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Alone in the Dark: The Death of the New Frontier on "Mad Men"

I really believed that Matthew Weiner would leave that crucial moment in history--namely, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy--until next week's finale but I'm glad that he didn't as it allows the audience to see the fallout, both social and personal, from that Dallas killing, dragging the nation as it did into the into the harsh realities of adulthood.

JFK's assassination has hung like a dark cloud over Season Three of Mad Men and each episode this season brought us that much closer to an end of innocence, knowing as we did that fateful day in Dallas was inching closer. With a shot that November afternoon, America had changed, perhaps forever.

This week's episode of Mad Men ("The Grown-Ups"), written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner and directed by Barbet Schroeder, pushed our main characters somewhat into the periphery, focusing instead on JFK's death and the ripple effect his passing had on the lives of the characters we've come to know and love. How they deal with and process JFK's unexpected killing says quite a lot about who they are as individuals and the choices they make will themselves have lasting repercussions on the series.

Given the impact of Kennedy's murder, people remember where they were when they learned that Kennedy had been killed. This week's episode depicts a number of individuals discovering the news in their own way, whether that be Pete and Harry, who mistakenly turn down the volume of the television set so that Pete can impart his frustration with Ken getting the head of accounts position (missing that crucial bit of news) or Duck callously pulling the electrical cord out of the television set so he and Peggy can be uninterrupted during their hotel room tryst. We see numerous groups of people thrown together, crying, confused, standing in front of televisions, attempting to absorb the severity of what has happened. Betty and Carla both sit, sobbing, on the couch in front of the television; Bobby and Sally sit for hours watching the news footage unfold. There's a massive sense that television, as a medium, as a means of connection, has truly arrived.

Just like after 9/11, there's a sense of fragility in the world and characters seem to do 180 degree turns when faced with the news. Prior to the killing, Trudy cautions Pete against any sudden moves when he tells her of Lane's decision, pressing him toward optimism; afterward, she grows dark and vengeful, agreeing that they shouldn't attend the wedding of Roger's daughter Margaret, and telling Pete that he should take his clients and leave Sterling Cooper for good, saying that he doesn't owe them anything. Was it more than just Kennedy who was killed that day? Has America lost its optimism for the future as well?

The bratty Margaret's wedding goes ahead as planned, despite the fact that half of their guests don't turn up and the other half are in the kitchen watching the news. But whether it's the fact that he's seen his daughter be married or his president be shot dead, Roger has some rather out-of-character moments in this episode, graciously and sincerely complimenting his ex-wife Mona (with whom he had been thrown together in an alliance against both Jane and Margaret) and reaching out to Joan Harris née Holloway, perhaps his one true love. The tenderness of his telephone call with Joan, with a drunken Jane passed out next to him on the bed, demonstrated--more than anything--his true feelings for his former lover. There's still a connection, a friendship, a bond (call it what you will) between the two that aches to be awakened; after Kennedy's passing, it's a comfort for the two to speak a few words over a telephone line.

Don, meanwhile, reacts to Kennedy's death as he does most things in life, seeing it as an ugly truth that he must protect his wife and children from. Horrified that Betty would allow Sally and Bobby to watch the news, Don is stunned when Betty says that she wouldn't shield them from this. And Don's attempts to comfort everyone in the same fashion--"it's going to be all right"--fall on deaf ears. Not everything can be swept under the rug and not everyone can pretend that everything is fine when it's clearly not. We can take our pills and sedate ourselves to the realities of life but they always come back in the morning.

But that's always been Don's modus operandi, to lie about the past and the present and pretend for a better tomorrow. But the shock of what Betty has recently learned about her husband and the death of their president (and the even more shocking death of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald) have some unintended effects on Betty herself: she's seeing the world clearly, perhaps for the first time. (Likewise, Sally takes a tentative step towards adulthood as well.) Don and Betty might be able to pretend for one glittering moment that everything "will be all right" when they dance at Margaret's wedding but the kiss they share is empty, hollow, devoid of true emotion. It's a wake-up call, a slap across the face, for Betty Draper and she realizes that she's not in love with Don anymore.

The scene in which Betty tells Don this, calmly, coolly, and logically felt like a punch in the gut. And it comes as a complete and utter surprise to Don himself, a man who is able to spin just about every situation to his advantage. Cast out of his wife's heart, he retreats to the darkness of the bedroom first and then the (nearly) empty offices of Sterling Cooper. A nation is in mourning for its fallen president but Don mourns the death of his marriage.

It's a realization that propels Betty back into the arms of her would-be lover, Henry Francis, who unexpectedly proposes to her in her car. Does Henry love Betty? He claims to though he barely knows her at all. Does she love him? I don't think so but she's clearly in love with the thought of being pursued and adored. (Not helping matters here is the fact that I am really not keen on the casting of Christopher Stanley as Henry; he and January Jones' Betty seem to lack any kind of chemistry or heat.) Is this the escape hatch through which Betty can leave her marriage without resorting to the half-life of divorcees like Helen Bishop? Perhaps. But she's also being impulsive where before she would be meek; Kennedy's death has shocked her into adulthood perhaps as well.

As for Don, he discovers that he is not the only one seeking solace through work. Perhaps in an act of penance, Peggy is also working that Monday, alone with her own thoughts. It's a nice parallel between the two and a reminder that Don and Peggy are two sides of the same coin. But whereas Peggy invites Don to watch the funeral with her, to connect, he refuses, preferring to sit alone in the darkness of his office.

Could it be that Don sees such solitude as his own eventual future, spent not in the light (where he sees his family aglow with breakfast that morning) but in a darkness of his own creation? Is this the price he has to pay for the choices he's made, the lies he's spun, the hurt he's caused? And can he and the nation find its way back into the light?

Next week on the season finale of Mad Men ("Shut the Door. Have a Seat"), Don has an important meeting with Connie; Betty receives some advice; Pete talks to his clients.

Comments

ewench said…
Spot on review as always! I agree it was a punch in the gut when Betty told Don she didn’t love him, those sad irretrievable words. Don has done lots of terrible things but I still always root for him- why is that?

As the era dictates, Betty and her friends were so scathingly catty about divorced women it seems a giant leap to think she will become one herself? She has played the perfect little princess her whole life, is she “grown up” enough to deal with a divorce? Totally agree, there is no chemistry between her and Henry.

I wish the relationship between Duck and Peggy had been highlighted a bit more this season, honestly I almost forgot about it. I still wonder what his motive is, on the episode description it said something like “Peggy falls for the wrong man” but I didn’t get what that meant after watching the show..?
Jane Grey said…
Thank you for the thoughtful review. I am also glad that they didn't leave Kennedy's assassination until the last episode as it has had such a huge impact on the characters and I am looking forward now to the final episode and seeing in what new directions such an event pulls them.
Chigirl said…
It would have been so predictable to use this episode as the season finale. So glad Matt keeps us guessing.

My friends and I actually love the the actor that plays Henry Francis. Love the character too. We don't know much about Henry but he has been part of Betty's awakening. He has been sweet, respectful and honest with Betty. Can't wait until next week!
Thanks for great review!

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