Monday, November 2, 2009

Episode 12: O Captain! My Captain!

There is something heart-wrenching about watching someone be the last to find out about a horrific tragedy - not simply because they are behind in the loop, but because they managed to hold on to a shred of innocence everyone else has lost for a few moments longer, so it makes it all the more heartbreaking to witness them lose it. So as the rest of Sterling-Cooper huddled around Harry Crane's TV set, or a radio, or dealt with the phones literally ringing off the hook, Don emerged clueless from Lane Pryce's office only to be forced to ask the question on everyone else's minds: "What the hell is going on?!"

As soon as Don uttered those words my throat tightened and my stomach dropped, because I knew exactly how he felt - we all do really. Even if I wasn't alive in 1963 I was alive during 9/11 - another moment that changed our national consciousness dramatically and irrevocably. The mix of confusion and panic on Don's face instantly reminded me of what it felt like to be a junior in high school in a plaid skirt and knee socks who found out during 2nd period chemistry class that planes had flown into the World Trade Center, and who wanted nothing more than to run home and get a hug from her mom, just to know that some things in the world were still right.

But of course the paradigm had shifted, and they only way to deal with such an event, whether it be 9/11 or Kennedy's assassination, is to deal with the change. September 12, 2001 was different from September 10, just as November 23, 1963 was different from November 21. Betty told Henry the Derby Day party felt like it was a hundred years ago, and in some ways she was correct. The 1960s as we know them - I mean the '60s - were born out of cataclysm, and it will be those who accept that the times are a-changin' who manage to keep their heads above the water. You had better start swimming, or you'll sink like a stone, my favorite gravelly voiced bard once sang, and it's time for the characters of Mad Men to take his advice.

Let us start with Don - whose question was never answered, because no one had an answer - who, like me, in the immediate aftermath of tragedy wanted nothing more than to be certain that the world was still right. But the more he told Betty, the kids, and Betty again that "everything would be all right" it felt less like a comfort and more like a denial. This was the lynch pin moment of his decade and I am afraid that if he doesn't sort out his act it might also be the moment Don Draper gets left behind.

But Don's denial of a change in the national climate mirrored his denial of the change on the home front - Betty told him she didn't love him anymore, and Don didn't know what to do except clench his jaw. "You can't even hear me right now," Betty spat at him, and Don could only agree as he tried to soothe her with more platitudes. Don thought Betty was upset and confused over the death of the president, but she was really upset over the [figurative] death of the husband she thought she had pegged as a "football hero who hated his dad." The episode's final shot of Don alone in his office on a national day of mourning yearning for everything to be like it always is spoke disturbing volumes about the path he might be headed down.

Betty on the other hand, saw that the rift in the national fabric was the perfect opportunity to expose the rift in her own marriage. Just as the facade was blown off the American Camelot, Betty finally saw through her fairy-tale life - she had everything she wanted, but none of it made her happy. Earlier in the season she warned Sally that the first kiss is the best and should be savored, a bit of forewarning perhaps that we might be later witnessing the last kiss between her and Don [let's be real though, probably not]. "You don't kiss boys, boys kiss you" Betty told Sally, and when Don tried to reassuringly kiss her at Margaret's wedding it was clear to Betty that she felt no spark. The romance momentarily rekindled on their trip to Italy turned out to be as fake as Betty's weave [because that beehive was obviously weave], and the brief flash of togetherness after Don finally revealed his darkest secrets evaporated in the front seat of Grandpa Gene's old Cadillac. Unlike Don, Betty understood that the world was shifting and instead of resisting, she rode the tide.

I think we've been waiting all season for Betty to blow up royally at Don, but it played the other way around- instead of me feeling pleased with Betty in a moment of "aha! gotcha!" victory, I am left feeling sorry for Don. For all his dalliances Don has never said he doesn't love Betty, even if it is only in his weird twisted way, and watching him sink into that chair in their bedroom with his head in his hands just made him seem like the sad, pathetic and lonely man he is. The big reveal of his past identity played as a man finally exposing his deepest self, a painful act that seemed to leave Don vulnerable and naked, not as an impetus for Betty to vengefully storm out or start a screaming match, which would have been a temptingly satisfying option. But as the weight of Betty's declaration seemed to sink in the next day as Don watched his family eat breakfast, it was like watching Don be last in the loop for the second time this episode. And it was painful.

As for the rest of Mad Men's characters, they all dealt with the national tragedy in ways that showcased their more personal and particular traits. Always harried and worried about his job, Henry Crane obsessed about the commercials that wouldn't air due to the never ending news coverage. Pete acted like the whiny little bitch he is, turning the assassination of the president into a reason to not attend the wedding of his boss' daughter, instead of the self-centered real reason, that he didn't want to be around people who wouldn't promote him. Trudy wore an awesome blue dress, and was the one who stayed level headed throughout the whole ordeal, as per usual. Jane got shit faced and complained that she couldn't vote for the handsome man for president, because really she's just a girl who needs to learn to control herself and not lock herself in the bathroom when she doesn't get her way [She may also need rehab, you know if they had that in 1963]. Margaret sobbed in her wedding dress that her wedding day was ruined, because what else would a spoiled little girl do? Peggy turned to her work because its what she does best, she's not frivolous like her roommate or emotional like her mother. Joan was calm and wise, and reminded us -and maybe Roger too? - why we love her. Roger tried to joke, but found this was one time a killer zinger wasn't going to make the problem go away. Bobby slayed with his one line about being able to attend Kennedy's funeral, his naivete heartbreaking in the face his father's trite "everything will be all right" sentiments. And Sally made a vast array of amazing facial expressions, culminating in that expectant look she gave her parents at the breakfast table, all of which only prove that girl knows what's up.

Oh, and Carla sat on the couch and lit a cigarette. Which basically made my life.

It was wise that Mad Men used Kennedy's assassination not for shock value, or as a plot device in a Grey's Anatomy "disaster of the week" sort of way, as watching the characters' reactions revealed more about their traits and motivations in a single instant that an entire episode sometimes can. This episode worked so well because it used a national calamity as an over-arching metaphor for the more particular problems of the Sterling-Cooper crew, and even the series itself. The assassination proved to be a turning point for America, just as these last few episodes have proven to be a turning point for the series; in an oversimplified kind of way it was the last remaining vestige of the shiny suburban veneer of the '50s that was ripped away that November day in 1963, and this whole season we have been watching the similar myth of the perfect Draper household crumble around us.

This episode also worked so well because damn, doesn't Jon Hamm look good in a sweater and khakis!?

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