"The Kennedy assassination is very well-trod territory, and I just don't see myself adding (anything) new to that." -Matthew Weiner, at the end of season twoWeiner, like any artist, is allowed to change his mind, and so season three wound up not only including the Kennedy assassination, but confronting it head-on. But after seeing the finished product - the first episode of season three I've found truly disappointing - I can understand why he was initially reluctant to do it.
On the one hand, this is a series about the social change that came in the '60s, and so you can't not deal with Kennedy's death in some way. It would feel like either a cheat, or simply a glaring hole in the narrative. But on the other, Weiner was right that the assassination itself, and how people learned of and reacted to it, has been told so many times that there simply wasn't a lot that he (in a script co-written with Brett Johnson) could add to it.
With season one's episode about the Nixon vs. Kennedy election, or season two's Cuban Missile Crisis finale, the show took the approach of showing that even in the midst of a presidential election, or the potential end of the world, people were still caught up in the drama of their own lives. But even more than the Cuban Missile Crisis (which was an abstraction - the threat of something happening, rather than something actually happening), Kennedy's assassination was such an enormous event that it took over everyone's life for a little while. And many people spent those tumultuous days doing exactly what Pete and Trudy, and Betty, and the gang in the kitchen at the wedding - and characters in so many other JFK-era dramatizations - did, which was to sit in front of the television and try to process all of the bizarre, horrible things that were happening.
In the end, I don't know that Weiner had a choice, either about doing an episode about the assassination, or about showing the characters largely being passive, frustrated observers to it all.
But if it was necessary, it wasn't very satisfying to watch - watching a TV show about characters glued to their TV sets feels particularly slothful - and it felt even more unsatisfying coming on the heels of the astonishing second half of last week's "The Gypsy and the Hobo." "Mad Men" tends to go back and forth between telling larger stories of the '60s and smaller stories of the characters - and, at its best, stories that combine the two - and the shift from the important (to us) but (to the world at large) small moment where Betty learns the truth about Dick Whitman to the more sweeping yet (to our characters) remote story of JFK being killed was jarring. Since I realized when this season was set, and certainly since I saw the date of Margaret's wedding on the invitation(*), I've been waiting to see how "Mad Men" would deal with the assassination. But now that we're here, I find myself wishing they had pushed it off for a bit so we could have seen more of how Betty was dealing with this new information, and what the state of the Draper marriage was before Betty decided to end it.
(*) I'm not usually a good prognosticator, but I was pleased to see that I was right in assuming that Roger would stubbornly go through with the wedding, that it would be sparsely-attended, and that most of the guests would be miserable. Margaret's wailing, "It's all ruined!" reaction to the assassination was a nice reminder that not everyone was so devastated by the death itself.
Now, the fact that Betty's willing to walk away from Don (and into the arms of Henry Francis) should more or less tell you what the state of the marriage was. But we closed "The Gypsy and the Hobo" on a somewhat hopeful note: Betty hadn't asked Don to leave, wanted to go trick-or-treating with him and the kids, offered him the last bite of her sandwich, etc., while Don seemed relieved to have the burden of the secret lifted. Then the Drapers are largely invisible in this one at first (Don and Betty don't appear at all, alone or together for the first 10 minutes), and then they're dealing with reactions to Kennedy's death, and then Betty's eyeing Henry at the wedding. It's clear from their reactions to the kiss on the dance floor - Don looks hungrier for his wife than ever before, where Betty is lost in thought and a bit puzzled - that they're moving in different directions, but I think an opportunity was missed to show Betty going from Point A (interested in saving the marriage) to Point B (recognizing it as a lost cause).
Weiner apparently said in one of those "Inside Mad Men" features on AMC's website that Betty originally planned to move herself and the kids permanently to Philadelphia, and only went back to Don after the lawyer's advice was so depressing. In that light, Betty's emotional journey makes more sense - the Dick Whitman revelation was only a temporary blip in her desire to get the hell away from this man who's always been like a stranger to her - but in terms of what's been shown on the screen, rather than explained in an on-line footnote, I wanted more middle. I wanted to see how, if at all, Don and Betty's interaction changed after this news, to see how Betty viewed her husband now, how Don acted at home, etc., and aside from their brief moment in Gene's room in the middle of the night, there was no time for that with all the JFK drama unfolding.
And I wanted all of that because it feels like the relationship has now passed a point of no return, so we're never going to get a chance to see this in the future. Betty has now declared her desire to end the marriage twice, and while she took him back once, it would be tedious if the show kept breaking them up and putting them together again - especially since Betty only really took him back the last time because she was afraid to have the baby alone.
And that in turn raises a troubling question about what happens to Betty going forward. Betty has only ever figured into the story as she relates to Don, and we've seen this season with Joan and, especially, Sal, how easily characters who don't work at Sterling Cooper and/or don't have relationships with characters who work there can fall off the map. If Betty follows through on her plan to end the marriage, where does that leave her in the larger story? Will we have random, disconnected subplots about what Betty, Henry and the kids are up to? Or will the reality of Henry turn out to be so different from the fantasy of him that Betty will run screaming back to Don, and have Don (yawn) take her back?
I'm a little under the weather, so in the interests of both coherence and my health, I'm going straight to the bullet points to discuss everything else:
• Because Pete and Betty have so much in common as people (which I talked about at length in my review of season two's "The Inheritance"), their stories often tend to move in parallel. So in the same episode where Betty decides she's finally fed up with being Mrs. Don Draper, Pete has had enough of being at Sterling Cooper. I liked how Lane spelled out the difference between Ken and Pete's approaches, and how Pete - who always tries too hard at everything because he doesn't know how to be a real boy - doesn't understand why his approach is less appealing than Ken's. How do you suppose he'll react, though, to the idea of working with Duck should he find out that Duck is with Peggy?
• Whenever someone asks me if any character on this show is actually happy or well-adjusted, I always point to Kenny and his haircut (as Pete describes Mr. Cosgrove), but I guess the downside to that is that the writers don't have the time or interest in crafting stories about someone who isn't disappointed in his life or at any kind of personal or career cross-roads. Ken stories in the first two seasons were usually about how other characters reacted to him (Pete being jealous about the short story, Sal having a crush on him), and this year, we haven't even seen that much of our new Senior Vice President of Account Services.
• Carla Gallo makes her first appearance since the season's fourth episode as Peggy's roommate Karen, and it's clear from their conversation that the two are every bit the mismatched disaster they seemed back when Peggy was trying to sell herself as "fun" in their initial meeting. I liked Karen's confusion at learning that Duck was unmarried - "Oh. Then why are you with him?" - since to her (and, based on reactions to the first Peggy/Duck episode, to much of the audience) the relationship makes no sense if it's not a simple affair.
• And if I was Peggy, I would want to get as far away from Herman (Duck) Phillips as I possibly could. He's turned her into his new addiction - cajoling her to blow off Kurt and Smitty (his "a couple of homos" joke was half-right) for a nooner, inhaling cigarettes while waiting for her, and unplugging the TV so that news of Kennedy's shooting wouldn't get in the way of their sex. Fortunately, you could see alarm on Peggy's face when he put the TV back on - not only about the news itself, but about the realization that he tried to keep it from her until after he did his business.
• This week's episode was directed by Barbet Schroeder, probably best known for directing Jeremy Irons to an Oscar in "Reversal of Fortune" or, to lesser acclaim, sending Jennifer Jason Leigh after Bridget Fonda in "Single White Female" (another story of female roommates who probably shouldn't have been). I particularly liked the way he shot the moment where Betty emerges from the lady's room and sees both her husband her potential lover standing in front of her, as if both she and we aren't sure to whom she'll approach.
• I'll give Roger Sterling this: he may be selfish, and childish, and a boor, but the man gives a good speech. His introduction for Don at the 40th anniversary dinner was terrific, and his toast at the otherwise disastrous wedding reception was even better, finding a way to make the decision to go through with the ceremony seem noble, rather than stubborn.
• There was a lot of discussion after last week's episode about whether Roger, when dismissing Annabelle as The One, was thinking of Jane, or of Joan. I'm not sure it's either one - I think Roger's probably too cynical to believe in a greeting card concept like The One - and I still think he never would have been happy marrying Joan (she's too strong-willed and has too much baggage for him), but it was clear last week, and even more clear here, that she matters very much to him. She's the one he wants to talk to at the end of that awful day, not his drunken child bride (who, in one of the funnier lines of the episode, complains that she won't ever get to vote for Kennedy), nor his ex-wife (though it's clear from their phone call tag team on Margaret that they still can operate on the same wavelength from time to time), nor his drama queen daughter. And Joan still cares about him, too, just not enough to always indulge his neediness.
• While Walter Cronkite's reaction as he reports the official word of JFK's death is the most famous TV image from that day (and one of the most famous of all time), I thought it was a nice touch that the secretaries changed the channel in Harry's office from CBS to NBC, since Huntley/Brinkley were the more popular news team of the period.
• In his toast, Roger suggests that relative kids Margaret and Brooks are taking care of the adults, rather than the other way around, and while that's not really true (for Margaret, anyway), it was nice to see Sally immediately move to hug her mother upon news of the president's death. To a girl Sally's age, the death of a president isn't entirely real or relevant, but the pain of her mother was, and she reacted to that. Also, note how she (and, for that matter, Bobby) was painfully aware that her mother didn't in any way reaction to Don's presence in the kitchen on Monday morning?
• Don and Peggy, two peas in a pod: both wind up at the office because it's the only real home they have. And gold star to those of you who pointed out that the AquaNet commercial was supposed to evoke the Dallas motorcade, which the storyboard made very clear. Peggy's going to have a lot of rewriting to do over the next week.
Finally, I should warn you that this is the last episode of the season that I'm getting to see in advance. While AMC has sent out previous episodes for advance review to many critics, Weiner decided he wanted to keep the finale totally under wraps. So I'll be watching it live on Sunday night like the rest of you - and that, obviously, means that the review will not be posted right after the show ends on the East Coast the way it has all season. My plan is to do what I do for "Lost" finales, or for the later episodes of "The Sopranos" after David Chase also cut off the critics, and just stay up to write, but it may be a while. So don't lose any sleep waiting for it - and please don't send e-mails or post comments in other threads asking when the review will be done (or, worse, discussing the finale itself).
Keeping in mind the usual commenting rules (no spoilers, including talking about the previews, play nice with others, make an effort to read other people's comments so you're not asking the exact same question that's been answered six times already, etc.), what did everybody else think?