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Kennedy assassination rocks ‘Mad Men’

The Sterling Cooper crew dealt with a national tragedy and a family wedding, while Don got the first inkling that his marriage might not make it.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

The penultimate episode opened with a shot of Pete shivering in the fetal position. He woke up crabby from his nap. There was no heat in the Sterling Cooper office and his secretary had done him wrong by fetching him hot cocoa made with water rather than milk. It was fitting that Pete began this episode whining like a little baby. By the end, weathering the extreme temperature shifts of puberty and the great losses of innocence, identity and leadership, he actually was one of the few characters who behaved like one of the titular “Grown Ups.”

My beloved Mr. Pryce had bad news for Pete. The Brits had tapped sunny Ken to be Senior Something Something of Accounts, relegating Pete to the depressing role of Account Something. “You are excellent at making the clients feel their needs are being met,” the older man commended. “But Mr. Cosgrove has the rare gift of making them feel they haven’t any needs.” Pete stormed out of the office, nearly stumbling out of the elevator into a conversation between Peggy and her silly roommate about Duck, not Doug. (“He’s not married.” “Then why are you with him?”) Back home Pete dug into a pot of leftovers like a surly teenager, complaining to Trudy about the indignity of being passed over. Kudos for the hungry way Kartheiser tore into the line about Lane’s “frog-like mouth flapping.”

Tempers were hot all over Manhattan. Margaret Sterling was stamping her foot over her wicked stepmother’s very expensive wedding gift. The little tramp was ruining everything, the girl cried. Magnificent Mona tried to shake her daughter out of her tantrum. “You’re having the wedding, the bride will not be burned, turn those earrings into a tea service or something.” Margaret’s head continued to spin so she called Daddy, who was slouched low on his marital bed, looking old, drunk and bored. Mona got on the line and spoke delicious Roger shorthand, both of them insisting that their daughter cut the drama already.

Poor Roger — the man married a fool. He bellowed for Jane, who strode into the room in her silly leopard cuffs and hat. She pouted and stormed off to the bathroom. Roger chased after her. They reenacted the classic melodramatic teenager/angry parent argument. “You better not have locked that door!” “Go away!” “Or what, you’ll commit suicide?” There’s that S-word again, hovering just up ahead at the edge of a cliff.

The next day began normally enough, like all horrible days do. Peggy (Pee Wee!) slipped out at lunch for a nooner with Duck. Don, sweating and gasping under his collar in the sudden baking heat, was denied a new art director. Pete sulked in Harry’s office, the TV turned down low as the biggest news story of the decade was breaking before them.

We’ve wondered all season how JFK’s assassination would play. It was done beautifully, from Duck unplugging the TV to Mr. Pryce’s stunned expression to the gang crowding en masse in Harry’s office. Poor Don, the world forever changed on him without his realization, walked into a tornado of ringing phones and empty desks. “What the hell is going on?” he asked. Margaret sobbed for herself in a heap of wedding dress. A postcoital (and tattooed!) Duck needed to call his kids. Carla, dropping her neutral gaze, rushed into the Draper kitchen for news. When she saw Betty crumpled on the sofa she broke down, slumping next to her boss on the sofa. It was finally Carla’s turn to light up a cigarette. Sally, so sensitive to her mother’s shifting moods, played the grown up and tried to give comfort.

That night Don tried to say all the right things. He wanted the kids shielded from the ugly scene. “What am I supposed to do Don?” spat Betty, digging in the knife. “Am I supposed to keep it from them.” Don sent her off to bed and her bottle of pills — no one will ever let this woman have a moment of genuine grief! — and gathered Sally and Bobby around him on the sofa. Any child whose parents split up when they were young must have shivered in recognition of Don’s attempt to explain the unexplainable. “Everything’s going to be OK,” he stoically told his confused kids. “You’ll have a new president and we’re all going to be sad for a bit.”

The next day everyone wanted to stay glued to their television sets. Pete moaned to Trudy about the injustice of it all — and for once he wasn’t talking about himself. “It felt for a second like everything was about to change,” he told Trudy. (Just wait...) “You should have heard the things people said yesterday. Man made a lot of enemies, things like that.” I’m willing myself not to try to picture the horrors of JFK happening in our present-day, and the toxic, vicious things that might be said in the wake of such a wretched tragedy. Pete refused to attend Margaret’s wedding. He hated those people. He wasn’t going to play the politic game when the real world was falling apart around him. Trudy, who in that blue dress and Vivien Leigh curls never looked so beautiful, hesitated for a bit, worrying over Pete’s professional decisions. Then she realized her husband was right and nestled into his side. Partners, these two. They were the only married couple who leaned on each other all night.

Betty wore a pale ice blue suit to the wedding, dressed for an evening on the ice caps. She inhaled sharply when she saw Henry Francis walk in and head straight for a young woman, and then exhaled when she heard her call him daddy. Mona’s boyfriend, a tough-talking Neanderthal, demanded retribution, starting with Oswald’s head and ending with the annihilation of Texas. The Sterling Cooper men, and a slurpy Jane, huddled around a TV in the kitchen pantry. (RIP, RFK.)

Poor Roger did his damnedest for his dear daughter. I loved his toast (“Mona, you’re a lioness!”) and his snapped demand for a cake. I loved when Roger asked Mr. Cooper to keep an eye on his wife and Robert Morse, distracted yet still a tad lascivious, murmured “Absolutely.” I loved that we saw Betty emerge once more from the ladies room, and that when she walked toward those two expectant men she chose her eager-eyed husband.

That night poor Roger gave his daughter away but was forced to tote home another girl on his shoulder. Jane must have forgotten to eat again. “He was so handsome and now I’ll never get to vote for him,” she slurred before passing out. Roger, left alone with a child, sought refuge in Red. (I admit, I was hoping he was calling Mona.) Roger teased Joan when she was struck low by Marilyn’s death. She of course did no such thing to Roger. “Nobody else is saying the right thing about this,” he said sadly. Joan was tender and firm and wise. “Hang in there Red,” he said, his voice full of longing, after he swatted Jane’s lifeless hand off of him.

The next day Don looked so handsome in his sweater and shirt sleeves, making a drink in the kitchen while Betty watched the news. Shots rang out, Betty screamed, Oswald was down. “What is going on?!” demanded Betty, echoing her husband’s earlier plea for answers. (I’m firmly in the camp of admiring January Jones’ acting chops but there was something off and strangely modern about her performance throughout this scene.) The world had gone mad and a family drive wasn’t going to fix anything. Betty, shoving Don aside, needed out of their house. We shot to an abandoned parking lot with a cawing bird’s eye view of a black and white sedan pulling up alongside one another. Mysterious Hitchcock (or perhaps “Murder, She Wrote”) music played in the background. Damn. Henry, of course.

The man isn’t after anything tawdry or tragic. He wants to marry Betty. He wants to make her happy. He wants to take her to the movies and hum “Singin’ in the Rain” on the way home. He doesn’t want to meet Betty’s needs, he wants to make her believe that she doesn’t have any. In some sense, I think this is why Roger chose Jane instead of Joan when he had the chance. Jane represented tipsy giggles and carefree romps in the hay. I don’t believe that Joan, despite her effervescent script for Peggy’s Want ad, was ever just a silly girl looking for laughs. She’s no Pete, that’s for sure. She is the epitome of poise and competent grace. But she gloriously met Roger’s needs, which meant he had to acknowledge that he had some. (We know now he gave that up after Annabel broke his heart.) With Joan he would have had to be a grown-up. Likewise, Don and Betty have serious, deep, grown-up rips in their marriage quilt. Enter Henry, and his offerings of chaise lounges and movie musicals.

If Betty laid to rest the JFK version of her husband a couple episodes ago, she started shooting at his corpse in their family room. “I want,” she said, taking a pause as I braced myself for the D word, “to scream at you for ruining all of this.” Okay, yes, scream, have it out you two! But no, alas. Don had surprised Betty by being the first up at night to soothe the baby. Betty looked touched, if mystified by Don’s attentions. Too little, too late. “You tried to fix it and there’s no point...I don’t love you.” Don turned in on himself at this point, refusing to absorb her blows. “You can’t even hear me right now,” she said. “You’re right,” he said, before heading upstairs. He walked into their bedroom and collapsed into a chair. Oh Don.

The next morning, Don took an extra second absorbing the scene of his wife serving up breakfast for his children. Then he cut a wide berth around Betty, who shot him dagger eyes from behind the counter. “It’s cold outside,” dear Bobby warned his father. “I’ll be fine,” said Don. Sally, her face worried and alert, was meanwhile taking the temperature of the room.

And so, on a national day of mourning, Don sought refuge at the office, the setting where he gets to be his best self. Peggy of course was there too, tapping away on some Aqua Net copy. When Don appeared in her office he looked so unwell, like if he dared open his mouth or sink into one of her chairs he might burst into tears and beg for guidance. She invited him to sit alongside her and watch the funeral up in Mr. C.’s office. He couldn’t bear it. The last scene of Don hanging up his hat in his dark, empty office, reaching for the booze, was a gut punch.

Damn. My heart hurts.

What did you all think? Were you impressed by Trudy and Pete’s alliance? Do you want to see Betty with Henry? When will Roger and Jane split? What’s Betty’s second favorite movie?