And so, after a season spent speculating when, and if, Mad Men would deal with the Kennedy assassination, we got there. And, perhaps unavoidably, the show didn’t merely deal with it in passing. After opening with some perfectly ordinary Mad Men business—Pete learns he’s lost the ground he and Ken have struggled to control all season; Margaret complains anew about Jane’s presence at her wedding and in her life—JFK’s death hits and the world stops. The show stops too.
Mad Men’s not known for adhering to a set structure or a predictable pace, but this felt like an unusual hour even with that mind. Images of Walter Cronkite flickered onto the screen in Harry’s office and in Duck’s hotel room and the episode slowed to take it all in, from the first reports through the Oswald assassination and onto the funeral. At moments it felt as if we were about to enter very-special-episode territory, with the JFK material forcing the characters into the background, forced to put their stories on hold while they went about the business of reacting to history.
But how else to deal with Kennedy’s death? “The Grown Ups” entered slow motion at a certain point, but while I don’t think the slowness always worked I appreciated the commitment to staying close to the characters as they experienced the shock and its aftershocks. We’ve come to know these people well over three seasons, but we’ve never seen them collectively given something so massive they can only shut down. “What’s that about?” Roger asks Joan during their getting-to-be-a-habit phone conversation. “Because there’s nothing funny about this.” By the end of the episode, everyone’s only beginning to understand the implications of what’s happened. Peggy’s now-horrific-looking Aqua Net proposal is just the first casualty.
The show didn’t really grind to a halt, however. Much happened beneath the shock and mourning. Margaret got married before a bigger crowd than she’d expected. But they were there to mourn he president, not celebrate her nuptials. The reception, on the other hand, was thin enough for everyone to enjoy two entrees. Roger got a few laughs from the crowd—and flattered his ex-wife, with whom he now seems on relatively cordial terms, in the process—but left feeling unsure about the state of his own marriage. He and Jane have begun fighting and she’s developed a will of her own. Neither development bodes well for their future.
The Campbells, however, appear to be circling their wagons. Wounded by Ken’s promotion and his de facto demotion, Pete walks off the job, declines to attend Margaret’s wedding, and starts drinking in front of the TV in Trudy’s arms. But her support only goes so far and she keeps stressing that he has to go back to work. She knows, and he knows too, that he needs the Sterling Cooper paycheck right now, even if he doesn’t want the Sterling Cooper office politics and the dead end he perceives as their end result.
The shot of Pete and Trudy brooding in casual wear in front of the television is one of my favorite images in an episode filled with stationary brooding. It’s a snapshot of two people trying to create a still, sane refuge as the world loses its mind. Barbet Schroeder directed tonight’s episode. I’m not sure if I could point to any signature Schroeder directorial touches. (In fact, I’m not entirely sure he has any, however many memorable movies he’s directed.) But there was an extra degree of care put into the images this week and an unnerving immediacy to some of the newsbreaking scenes, which echoed my generation’s experience with 9/11, whether it tried to or not.
We haven’t talked about the Drapers yet. Pre-assassination we see Don angry about his budgetary restrictions and hamstrung by the continued absence of Sal. We also see him being a caring, present father to Gene. Post-assassination he looks like the model of modern fatherhood and yet his marriage has never been in worse shape. Henry looms off frame ready to take it all away and Betty appears ready to let him. What last week looked like a surprisingly smooth processing of the Dick Whitman revelation now looks like shock, and the shock has given way to other feelings. Anger. And panic. And maybe, in her willingness to take a chance with Henry and leave her stable marriage—albeit one to a deceitful man who entered it under false pretenses—a bit of madness.
As for the country, it’s still in shock. The madness is to come.
• Haunting image: The Draper kids watching (and watching and watching) the news alongside the grown-ups. Too young to take it all in and too old not to be frightened by it, however reassuring their dad's words.
• This season, in retrospect but even before, has felt a bit like an ominous march to this moment. And now what? I'm not necessarily looking for plot speculation so much as thematic speculation. Where does a show that, until now, has been about digging beneath the surface of the early-'60s Camelot go now that Camelot has fallen?