Monday, November 2, 2009

MAD MEN and November 22, 1963; The End of The World ( As We Knew It)



Last night the penultimate episode of AMC's Mad Men aired and answered the question most fans have been asking ourselves for months; how would writer/producer Matt Weiner handle the most significant event of 1963, and of the decade of the 1960's, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, on November 22.

I watched the World Series till its conclusion (about midnight), then fought to stay awake until 2:00 am to watch the 12th episode of Season Three (a replay) in its entirety. I'm glad I did. The show, which is set in the early 1960's, moved into the second half of 1963 for these 13 episodes, and answered the question that each of us who were alive on November 22, 1963 have been asked countless times- where were you the day the Jack Kennedy died?

It was an eventful weekend for the staff of Sterling Cooper and their friends and families. Roger Sterling's daughter Margaret was married on the Saturday after the assassination, November 23, in a total disaster of an affair that resembled a wake rather than a marriage; there was no cake, because for all intents and purposes, life stopped for four days in this country. Broadcast news took another step in becoming what it is now, the eyes and ears of a nation. We were riveted to the TV for the ordeal; the events in Dallas, the non-stop coverage of the aftermath, the murder of Officer JD Tippit in Dallas and the subsequent arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the questions that surrounded Oswald's background and his motives that floated all day the Saturday after Kennedy's shooting, and the nagging fear that this somehow was ordered by the Soviets of perhaps Cuban strong man Fidel Castro.

That was not a crazy irrational thought. I remember that Saturday when I attended religious instructions. The nuns took us to church to pray for President Kennedy, and for the country. One nun told us that the nation was in grave danger- remember, this was just a little more than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the US and USSR went eyeball to eyeball....and then we both blinked.

In this episode we saw Peggy and Duck having a rendezvous in a hotel room when they heard the news; they were having an old fashioned "nooner" when Duck turned on the TV and saw the now famous segment where Walter Cronkite announced that Kennedy had died. At STERLING COOPER phones rang as no one answered, all were huddled around the black and white TV watching WNBC in New York as Bill Ryan, Chet Huntley, and Frank McGee reported what they knew when they knew it.

Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) true identity had been admitted to wife Betty (January Jones) previously, and the for all intents and purposes their married life had been based on a lie, or an illusion built by Don. When Don came home to find Betty and children Bobby and Sally watching the news he asked why the kids were watching TV. In what seemed to be an attempt to keep his children from dealing with a harsh and tragic reality, he tried to change the scenario, and was unsuccessful. The next day he and Betty went to Margaret's wedding, Don again trying to live life in the terms of his reality, without realizing that everything was different, that it was a new game, and the rules were changing. The world was no longer his oyster.

The next day, Sunday, was more brick bat reality. Betty was watching TV that morning as Jack Ruby fatally shot Oswald, and wonders aloud what was going on in the world. In their apartment Pete and Trudy Campbell ask the same thing- the world has changed before their eyes, and they seem to sense it.

Betty meets with her politician/ romantic interest on the pretext of needing to take a drive, and then comes home to Don. She tells Don that she doesn't love him anymore, and thinks the marriage is over. In a scene that reminded me of the one in GODFATHER, PART II, where Kay tells Michael that its over, Don counters to Betty that she's upset and doesn't know what she's saying, being dismissive of her as a person and as his partner in life. You get the feeling that Don is either in denial about the situation around him, or that he is going through the motions because its the only thing he can do; he has to go on playing "Don Draper".

The next day, Monday, was a national day of mourning. The country was shut down for all intents and purposes. Don got dressed in suit, tie, and fedora...business as usual. He arrived at STERLING COOPER, an empty office except for Peggy Olson, his protege, typing away to change an ad campaign for a hairspray that had unfortunately included a convertible that eerily resembled the limo in which Kennedy had been shot.

The closing credits went on with Skeeter Davis's version of "Don't Let Him Know Its The End of The World"....and it was the end of the world as we knew it. The time from November 22, 1963 to February 9, 1964 probably saw more change in a shorter period then at anytime in human history; February 9 was the day the Beatles performed on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW in front of 74,000,000 Americans. The BRITISH INVASION had begun. American pop culture, and how it related to American life, how we dressed, talked, what constituted art- it was an out with the old, in with the new. The new year brought us further into the Viet Nam War under new President Lyndon Johnson. But Johnson also gave us the Civil Right Act of 1964, which changed the landscape of domestic life, and politics, forever. In 1964 Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev fell as the leader of the Soviet Union....and in sports the Yankee Dynasty, which had dominated baseball since the 1920's, began its decline after the World Series and the rise of the National League, which integrated earlier and more extensively, ruled baseball.

November 22, 1963 was indeed the day the universe changed, probably even more so than after 9/11.

And Don Draper, and the rest of those who inhabit the world of the fictional STERLING COOPER, are about to find that out head on.

A Couple of Notes One thing that stuck out for me about this episode has to do with attention to detail. In the episode that took place on November 22 Don was complaining about how hot the office was. I remember how unusually warm it was in the New York area that day for late autumn, probably 70 degrees or more. And then on the following Monday Bobby reminded Don to dress warmly because it was cold out. And it was a cold day- I remember playing basketball at my next door neighbor's house, and the temps were in the 40's with a blustery wind. You don't forget details like that in something as traumatic as the Kennedy assassination.

Check Alan Sepinwall's blog for more on last night's episode of MAD MEN. Alan is the Star-Ledger's TV critic, and does weekly reviews of the series, always insightful, as are the comments of his readers.

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