pete are hashing out what Ken Cosgrove's promotion means for Pete in the long run. They're not paying attention to the TV set, which of course heightens the tension but also made me realize that it must've played out that way in millions of homes and offices.
The episode does a fine job of working in the anecdotes of where people were when they heard the news -- and the recognition that this was such a monumental event for all those who lived through it. The natural analogy for the post-JFK generation, of course, is how I'll never forget my husband waking me up about 5:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, saying "You have to see this on CNN...," or any of the other details of that horrendous day.
We get so many perspectives in this episode, even while other plot points are being serviced. We see the news breaking through Don Draper's eyes, as he's prowling through the Sterling Cooper offices angry about being turned down on the new art director hire. He comes around a corner and all of a sudden the phones are ringing off the hook, and people are huddled around a radio.
"What the hell is going on," he says, angrily but also out of fear, because he can tell it's not just garden- variety office goofing off. And then the phones go dead. Chills.
Meanwhile, Betty at home is pinned to her sofa, crying softly but as we will learn, cratering emotionally inside. Carla comes in with the kids and the usually unflappable moral center of the Draper household is shaken, so much so that she forgets to shield the kids. Sally, on the other hand, has grown up a lot in the past few months and she's sensitive enough to put a hand around mommy's shoulder. That hurt as much as it was touching -- akin to Caroline and John-John at the funeral.
If I ever had any doubt, now I know that Duck Phillips is unbalanced. Who could turn off the TV for a "nooner" after seeing the first few seconds of such a news bulletin? I still say there's no real affection between Duck and Peggy, though I was a little surprised to learn in this seg that their affair is still going on. His impulse was to call his kids after he learned the news. A few days later on the national day of mourning, Peggy isn't spending the day with her lover, but back in the dark at Sterling Cooper.
We see the immediate whiplash effect of the emotional jolt. Pete and Trudy, who I'm guessing were pretty solidly Rockefeller Republicans, are upset for the sake of the country. "Now it's Lyndon Johnson. More of the same. Nobody voted for him. .. It felt for a moment like things were actually going to change," Pete laments with his eyes glued to the TV.
Roger Sterling is pushed over the edge to reaching out to Joan as a respite from the other tumult in his life, and the glaring evidence that marrying a girl his daughter's age was a big mistake -- for both of them.
Betty, of course, makes the most explicitly momentous move amid her shock and grief. Watching Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down on live TV was just too much. She screams "What is going on," for herself as much as her country.
For all of our characters, the trauma of seeing the unthinkable happen in front of their eyes makes them realize, if perhaps only temporarily, that the cliches about doing the right thing, playing by the rules, keeping up appearances and being a slave to social conventions and status seeking, etc., is all a big crock. If the president can be shot, and his assailant gunned down two days later on live TV, then everything you know is wrong.
Betty runs to Henry Francis and tells Don she doesn't love him anymore. And she does a halfway decent job of explaining why (as quoted above), which is why he can't talk his way out of this mess -- at least not yet. Henry, interestingly enough, is similar to Don in his reaction to Betty's anguish.
"It will be OK. We've lost a lot of presidents and we're still standing," he tells her during their furtive parking lot meeting. "I can't believe anything right now," Betty replies. For a change, she's speaking the unguarded truth.
For the first time in this seg I saw Henry as something of a father-figure for Betty.
Good grief, it's already past midnight and I haven't even riffed on the wedding. What a sequence for John Slattery and his real-life wife, Talia Balsam. There's so much more to say, but after a second viewing and a lot of thinking, my bones are starting to ache again.
I hope to add a little more in the coming days as we count down to Sunday's finale. In the meantime, let Skeeter Davis and Chet Atkins break your heart one more time...