Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Grown Ups" (season 3, episode 12)

Mad Men - "The Grown Ups" (season 3, episode 12)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on November 1, 2009/written by Brett Johnson, Matthew Weiner; directed by Barbet Schroeder): I stand corrected. The penultimate episode of season 2 does depict the murder, or rather the shocked characters' reaction to the murder, of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Of course it depicts much more as well. The event and its fallout are masterfully presented in fragments, cutting quickly between different characters as they discover the news. The heat has been cranked up in the office a day after everyone bundled in overcoats and gloves, a toggle of extreme temperatures to match the caterwauling mood of the moment. Harry and Pete blithely talk shop, ignoring the bulletin on the set behind them until the rest of the office bursts in; a sweaty Don exits Lane's office to hear every phone in the office ringing off the hook as the secretaries huddle together in horror; a shaken Betty crouches on the couch, hearing the first rumors of the president's demise at the hospital just as a breathless Carla arrives with the children in tow; and most memorably, Duck unplugs the TV so he can enjoy a hotel room tryst with Peggy before tuning back in just in time to see Walter Cronkite remove his glasses and deliver the final confirmation.

As hinted way back in episode 2, Margaret's wedding is set for the day after the assassination. Half the party doesn't show up, and at least a dozen of those who do - including the much-loathed stepmother of the bride - gather in the kitchen to watch Lee Harvey Oswald's press conference (we'll witness his shooting the next day through Betty's eyes as she leaps from the couch and shrieks). Considering Margaret's distress leading up to the event (even before disaster strikes), she takes it fairly well but Roger drinks up a storm and reaches out to Joan that night, calling her while Jane dozes off behind him. Perhaps the most significant incidents of the wedding involve Betty: she gazes at Henry, an unexpected guest when he arrives with his daughter (and expresses relief when she overhears their relation); said daughter notices Henry's wandering gaze on the dance floor and asks him why he keeps looking at that woman; and perhaps most importantly the Drapers kiss, an emotionless locking of lips which confirms what Betty has been suspecting for a while. She no longer loves her husband. Henry, on the other hand, is completely smitten with Betty, even proposing to her when they meet for a few minutes in a back parking lot.

Finally, on the eve of the funeral, Betty tells Don the truth. As usual, he can't handle this, attempting to respond with the same mix of bland reassurance and stoic obstinacy that looks increasingly hollow during these whirlwind days of late November. Don wanders through the gloomy home like a restless spirit - it's overcast outside while the lights are off inside but the effect reflects inner life as much as environmental conditions: Schroeder does a marvelous job calling back to the expressionist use of lighting and color in fifties/sixties melodrama. During the funeral, the national day of mourning in which no one is working, Mad Men's two lonely leads head to the office. Peggy is distressed by her roommate's impromptu "Jackie consolation" letter-writing party and her mother's incessant, domineering tears and prayers; Don can't speak to what drives him out of the house but sits in his room, a workplace as dark as his home has become, to drink and ponder the future.

My Response:
Schroeder, the director of Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female, and documentary classics like Koko: The Talking Gorilla and General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, is the most high-profile filmmaker to work on Mad Men up to this point (and this is the only TV episode he's ever directed, besides his own docuseries on Charles Bukowski, in a fifty-year career). He's also probably one of the oldest, sixty-five when the episode premiered and twenty-two when JFK was shot, already a grown-up producing and acting in French New Wave films for Eric Rohmer. While the show has seen plenty of boomer directors, who may remember the assassination from a child's or at most adolescent's point of view, few could so deftly evoke the sensation of being a working adult, who thought they knew how the world worked only to see this understanding disrupted by the catastrophe of November 22. Ironically, "The Grown Ups" pairs Schroeder with a teleplay co-authored by one of the youngest creators on Mad Men; Johnson was just twenty-seven when the episode premiered, born nineteen years after Kennedy died and forty-one years Schroeder's junior.

This may sound like trivia but reaching across generational lines feels relevant to an episode that adeptly marks a major transitional moment in American history. (I love in particular how Pete and Trudy become sweater/turtleneck-wearing quasi-beatniks virtually overnight, the jaded remove spurred not just by the older generation's reaction to their young president's martyrdom, but also by Pete's demotion, which leaves him feeling isolated and unappreciated.) Never one to pass up pairing a cultural marker with an in-world crescendo, episode 12 links the national nightmare not just with the shaky formation of Margaret's marriage and the surprising consolidation of Pete's and Trudy's, but also the final, exhausted unwinding of Don's and Betty's. Is this it? And where do they go if it is? I'm not convinced Betty is as in love with Henry as he is with her, even if she clearly can't get him off of her mind. But he offers comfort and security when Don's own promises appear weak. As for Don, he may still feel a yearning for the lovely Miss Farrell, but I think his words to Betty last season were true: without her, he'll always be alone. This doesn't mean he loves her, and I don't think he can even formulate his feelings in that manner. It means that he, unlike many other characters in Mad Men, actually knows what it's like to live alone, without purpose; the system may be stifling but life outside of it will be far, far worse. However much he indulges his escapist whims, Don never wants to return to that scenario again...but he may not have a choice.

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