I just want to see what’s going on. ~ Duck
What’s going on? ~ Peggy
My god, what happened? ~ Peggy
What is going on? – Betty
Well, now we know where Marvin Gaye got the idea.
It’s a cliché that the 1950’s ended – and that the 1960’s truly began -- with JFK’s assassination on November 22, 1963, but like many clichés, it has some truth to it. Mad Men runs with this theory in “The Grown-Ups,” an episode which does what creator Matthew Weiner swore not to do, covering an event that (pardon the pun) has been done to death, and showing how it affected America, including by starting an irrevocable splintering process between the kids and the adults, and calling into question who "the grown-ups" really were. Are they the ones who have the power and the money, the titles and positions, or are they the ones who decide that those formerly precious things are now worthless, and that life is about other values, like peace and love and personal satisfaction, thus upending the entire culture?
As Roger says at his daughter’s wedding, “The adults, we all want to be strong for you but your spirit, your love, your hope, is giving us strength.” In the next several years, these grown-up children will end a war, start a sexual revolution and change the culture for women, minorities, gays and, well, yes, even the white guys. If for one brief shining moment there was Camelot, so too will there be Woodstock, and other moments that bring hope for societal change, before America slides back into self-absorption and economic decline in the 70’s.
The fateful news comes down as tragedy always does, while people are going about their ordinary, self-centered lives: Roger’s daughter Margaret is throwing a childish tantrum, threatening to cancel her wedding in a pique about her stepmother Jane, who keeps putting her high-heeled foot in things, and violating the Sterling rules of etiquette. Pete is brainstorming with Harry about how to save his career now that he’s lost the tug of war with Cosgrove to be Head of Accounts (although Lane Pryce has issued a Solomonic pair of titles to save Pete’s pride -- and not coincidentally, his loyal clients). And Duck’s so eager to fuck that he unplugs the breaking news before Peggy can see it and he loses the chance to nail her during a nooner (ick!). Oh, what fools these mortals be!
But this news is too big to fail…breaking through even these epic layers of self-absorption to mesmerize everyone for days on end. And while some of the adults fall apart, the kids turn out to be alright.
Always a strange mix of childishness and forward thinking, Pete takes the assassination quite personally, perhaps because it comes on the heels of his demotion, which severed his investment in the status quo. The very structure he’s based his life on is coming apart, and he has no idea where he stands, explaining his demotion to Trudy as a stream of jabberwocky (a preview of how formal titles will soon be seen by much of his generation):
Kenny is senior something of something accounts and I’m not…I’m accounts something… I couldn’t even hear. All I saw was his frog like mouth flapping.
His initial shock at the assassination turning to anger, Pete seizes the chance for personal growth, which is a rather surprising development for a man who starts out the episode in a fetal position, childishly demanding hot cocoa. By its end, he and Trudy have suddenly stopped being conformist social climbers playing by the same rules their parents did and scheming how to save Pete’s career and become turtle-necked young rebels refusing to leave their apartment, where they watch TV endlessly and ponder conspiracy theories. Pete even writes more future Who lyrics by arguing that the new boss is the same as the old boss, and that LBJ will merely maintain the status quo that the youthful JFK would have overturned.
Even the always-shallow Jane seems to suddenly know what time it is, swinging abruptly from telling her step-daughter to cater to her husband in every way to railing at Roger for trying to tell her what to do and observing that he’s singing the same old song men always have, jeering “I’ve heard your toast a million times,” but “The President’s dead” and everything has changed, so she's going to do whatever she wants, Roger be damned.
Like a drowning man treading water, Roger spends much of the episode trying to save his daughter’s ill-fated wedding on day after the assassination, “consolidating” the sparsely attended tables at the reception like a man rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and using his ever-reliable speechmaking skills to offer an amusing toast to his ex-wife, who he calls a lioness (and who we see he has come to value more since the divorce). Afterwards, spent and as serious as we’ve ever seen him, he seeks solace in a phone call to Joan, who dishes out her usual wisdom by observing that at Greg’s hospital, babies are still being born and people are still getting sick, and life goes on. But when she senses that Roger is truly sad, she comforts him, and here the generation gap doesn’t matter, as we see once again that these two speak the same language in a way they don’t with anyone else.
Never the deepest dish on the buffet, Betty only gets part of the message of change. She starts the episode absurdly grateful just to find that Don’s left the bed at night not to desert her yet again but to tend their crying baby, and ends it by saying there’s no point to her marriage. In-between, feelings she’s held in for a lifetime seem to pour out in a torrent of tears triggered by JFK’s death. While it’s gratifying that she stands up to Don and a stunning relief to see her finally feel something as intensely as the grief, shock and anger she displays, Betty takes two steps forward only to take one giant step back.
Don: Why are the kids watching this?
Betty: What am I supposed to do, Don? Am I supposed to keep it from them?
Don: Why don’t you take a pill and lie down?
In letting the kids watch the TV coverage, a fact that Don is horrified by, Betty shows how far she’s come from the days of not wanting Sally to grieve Grandpa Gene. Having recently ripped the truth out of Don (acting a bit like a lioness herself), she wants no more deception or avoidance, and sits openly weeping on the couch with Carla as a bewildered Sally puts her arm around her in comfort, a gesture Betty accepts, giving us hope that her love for her children may have merely been hibernating, not absent. While Don continues to act as if life can go on as before, Betty is having none of that:
Don: Hey, everything’s going to be fine.
Betty: How do you know that?
In repeatedly rejecting Don’s formulaic and empty reassurances, Betty symbolizes another huge societal shift: The turning of women from reliance on men to make things feel (and be) all right to thinking and acting for themselves. Throughout the episode, we see women question men and refuse the old orders or platitudes. Not just a societal but a personal trust has been ripped in half, and it can’t be put back together as easily as men like Don seem to think, which leaves a man who has made a living (and a false life) out of how he talks to people truly bewildered at the sudden collapse of his livelihood.
Nothing, go upstairs. ~ Don
But realistically enough, Betty hasn’t changed as radically as we might wish -- rejecting Don and embracing her feelings is as far as she can go. Having seen Henry Farrell at Margaret Sterling’s wedding, she slips out to meet him on the day of JFK’s funeral, seeking comfort in yet another authoritative man who wants to take care of her. Betty, Betty, Betty – can’t you see that Door #2 holds the same booby prize as Door #1 did?
True, Henry does look like classic “second husband” material – the faithful, boring man you settle down with after the sexy dangerous one who broke your heart, taking comfort in the knowledge that he will continue to look at you worshipfully even as his prostate fails and your breasts sag. After soberly declaring that he’s “not in love with the tragedy of this thing” and wants no secret Romeo and Juliet affair, Henry stuns Betty by saying that he wants to marry her (after they’ve shared one coffee date, a furtive kiss and some puerile letters!) and inanely wishes he could cheer her up by taking her to her favorite movie (Singin’ in the Rain, she confesses – a classic romantic musical, but tellingly, also about the end of an era -- of silent movies).
We expect or at least hope that the newly awakened Betty will laugh him off or give him the same bitter rejection she does Don, but instead she smiles, seems reassured, kisses him passionately (ick!) and goes home to have it out with Don. (Like many women, she seems only ready to give up one man when she knows she has another lined up to take his place.)
Betty: I want to scream at you for ruining all this. But then you’d try to fix it and there’s no point. There’s no point, Don.
Don: You’re very upset, I understand. I know it’s painful but it’s going to pass.
Stunned when Betty tells him she no longer loves him, Don tries more condescending reassurances, but the days of that working on Betty are past, and, like her, we know he’s really trying to convince himself that she’ll wake up and be her old self in the morning. While he staggers up to their bedroom in the dark, looking shrunken and devastated by her rejection, Betty settles in to watch the TV, looking strangely at peace even as the endless reality of death unspools before her eyes as it has across the entire nation for days.
In the morning – a National Day of Mourning on which very few people would be working -- Don leaves the icy house (around which cold fall winds can be heard whistling like a man walking past a graveyard), as well as his equally icy wife and his puzzled children, to flee to the safety and comfort of his remaining zone of power, the office (and only because, as he says, “all the bars are closed.”) There he finds the one person we’d expect, his female counterpart and protégée, Peggy, who has fled her sister’s house because her mother’s grief left no room for anyone else’s feelings, just as Betty’s left no room for Don’s. Ambition undimmed, Peggy’s on the job as always, realizing that the upcoming Aqua Net hairspray campaign that she created has to be killed.
No moment tells us what’s changed more shockingly than the reveal of the storyboards for a TV commercial featuring two couples in an open convertible. What a few weeks before was just an innocent story is now an uncanny duplicate of the Zapruder film, a romance turned to tragedy. We’ve left the era of women being worried about their hair being blown around and entered the era of men worrying about their heads being blown off – in both the U.S. and Viet Nam. The Aqua Net 50’s and the early 60’s of JFK’s New Frontier, with its promise of shiny happy change, are both over, and the mid to late 60’s – which will bring darker, grimmer and more profound changes to America -- have begun.
Are we going to the funeral? ~ Bobby