November 1st, 2009
There’s been an ongoing debate amongst Mad Men viewers about how the show should ideally be handling the intersection of its fictional characters and the historical events that happen around them during the 1960s. Some have argued that the uncontrollable impact of history is almost too powerful for the show, overwhelming its characters and distracting from the more interesting elements of the show, but others have indicated that the cultural upheaval is integral to understanding how these characters are acting and how this decade is changing them. If I had to place myself within these two camps, I’d probably place myself into the latter, although admittedly I take the point of the former group in regards to the third season’s penultimate episode.
Harmed both by our prior knowledge of the episode’s central tragedy, young Margaret Sterling’s wedding falling the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and by a lack of a connection between that tragedy and the character motivations on display, “The Grown-Ups” works perhaps too well to capture the chaos that surrounded these November days. Rather than the chaos disrupting a clear sense of order, it came amidst a false sense of stability that crumbled suddenly, yes, but not as subtly as it needed to. This isn’t to suggest that the episode was a failure, or that it didn’t offer a stark depiction of these tragic days, but the combination of an oft-dramatized moment in history and a lack of character actions that felt distinctly of this show’s universe ended up making this one a bit less exciting than perhaps it seemed in theory.
Alan Sepinwall and I are pretty much on the same page with this one, and since he has a lot more experience with the Kennedy assassination than I do (I swear that’s me emphasizing my youth, not his age) he’s probably influenced some of the way I’ve responded to the episode when sitting down to write about it. However, what’s interesting is that the episode places the characters as ultimately subservient to the events at hand, a position which seems counterintuitive for a penultimate episode like this one. Duck unplugs the television in order to keep the event from getting in the way of his personal satisfaction, and it was a logical instinct: this event changes people in a way that the show is almost unable to deal with. It’s like the characters are supposed to be in one place dealing with their issues but instead they’re sitting at home on the couch watching TV. And while a number of characters make important decisions in that setting, they seem more arbitrary than they should. There’s something almost cheap about Kennedy’s death serving as the straw that broke the camel’s back, the added pressure that makes Pete grow a backbone and makes Betty throw away her and Don’s peace of sorts from last week and run off to Henry Francis.
The show has always loved hidden motivations, so I’m not suggesting that the characters should be wearing their hearts on their sleeve. I loved the scene where Peggy’s roommate learns that Duck isn’t married, and then immediately questions why Peggy is with him. It’s both a logical question, one that we as the audience have been asking, but it’s also one that Peggy (and the show) have kept close to the vest. However, it’s a question that we can trace back to her actions this season (her bedding of the college boy to prove that she could) and in previous seasons (overcoming what happened with Pete to emerge stronger and more mature), constructing a sketch of how this character came to be on a nooner with Herman Phillips. And while we could perhaps say the same about characters like Pete and Betty, those characters have always been far more erratic (both being immature with some serious issues of entitlement) and thus seem like they need more time to come to their conclusions.
The tragic death of JFK was a source of many things in the episode, including comedy (Jane’s drunken ramblings as Roger carried her to bed), but I feel as if it would have been more interesting to establish a broad atmosphere rather than serving to escalate particular storylines. Pete’s was perhaps more natural, as losing the job as head of accounts just so happened to have coincided with JFK’s death and thus drove him to decide to put Sterling Cooper behind him. But Betty was in a point of relative stability last week, and either that episode failed to show how close things came to falling apart before Don came clean or else this episode failed to demonstrate how JFK’s death made Don’s honesty more problematic than it was three weeks earlier. Betty, like Pete, tends to be impetuous, but the episode shouldn’t take on those qualities at the same time. We didn’t even see Betty and Don until more than 10 minutes had passed in the episode, and it made it feel like the episode was more about JFK’s death than about its strangely drawn impacts on these characters.
However, I’ll say this much: a lot of this depends on how things turn out in the finale. If the finale feels like a commentary on the speed at which some of these decisions were made, and accurately depicts the chaos of these characters in an orderly fashion, then it and “The Grown-Ups” will work as intriguing companion pieces. Without such an episode, though, this feels as if the show has dropped a bomb without first establishing the preparedness of its characters, making their actions feel erratic not only as personal actions but also as pieces of narrative. Something was missing that could hold the whole thing together, as here it just felt history and fictional momentum were colliding rather than gracefully coming into conflict.
I withhold judgment, though, until the finale.
- The scene with Roger and Joan was the kind of thing that Betty’s story seemed like it needed: a nice, subtle moment where one character in the midst of this chaos turns to another that means something to them. It may just be that Hendricks/Slattery are a whole lot of fun to watch together even over the phone, but there was something there that was missing from Betty’s rendezvous with Francis.
- Interesting to see a bit more focus on Harry Crane in this one, whose rise to prominence is really quite fascinating: he didn’t ask for anyone of it, so it makes sense that Pete would resent him for lucking into a job that he didn’t work nearly as hard for as Pete did for Head of Accounts.
- Speaking of which, loved Lane’s gentle putdown of Pete’s overeagerness to please – Jared Harris has been fantastic all season, but that moment all bundled up in winter clothes was a fine piece of acting.
- I think the differences in temperature were designed to create a hostile work environment reflective of the chaos that was about to take place, but to be honest it was a bit of a weird little bit of plot: it, like some other elements of the episode, got dropped completely when JFK was shot. The episode returned to the office in the end with Peggy and Don going there as if it was home, but no connection was made to the earlier temperature shifts.
- Via James Poniewozik, whose Mad Men review is here, the New York Times caught up with some real-life Margaret Sterlings, which is why these history episodes can be really cool sometimes.