It’s impossible to write about the season’s penultimate episode of “Mad Men” without immediately acknowledging the elephant in the room: the JFK assassination. As grim as it sounds, it’s an event we’ve been waiting for since the second episode of this season. You may or may not remember, but there was a shot in Episode 3.2 which pointedly focused on Margaret Sterling’s wedding invitation, of which I wrote at the time, “I’m sure those who know their ’60s dates better than I do offered a sad nod when they saw the date of Roger’s daughter’s wedding, but I had to look it up. Given that the camera pointedly held on the invitation, I figured, ‘Okay, clearly, this is an important date,’ and I was right. Well, the actual wedding day isn’t necessarily important, but the day before certainly will be.”
And so it was, though it was already starting off pretty important for a few folks at Sterling-Cooper even before things went dramatically downhill in Dallas.
Roger’s daughter is battling back against her new stepmother, making ridiculous claims about how Jane’s gotten her so wound up that she no longer wants to get married. This sets Mona, a.k.a. the former Mrs. Sterling, into a rant during which she comes across as about as pleasant a mother as Betty Draper, but it’s clear that, once upon a time, she and Roger really were a match made in Heaven. Roger, meanwhile, has his own problems, and in the midst of his annoyance with Jane’s attempts to forge a relationship with Margaret, she locks herself in the bathroom. She tells him to go away. He snaps back, “Or what? You’ll commit suicide?” That’s dark, Roger, but somehow it’s still funny…well, y’know, unless that’s what she actually did.
We got a brief reappearance of Peggy’s roommate, who seemed to mostly show up for purposes of disparaging the relationship between Peggy and Duck Phillips. Later, she gets completely flustered (and we get a big laugh) when Duck invites her off for a mid-day rendezvous and, when she attempts to slip out surreptitiously, Paul unabashedly calls her out by saying, “I know a nooner when I hear one.” Awesome.
Aw, look at poor little Pete, asleep on the couch. Rustled awake by his assistant, his first instinct is to criticize the hot chocolate she’s brought him. That’s our Pete! It’s ice cold in the office for some reason (later, Don complaints that it’s too hot, leading me to believe that there’s some intended temperature-related metaphor going on in the background), and it only gets colder when Lane Pryce calls him into his office to give him some “rather disappointing news”: Ken is being made senior VP in charge account services, while Pete will be head of account management. Pete takes in the information with as much stride as he can manage, though you get the impression that he could well go “American Psycho” at any given moment. He bails out of the office and heads home, where a surprised Trudy immediately begins to play Ellery Queen and work her way through Pete’s assurances that he’s been fired before confirming that he’s just being typically melodramatic. A return to the office leads him into a conversation with Harry, but when Harry reaches over to turn down the volume on the TV on his desk so that they can chat in earnest, a familiar CBS News graphic pops onto the screen…well, familiar to someone who’s watched “JFK” as many times as I have, anyway.
This was an episode where the tension level was racked up a little bit higher for those who are well versed in the television coverage of JFK’s assassination and recognized what was unfolding when. Example: when Duck was watching TV but unplugged the set when he heard Peggy’s knock on the door, it was hard for me to keep from jumping out of my seat, knowing full well what was going to be unfolding in mere minutes.
From this point on, it appears that the episode is going to be less about the lives of our usual cast of characters and more about how they and the rest of the nation are going to be dealing with the emotional repercussions of the fall of Camelot. And so it is, at least to a certain extent: not only does Sterling-Cooper comes to a complete standstill, but I can only presume that dogs and cats are living together, given that we also see the probable Armageddon sign of Betty Draper accepting a sympathetic hug from Sally. Everyone’s utterly taken aback by the events…yes, even Duck and Peggy, once they finally get around to plugging the TV back in. I had to laugh…if humorlessly one…at Trudy questioning whether Pete had been drinking or not, leading Pete to snap back, “The whole country’s drinking!” Watching the Draper kids being completely enthralled at the events unfolding on their TV set, I was immediately reminded of my own experience – not quite as bad, but the closest thing I have from my actual childhood – of Ronald Reagan being shot when I was 10 years old. I didn’t understand, I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was seeing, but I’ll be damned if I could take my eyes off the set.
Margaret’s nuptials continued on unabated, albeit without a wait staff or even a wedding cake, but even though the gang manages to make it to the festivities, that doesn’t mean that half of them…including Jane…don’t end up finding their way into the kitchen to watch a TV and see how things are progressing in the JFK situation. When Sterling dragged them out so that they could witness him give his toast, I once again found myself flashing back to what I knew would be happening, thinking, “No, don’t leave yet! You’re going to miss Oswald getting shot!”
I loved the Betty said “of course” under her breath when Henry Francis walked in the door, but I must admit that I absolutely did not expect the storyline of the Drapers to finish up the way it did. With the way Don stepped up and was helping with the baby at the beginning of the episode and his assurances to Betty while they were dancing that “everything’s going to be fine,” I was fool enough to believe that this was going to be a turning point for them as a couple. It never occurred to me that the show’s own version of JFK and Jackie would come crashing down at long last. In the end, Don was left completely blindsided by Betty’s admission that their marriage was over…not that he should’ve been, really, but it’s clear that he was.
Next week’s the big season finale, and I no longer have any idea what to expect…well, except that, with the unraveling relationship between Roger and Jane and his regular communications with Joan, I expect to see the former Ms. Holloway feature heavily. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. Now that’s good TV.