Sunday, November 01, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.12: "The Grown-Ups"

And so, despite suggestions in interviews that he would not deal directly with The Assassination, Matt Weiner chooses to tackle it head-on in the penultimate episode of the season.

More than most shows, the episode titles for "Mad Men" provide a ready-made framework for analysis of the show. This week's episode bears the title "The Grown-Ups," which immediately posits the natural question: Who are the grown-ups here? In an episode where a father figure consistently avoids or denies reality, a little girl comforts her mother rather than the other way around, and the most senior characters put immediate social obligations ahead of a national crisis, that answer is left deliberately murky.

I haven't anything to compare the JFK assassination with other than 9/11, but based on my memory of the latter and what I've read and heard about the former, I found the depiction of that day and its aftermath quite effective, if not especially original, and the reactions of the various characters 100% believable. (I wonder what the veddy British Pryce made of the whole thing?) Everyone behaved pretty much within character, from Roger's angry, almost comical bemusement ("Someone go buy a cake!") at his daughter's ghost town of a wedding reception - partly mitigated by a great toast - to the sight of distraught Carla sinking down on the sofa next to an equally distraught Betty and lighting up (two things you can bet she'd never do on any other day), to the growing solidarity of Pete and Trudy, who were totally awesome for flipping Sterling Cooper the bird...though I have to say Trudy looked a-ma-zing in that blue dress and I was sorry she didn't get a chance to show it off. And, of course, Peggy's shock upon realizing that Duck withheld the news from her so he could still get his "nooner." (tm Paul Kinsey, who made the most of his two lines in this episode.)

But the person whose reaction struck me the most was Don's, whose instinct to deny, deny, deny, and offer the one assurance he couldn't possibly back up - that "everything will be all right" - only led to the rapid crumbling of his universe, which had already started to buckle in the last episode. This may have been the first episode in the entire run of "Mad Men" in which I felt totally, completely, unreservedly sorry for Don, even though in so many ways he had it coming to him. It crushed me to watch him trying to be a good father in the beginning, to connect with Betty on the dance floor when her mind was clearly elsewhere (and really, Betty, how could you be so unresponsive to the look he was giving you? I melted, and I've been a longtime skeptic of the Irresistible Sexual Powers of Don Draper), and, near the end, to prevent her from running off to meet Henry Francis. And you could feel his utter devastation when Betty delivered the bombshell line: "I don't love you anymore." (And, of the kiss: "I didn't feel a thing." Ouch!!!) From the look on his face, I'm forced to conclude he loves her after all, or at least thinks he loves her. More likely, he just loves what she represents to him. But still. It hurts. It hurts to be told you're not loved. And what makes it most painful, to quote a poster on Television Without Pity,

This was exactly his worst nightmare - that, in seeing his true self, Betty would not love him and he would lose everything. Of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophesy. By lying to Betty all these years, and seeking solace outside of his marriage, he pretty much guaranteed this would be Betty's reaction. But it is something I think could break him.

I hope not. I like vulnerable Don Draper much more than imperious jerk Don Draper, but I don't want to see a broken Don Draper. I thought it was interesting that he didn't think to call or visit Suzanne, though I was bracing myself for it. OTOH, it was frustrating, though not unexpected, that he immediately fell back into his default mode: Deny. But of course it isn't working, as even the children noticed the next morning. Or at least, Sally did.

As for Betty, it's hard to tell what her next step will be. Notice she didn't tell Don she was leaving him....yet. Will she go for Henry? His proposal might seem like it came out of left field, but ever since he first appeared, I've always gotten the vibe that he might want more than a mere affair, notwithstanding hints that he's had plenty of those in the past. I just hope Betty's learned enough from her first marriage not to spring into another with a man she barely knows.

I also thought it was interesting that the writers once again chose to put Betty and Pete - two characters who don't directly intersect very often - on parallel tracks. Betty's own pause on the brink of a huge decision mirrored Pete's own dilemma after realizing that he has no place at SC. Will he take the plunge, now that Trudy's signed off on it? Will he go work for Duck? (Will he find out about Duck & Peggy?)

All this remains to be seen. Still one more episode this season to find out!

ETA: Alan Sepinwall makes the same observation about the Betty-Pete parallel, but I swear I didn't cop it off him.

Random notes:

-The demarcation between grown-ups and children may have been blurred, but in some instances it was very clear, e.g., the Sterling family. Good lord, but Margaret is a brat in need of a spanking. Mona, however, was fabulous, as even Roger acknowledged.

-That AquaNet ad will have to be revamped, though Peggy seemed to be suggesting it wouldn't?

-Best line, from drunk Jane, re: JFK: "He was so young and handsome...And now I'll never get to vote for him!"


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