02 November 2009

Episode 12


I suppose it had to happen. My love affair with Mad Men has grown tense and uncertain, riddled with annoyances. Of course I will still watch it, but as a wise friend pointed out many episodes ago, the third season hasn’t been all that good. Though I’ll leave the broader analysis for the Slate editors, I do want to touch on a few points of last night’s episode.

Storylines revolved around the John F. Kennedy assignation. Surprisingly, the greatest moments in the episode were those that were entirely real and those that were entirely fake. Unfortunately the rest - the reaction shots, the in the moment comments, the tears, and the silences – all came across as stilted, clumsy, and anything but a true representation of what those moments might have been like in real life.

Since the first episode of the show, it seemed like we were all just waiting for this moment. The third season allusions were thick and obvious – Joan in the hospital with blood all over her dress from Guy’s shredded foot, the Aqua Net ad campaign set in the convertible, etc. The viewing population seemed obsessed with the when. And finally, the moment we’d all been told to wait for happened. The Sterling Cooper employees gathered around the television (technology update from that whole Missile Crisis on the radio thing), shocked and upset about the National Tragedy. Betty cried alongside Carla. The kids were concerned. Don was inconvenienced. And, well, Duck and Peggy were otherwise occupied.


I guess I'd been wondering how this particular show would treat the event. For someone who didn't live through the moment itself, I waver from one extreme to another. A tragedy, yes, but surely not the hysterical "national loss of innocence" that we hear about so much. Maybe American changed. Maybe it just continued on the same path. Or maybe I'm just skeptical because I happened to have written an essay on said loss of innocence in the 6th grade and I really hope that the result was more complicated than my 12-year-old mind could comprehend.

In any event, as Benjamin Schwartz notes in The Atlantic, though a well done show, Mad Men can be ever so slightly heavy handed as it tries to show things as they really were, but always through the enlightened lens of modern mores. Sometimes I feel like they should end the show with some variation of the change slogan. It's a comin'!

As I said, though, the greatest moments were captured in both the fiction and the non-fiction. I could watch Walter Cronkite remove his glasses and announce the death of the President on repeat for days. There is hardly a more moving moment in all of broadcast television for me. Later on in the episode, extensive screen time is given to Lee Harvey Oswald walking with escorts down various hallways. Watching the footage first hand helped to capture the moment better than any actors or plot lines could. It was actually difficult for me to move from the real emotion of Cronkite, and the real drama of Oswald's walk, back to Betty Draper's melodramatic "what is going on?!" shriek, or the inelegantly directed "phones go silent" scene in the Sterling Cooper offices.


Beyond the news footage playing on every television in the Mad Men universe, there were some terrific fictional moments as well – Roger Sterling’s whiny bride-to-be daughter weeping in her wedding dress, Pete and Trudy watching the coverage in near silence, first in their wedding best, and then hours later in lovely casual clothes, and Burt Cooper glued to the television in the kitchen area in the middle of Roger's wedding toast. Tolerable, maybe because they all seem like appropriate reactions to the news. And all of these understandable vignettes served to make Betty's sprint to Henry Francis seem all the more like a bad soap opera.

Actually, maybe my relationship can be mended, as long as Betty drifts back into the lovely and oppressed scenery. Her absurd antics and poorly developed character are hurting the show.

In the end, the blogs seemed pleased and a bit surprised that the assassination wasn't the season finale. But I don't know if I can bear another full episode of reflection and Kennedy worship. It'll play like an issue of Vanity Fair.

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