Mad Men blogging: Did Walter Cronkite get residuals for this?
Spoilers. And image included because it really shows how much the show uses imagery to evoke the assassination in the episodes leading up to it.
I’m ambivalent about the choice to go ahead and present the JFK assassination on “Mad Men”, because as you know, I feel like they’ve already done it. And as interesting as the original footage is—and how awesome it was to see Betty’s reaction when Lee Harvey Oswald got shot—at points I was wondering if it was a little too much. I do like that the characters are shown unable to pull themselves away from the TV, which had the dual effect of reminding the audience that it was probably the first event that caused obsessive TV watching like that, and it rendered the characters remarkably passive, which set up the events that really made this episode work. In the end, I concluded it was well worth it, only because the writers were able to bring the assassination back home to the characters. And I find it entirely believable that the assassination set off people all around the country, made them question their lives and start making changes. Which is what happened here.
And thus, the interesting contrast. The reaction of the characters to the assassination is mostly mute horror, followed by an inability to move. The phones quit ringing, no one goes to work during the funeral, and everyone sits transfixed in front of the TV. Getting the guests to go to Roger’s daughter’s wedding a feat of obligation over desire. The show is haunted not just by the memory of the JFK assassination, but of the events of 9/11. We all know all too well what it’s like to sit transfixed in front of the TV, utterly unable to do anything but cry about it. But as everyone sits, unable to move and uncomprehending, the gears are turning, and they are slowly beginning to absorb their own individual realizations from all this, the main one being that the world is not an orderly or predictable place at all, and now all bets are off.
Betty’s reaction is by far the most dramatic. She’s completely traumatized by the assassination and of Lee Harvey Oswald’s death, as if this was the proof that the world is not the place she thought it was. And that goes hand in hand with learning that her husband is not the man she thought he was, and the two traumas bleed into each other and become indistinguishable. Running off with Henry Francis, who came into her life just as her father is leaving it, is tempting because he’s older and seems secure and could once again create a cozy, safe space for her, where nothing bad ever happens. Or so she thinks. Bet let’s hope not. Let’s hope that Betty realizes that by standing up to Don and telling him she doesn’t love him anymore, she’s laying claim to adulthood instead of dwelling in the emotional childhood that she’s been kept in. Why go back? Her infatuation with Henry is symbolized by a fainting couch, for god’s sake. She’s the classic example of someone who swaps out one bad relationship for one that’s bad in exactly the same ways. But it was still awesome to see that Don is frightened of her now; he lurks beside the door, afraid to walk through. She has the power now. But it’s dark, with the implication that love is a weakness that people exploit in each other, and really having the upper hand in a relationship comes with loving less, or not at all.
Pete and Trudy’s reaction is more interesting. The usually optimistic, upbeat Trudy has finally accepted Pete’s disillusionment with Sterling Cooper. Following the trend of Pete being right most of the time, and being forward-thinking (though having such an odious personality that no one will listen to him), Pete has decided that picking a company to work for and staying with them until you retire is a fool’s game. Sterling Cooper isn’t one big happy family by a long shot, and so it looks like Pete will be exiting stage left, following Joan and Salvatore. Sterling Cooper has been bleeding its best characters, and so I’m more inclined than ever to think that this means that we’re going to see a new agency rise up, with Don at its helm and some of the best characters following him. Or maybe something else. All season long, the theme has been about asking what’s coming and realizing that you literally have no clue. As such, it’s genuinely hard to say where the show is going with all this.
Roger’s arc went the other way in a sense. All his insistence that Jane is the one does indeed seem to be for naught, and instead the assassination has thrown him into a whirlpool of nostalgia for women who gave him much more than being young and cute. Not only does he making a touchingly sincere toast to his ex-wife at the wedding, but he gets drunk and decides to call Joan to commiserate. And she’s genuinely happy to hear from him—I love the portrayal of the lingering affection two people can have for each other after a relationship ends and all the water has gone under the bridge.
At the end of the episode, Peggy and Don are linked once more—they’re the only people with no where to go but to work in the wake of this tragedy. To make the whole situation creepier, Peggy is pouring over the storyboard for the Aquanet ad, and now you can see that it (like the lawnmower incident) evokes the assassination, as you can see from the illustration above. This adds a layer of ambiguity to their conversation, when she says that they shouldn’t worry, because the shoot is still a while off. Does this mean that they’ll have time to finish the script, or does it mean that by the time the commercial airs, people will have calmed down enough that they can see a scarf fluttering from the backseat of a convertible without immediately thinking of an explosion of blood and brains?
There’s something final about the fact that Peggy and Don went to work while the rest of the country mourns the loss of its leader. They are rootless, married to their jobs. They are the America that’s about to come, a country full of people who define themselves through work and not family, whose work hours start to take up more of their time, whose origins will not define who they are. They are sad that JFK is dead, but they didn’t belong to Camelot anyway, so the only response to the tragedy is to say good-bye to the man, and as Don tells the children, get on with life.