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'Mad Men': The whole country's been drinking

November 2, 2009 |  9:24 am
In the middle of ordinary life -- fights with the boss at work, demoralizing demotions, affairs with inappropriate people and witnessing the last vestiges of a formerly intact marriage -- a shot rings out, prompting all to reconsider the fragile tenets of their existence.

Creator Matthew Weiner has always been cagey about whether he’d touch upon the Kennedy assassination in the third season of “Mad Men.” At times Weiner led interviewers to believe he wouldn’t. There’s no way of knowing what impulse was dictating his coyness at the time -- it seems most likely that he simply enjoyed the opportunity to be a big tease to the press, not that we can blame him -- but let’s all take a moment to rejoice that Episode 12, “The Grown Ups,” used the shocking murder of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, as structure and catalyst for the events of the season's penultimate episode. Weiner and episode co-writer Brett Johnson so adroitly stitched in the historical with the characters’ personal lives that the event, documented to mega-conspiratorial degrees and back again, was made new, almost as if it was unfolding now, especially for those of us who didn’t live through it.

The first character on “Mad Men” to experience the news of Kennedy’s shooting is Duck, of all people, and our after shave-loving friend promptly unplugged the TV to eliminate distractions for his “nooner” with Peggy. This is real life, of course. Every day something tragic leaks over the airwaves, the Internet, the TV and though we might not literally unplug the device, we intellectually distance ourselves from it in order to get through the day. The news first being absorbed by a minor character seemed like a meaningful choice -- this is how big information can disseminate. Maybe you found out that the plane had gone into the first of the Twin Towers from the guy who sold you coffee every morning.

At Sterling-Cooper the news first hangs over the office like a poison cloud that hasn’t yet settled. Pete, dejected from the news that Cosgrove would ascend to senior vice president in charge of account services while he’d languish as head of account management, went to Crane’s office to mope about it and ostensibly strategize for the future. The TV droned in the background -- mundane and omnipresent but not yet revelatory. In another part of the hive, Don barked at Price to let him hire an art director now that Sal Romano is gone.

Then it swiftly descended. The secretaries and various creatives, like frightened gazelles, herded into Crane’s office, changing the channel to the announcement. In one of the most powerfully dreamy scenes of the episode, Don drifted down the hallway, perplexed and alarmed at the shrill ringing of unanswered phones. In Ossining, Betty and Carla sobbed and smoked together as the news roiled out at them.

And then we got a much-needed moment of comic relief. Peggy, adding to her fine cadre of one-liners this season, THC-enhanced and otherwise, asked Duck: Did you give me a hickey? In all fairness, hickeys are embarrassing. No one wants to sport that badge of seduction past age 16. After Duck absolved himself of that particular trifling, he admitted that a particular news story was taking his attention. Together, they watched Walter Cronkite announce that President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Cut to Margaret Sterling sobbing in her wedding dress that her big day -- that she presciently didn’t want to carry on with anyway -- is now ruined. Indeed, the wedding planned for Nov. 23 is a disaster, to loosely quote Roger Sterling. The cake doesn’t arrive. There are no waiters. So many guests don’t show up that they consolidate tables. Cooper and Jane Sterling are glued to the TV in the kitchen, contemplating the banal monstrosity of Lee Harvey Oswald. To his credit, Roger gives a toast that’s wise, witty and perfectly attuned to the bizarre occasion. Later, he phones Joan and admits he doesn’t know how to react to Kennedy’s death. There is nothing wry or amusing to say about a mammoth figure killed in his prime.

While Pete Campbell plots with Trudie about leaving Sterling-Cooper, Betty begins to plot a departure even more grand in scope. Our first hints that Betty no longer takes comfort or strength from Don is cleverly bound in how they react to the assassination. He wants to hide the TV from the kids. He tells Betty to take a pill and lie down, which is also the way he’s tried to buffer the woes of their marriage. For years, he’s tacitly instructed her to look the other way, to not open that desk drawer, to sleep through it, succored by the emblems of a supposedly stable, successful life: the beautiful house, the beautiful children, the cocktail dresses and jewelry and daily maid and glamorous dates in the city.

At first, Betty swallows the pill and passes out, but later when Don tells her that everything will be OK, she challenges his rote platitude. How do you know, she asks. It was a telling question from Betty, who in the past has become angry when not shielded from harsh realities like planning for her father’s imminent death. Betty has always demanded to be coddled, protected and treated like a child -- but her questioning of Don showed her fledgling independence. She knows he has no idea whether anything will be OK. How could he or anyone know such a thing right now?

At Margaret’s wedding, Henry Francis arrived to an affectionate greeting from his date, a lovely young woman -- and phew, it was only his daughter. Betty and Don danced dangerously close to them and Don, interpreting his wife’s flittering eye contact as anxiety, tries to plant one on her. The Drapers have never burned with sexual chemistry, despite their daunting beauty together, but this kiss was particularly cold, even or especially in its perfection. It was the death of love, this kiss.

On the heels of another disorienting event -- the televised killing of Oswald -- Betty leaves the house by herself. It’s hard to say what Betty felt when she met with Henry and heard his appeals for her to leave her husband and marry him. Does she simply see a golden opportunity to get out of one marriage and land in another relatively painlessly? Is it just a matter of arrangements and convenience? How is love factoring in or is it at all?

She doesn’t know much about Henry, they’ve only had a handful of interactions, but his offers combined with her feelings of withdrawal are enough for her to tell Don that she doesn’t love him anymore. Maybe Betty has enough faith in love to know that it’ll grow with Henry. Better to exist in the opening possibilities than the postmortem of it.

Don, inadequate and clearly in denial, gives her the entirely insufficient advice to, once again, sleep it off. You’ll feel better tomorrow, he says, barely believing his own hollow words.

At the end, we get a fade-out of sorts with Peggy and Don, two consummate secret-keepers who most like to escape into their work, finding each other at the otherwise empty office. Call it a hunch, but it seems like Aqua Net might need a new campaign now.

In another moment with several meanings, Pete laments Kennedy’s death for aborting a cultural moment when everything felt like it was about to change. Pete doesn’t know that, if anything, the moment just swelled to something bigger and richer. Everything is still about to change and in more ways than he could’ve ever imagined.

--Margaret Wappler

P.S. Notably, this week's episode was delivered with a letter from Weiner stating that he would not be sending out the season finale to critics or pajama-clad Showtrackers. What explosive secrets lie in the intriguingly named "Shut the Door. Have a Seat"? What can be gleaned from this dull synopsis -- "Don has an important meeting with Connie. Betty receives some advice. Pete talks to his clients." -- scraped off the AMC website? The comments section, as ever, is open for wild speculation.

Photo: Sterling-Cooper denizens watching the news of Kennedy's shooting. Credit: Carin Baer