Monday, November 2, 2009

"Mad Men" recap: The aftermath of catastrophe

Early in this season of "Mad Men," we learned that Roger Sterling's daughter Margaret had planned her wedding for Nov. 23, 1963 -- the day AFTER JFK's assassination. Ever since then, the show's more observant fans have been wondering how that decision would play out. Would the season end with the assassination, leading us to wonder whatever happened to Margaret and her ill-timed nuptials? Would the season, in crafty "Mad Men" fashion, actually end before the assassination, leading us to wonder how this momentous event affected all of our Sterling Cooper friends? Or, would we actually get to see the assassination and its aftermath and learn how everyone -- including the Sterlings -- responded?
Well, on last night's episode, we finally got our answer. The Kennedy assassination happened, and tore through these characters like a freight train. It didn't help that, around the time of Kennedy's death, most of the "Mad Men" characters are dealing with the fallout of their own life-changing events. Don and Betty are figuring out how the Dick Whitman reveal will affect their ever-fragile marriage. Pete finds out that he'd lost the accounts job to Ken. Roger is realizing that he's become a new man for the wrong woman. And Peggy is realizing that, as long as he's funny and has access to nice hotel rooms, it's not so bad sharing nooners with a crass divorced alcoholic who abuses dogs.
Obviously, there's a lot to talk about here, so let's dive in, shall we?
Spoilers ahead:
Much like "The Color Blue" episode from a few weeks ago, this week's offering (titled "The Grown-Ups")starts off slowly before smacking us in the face. We get the usual office atmosphere. The heat is broken. Everyone's cold. Pete is angry to learn he lost head of accounts to Ken. Don is angry to learn he can't hire a new art director. The heat is fixed, everyone is too hot. Roger is angry to learn that both his daughter and his wife are spoiled brats who simply can't be counted on to keep peace in the family. And Paul learns that Peggy is a frisky dame who is clandestinely arranging nooners with someone who calls himself Mr. Herman (yes, it's Duck).
Then, all of sudden, everything changes. The Kennedy assassination happens but the show cleverly introduces it in a sly, almost invisible way. Pete comes to pump Harry for information about the head of accounts issue. They're talking and Harry, as always, has the TV on in the background so he can monitor the commercials. As they yammer away, we hear the announcement that someone has shot at Kennedy's motorcade. But Harry and Pete don't hear it! They just keep talking. History is happening on the TV mere inches behind them, and they're talking office politics! Of course, they don't know that they're being oblivious to one of the more horrifying events of the 20th century. To them, nothing is more important than what they're discussing. And isn't that pretty authentic? Aren't we often so wrapped up in our own lives that we can't see the big picture? In fact, you could argue that, despite the 24 hour news cycle, we're more self-centered now than ever. As our technology has grown, so has our need to pursue our own petty concerns. In fact, we often use that very technology that should be making us more aware of the world we live in gossip and vent using email, social networking and other tools. If this "Mad Men" moment teaches us anything, it's that humankind is, first and foremost, self-absorbed.
Of course, this moment doesn't last, and soon, everyone is in a frenzy over the assassination.
Betty is at home, watching the news coverage, bathed in tears with her two children around her. Carla soon joins them, sobbing. Overlooking all the social, racial and economic barriers that separate them, the two women sit together on the couch crying and, for one moment, they're on exactly the same page. A nice touch -- Sally comforts her crying mother, offering Betty the kind of tenderness and strength that Betty herself was incapable of offering Sally when Gene died. How sad is it when a little girl in elementary school is way more emotionally mature than nearly every adult around her (with the possible exception of Carla)?
Soon after, Don comes home, sends Betty off to Valiumland and tries to console Bobby and Sally. "Everything's going to be fine." That's a lie, of course, but that's what you tell children so they can go on with their lives. Plus, I think Don actually believes it.
The Sterlings are going on with their lives, and decide to hold Margaret's wedding anyway. Look, I know people are going to think the Sterlings are callous but, having just had my own wedding a little over a year ago, I still clearly remember how much planning and money goes into that thing. Yes, the wedding was, as Roger later admits, a total disaster, but what do you do? Canceling everything on a day's notice would have been a pain (though I'm sure everyone would have understood) and poor Margaret was so conflicted about even getting married, she probably thought she'd never go through with it if she had to delay. So you do what you do. Would I have done it? I honestly don't know, but I'm sure glad I didn't have to decide.
Anyway, our series regulars are divided into two camps: those who attend, and those who don't. Actually, the only ones in the latter camp are the Campbells (and maybe Peggy, but I don't think she was invited). Pete, still reeling from the accounts debacle, didn't want to go to the wedding anyway. But after Kennedy, he finds he can't even pretend to care about stupid Margaret and her nuptials. Trudy protests at first, but eventually gives in, particularly after Pete describes Harry coldly calculating how much money was being lost from unaired commercials. God, Harry's a jerk, isn't he? I mean, I know he was just doing his job, but should human decency and grief take over in a situation like that? Not if you're Spectacles McJerkface, I guess.
As the Campbells are experiencing a moment of solidarity, Betty is pulling further and further from her husband. She sees Henry Francis and Margaret's wedding and, even in this time of national woe, takes a second to be relieved when she learns the attractive woman dancing with Henry is his daughter, not a date. As she dances with Don, he tells her -- as he told the children -- that everything will be fine. They kiss, but Betty is distracted. Later, when Lee Harvey Oswald is shot, she knows that everything will not be OK. Don was lying to her once again. Yes, this time, Don's dishonesty wasn't intentional, and was meant to console his wife. But will you agree with me that this is what sent Betty right over the edge? She just can't handle life in Don's fantasy world, and bolts for a rendez vous with Henry. Henry tells Betty that, if she leaves Don, he'll marry her and the offer does seem tempting (though what does that say about Henry? He had Betty have met a handful of times. He barely knows her. How can he already be planning a life with her? What's up with him, anyway?).
At any rate, Betty comes home and tells Don she doesn't love him anymore. She feels nothing for him. Don tries to blow her off, but Betty's announcement does have an impact. Soon, Don is back at work, where the only other person present is Peggy. Peggy explains that her roommate has invited over everyone in the building to watch TV and mourn. And Peggy's mom is so caught up in her own grief, that there's no room for anyone else to feel anything. She plans to watch the funeral in Coop's office, and asks Don to join her. Don declines and heads off to booze in his office. Oof.
Here are some more thoughts on "The Grown-Ups":
* I like that Betty and Don are totally at cross purposes in this episode. Don, after having told Betty the truth, seems to feel closer to her than ever. He's noticeably softer with her; more comfortable and more relaxed. Meanwhile, Betty is pulling back more and more. Don now sees his marriage as truly complete, whereas Betty sees it as nothing more than a web of lies. Even the tragedy of Kennedy can't pull them back together. Instead, this world-altering moment just makes Betty more aware of how much her own life has changed. The world felt safe and secure with Kennedy in charge (well, for the most part), then that was torn apart. Betty felt secure with Don (at least, after she let him back in the house), then had that pulled out from under her, too. The nation is at a crossroads and so is Betty. And she's starting to think that Don might not be the right path.
* So, when this show started, did ANYONE think the Campbells would end up having a stronger marriage than the Drapers? But, as Don and Betty drift apart, Pete and Trudy are more together than ever. How touching to see Trudy finally give in to her husband, pull off her shoes and join him on the couch. Their marriage isn't perfect, but it is a real marriage.
* Think of Roger what you will, but I thought he handled Margaret's wedding with grace. His toast could have been a brusque, soulless Roger-esque mess. But, instead, it was honest and considerate. He spoke kindly about Mona, and sincerely thanked everyone for showing up. He made the best of an awful situation, and I was actually kind of proud of him.
* Not proud of Jane, however. God, can that woman not attend an event without getting rip-roaring drunk? Nice touch -- as she babbles about Kennedy after Roger pours her onto the bed, Jane mentions that she'll never get to vote for Kennedy. Right. Because she probably wasn't old enough to vote when he ran originally. Given the silliness of this child bride, is it any wonder that Roger seeks the solace of a real woman? Yes, he calls Joan. And frankly, didn't they both light up when they spoke to each other? Joan reveals that she's alone -- worthless Greg is at the ER, helping out with routine emergencies. Roger said he's glad, because he needed to talk to her. And, for the first time in the evening, he stops being brave and is entirely honest. It's a nice moment for John Slattery, and Christina Hendricks, too. I do hope we're not done with Joan, because this relationship clearly needs closer examination, don't you think?
* In the midst of all this sadness, this was a bright moment: We finally got to see another glimpse of Karen Erickson, the secret Swede! I don't know why that makes me happy. It just does.
* We also learned that Peggy and Duck weren't a one-night thing. They're seeing each other regularly, and, shockingly, Peggy actually seems to like Duck. Oh, Peggy. No. Admittedly, Duck can turn on the charm when he wants to (his politically incorrect diss on Kurt and Smitty does make Peggy laugh), but he is so creepy. I mean, he unplugged the TV so his afternoon romp wouldn't be spoiled by the horrible news about Kennedy. If Pete's planning to leave the Coop for Duck's firm, he shouldn't expect a more hospitable work environment. Seems like Duck is just Harry Crane with better vision.


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. What is the secret Swede reference?
I think its strange how some people claim they love Betty or hate her and same with Don.
I just find them all to be fascinating and don't have any favorites.
Folks don't seem to like Henry Francis, I wonder why? There is something slightly "Duck-ish" about him I agree.
One thing I haven't seen too many people talk about was the hero worship Betty had for Gene.
I don't think she really recovered from his death and then Don (a strong man daddy figure) lets her down and THEN the Kennedy death - also the yucky Oswald shooting right in front of her.
I may be wrong but I think she wants out of that house and marriage to a man who (like Gene) can really take care of her and the kids forever. Someone she can really lean on and depend on so I think Betty will be going off with Henry and Don will run to Miss Farrell. Of course exactly the opposite will happen - knowing its Mad Men.

Robert said...

A very special episode.

Lee said...

Did I miss some symbolism in everyone having lunch at their desks? I kind of get the bit about the office temperature, but I'm sure there was something intentional about the lunches, beyond showing how everyone was so busy and engaged in humdrum chores.

Bill Scurry said...

"Everything will be fine" -- sure, after MLK, RFK, Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution, Watergate, etc...

author said...

Yeah I'm sad about Betty and Don...even though he deserves to have her say all that and think all that ... good review!