One of the questions that has lingered in my mind since the beginning of Mad Men was how the show would handle the JFK assassination, arguably the biggest news story of the decade. Now that the event has come to pass, I am pleased that the creative forces behind the show tackled the subject matter with signature wit, style, and intelligence.
I think that it wasn’t until fifteen or twenty minutes into the episode that JFK’s death was first referenced. The first third of the episode centered on Pete’s disappointment at losing the position of Senior Vice President of Accounts (or some important position like that) to Ken Cosgrove, and Margaret Sterling’s pre-wedding tantrum regarding her new stepmother’s expensive wedding gift. In the wake of JFK’s assassination, these individual conflicts were revealed as pointless and mundane — though Margaret missed out on any such insight. In the one humorous scene of an otherwise tragic episode, Margaret sat in front of the television in her wedding dress, sobbing “It’s ruined!”
Contrary to Margaret’s declaration, the wedding was not completely ruined. The newlyweds tied the knot and a few tables were filled. Roger’s wife Jane got drunk once again and he found solace by calling Joan after the wedding. Pete decided not to go to the wedding, telling his wife Trudy that attending all of these functions would be pointless in the wake of a national tragedy. I’m skeptical about the motives behind Pete’s prioritization here. I’m confident that Pete was just using the assassination as a justification for his earlier whining and threats that he was going to leave the company. On the other hand, I might be blinded by my (completely warranted, in my opinion) prejudices against Pete.
The most significant consequence of the JFK assassination for the Mad Men universe was undoubtedly the destruction of the Draper marriage. Betty’s shock at the death of the president left her feeling like she was on a totally tenuous foundation. Just as she is being overwhelmed by insecurities, in walks Henry. This man doesn’t want casual sex from Betty. He wants to marry her and take her to see Singin’ In the Rain. Compared to Don’s monotone reassurances to Betty and his insistence that she drown her grief in sleep, Henry really appeared to be the ideal husband. This image made it all the more believable that Betty would be so willing to desert her husband and family.
After sharing an intimate encounter with Henry in a parking lot, Betty came home to tell Don those four little words: “I don’t love you.” Hearing those words hit me like a punch to the stomach. Naturally, Don felt even worse. The episode ended with Don leaving for work without even speaking to Betty. In the nearly empty building (Peggy was still there), Don walked into his office to pour himself a drink. With that last shot, Don Draper looked like the loneliest man on Earth.
The season finale is next week. I have my predictions for this season’s cliff-hanger (though she is a major character in the show, I still have this feeling that Betty is going to commit suicide); what are yours?