AMC’s Mad Men is nothing if not thematically well organized, and typically, writing about an episode consists of picking out the throughline and explicating how it brings together all the disparate plot elements. Typically, though, that throughline exists in the subtext, which makes “The Grown-Ups”, written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner and directed by Barbet Schroeder, both a deliberate change of pace and a difficult episode to write about. Well, that, or an exceedingly easy one: hey everyone, this episode’s about the Kennedy assassination!
This isn’t to say that nothing is happening beneath the surface—it is still Mad Men, after all—but the episode does mirror the way an event this huge and tragic can derail everything else going on around it. Last year, series creator Weiner told Alan Sepinwall that he couldn’t see himself adding anything new to the “well-trod” Kennedy assassination. This was before, of course, the third season began foreshadowing the event in nearly every episode, but Weiner’s words still effectively hold true. The assassination isn’t really thematized or dissected, or even treated as subject matter in-of-itself. As Mad Men episodes go, “The Grown-Ups” is mostly a visceral experience; it’s something we all knew was coming, and now we simply have to watch the characters endure, rather than having to get all interpretive.
Watching them endure, however, inevitably means watching them sit in front of the TV a lot. Two of my TV-critic betters (Sepinwall and Todd VanDerWerff) felt the episode suffered somewhat for this, as it’s hard to turn characters watching TV into something compelling. While I agree to a certain extent—this wasn’t one of the season’s truly great episodes—it’s not a problem that I personally encountered. I wonder if this has something to do with the mere fact that I have far less exposure to television, and not that well-versed in the iconography of this seminal moment. Yet at the same time I find “The Grown-Ups” to be formally and stylistically interesting in its own right, beyond the stock footage.
As Todd has commented, this season has largely focused on the characters’ foundations coming loose—senses of identity are shaken, and the ideas upon which lives have been built are thrown into question. Of course, the historical context mirrors the more intimate character development, as America continues to plunge into the unknown territory of the 1960s. Stylistically, Mad Men is just as adept at developing the sense that something is off kilter (the filming during much of the California arc feels otherworldly at times), and from the opening scene of “The Grown-Ups” something about the pacing and the editing is decidedly off.
We open on Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), sleeping on an office couch, bundled up in winter gear to protect from the cold. That the building has yet to turn on the heat situates the episode in early winter, our first hint that this is sometime around the time of the assassination. It’s also off-putting to see the office setting permeated by the elements, as if some small measure of control has been lost over this well-structured environment. The camera barely moves in the first two minutes, cutting between medium shots of individual characters in a staccato rhythm, and we’re given little sense of the scene as Pete is called to Pryce’s (Jared Harris) office to learn he has lost his promotion to Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). Pete politely shakes Pryce’s hand and leaves, the shot remaining static. It’s not until we cut next, and vaguely creepy, ambient music beings to play, that the camera begins to follow Pete through the office, itself appearing surreal, filled with workers in scarves and jackets. The sudden fluidity creates a strange tone, and as Pete passes by Cosgrove fixing a small electric heater, I half expected him to throw his hot drink into his rival’s face. As I watched Pete storm into his office, only to emerge seconds later just as quickly, I inexplicably blurted out, “God, he’s bringing out the gun!”
I was wrong, sadly; he was merely grabbing his briefcase so as to petulantly storm out. But the experience left me as uncertain of the future as the characters themselves. As trite as it may sound, the episode effectively establishes the sense that anything can happen; we’ve watched the drama stew beneath the surface for so long, it finally feels as if things are unhinged enough for everything to come crashing down. Our first sight of Don (Jon Hamm) provides a more poignant example: with his lies finally exposed, it’s unclear how much Dick Whitman we’ll see, as opposed to Don Draper. In the past we’ve seen Don ready to abandon his family at the mere threat of having his past exposed, but now that it actually has been we instead see him rocking his infant child back to sleep. It’s a gentle, almost sweet shot, but it’s also shrouded in shadow, and it’s a short and very isolated nighttime shot, being sharply cut, both to and from, against scenes clearly set in daytime. There’s something deeply enigmatic and uncertain about Don, here. Sure, he’s simply being a good father, but it’s somehow an uncomfortable experience for the viewer, as if we expect something to abruptly change at any moment.
Of course change comes for literally everyone, as news of Kennedy being shot fills the airwaves and the uncertainty moving forward becomes much more explicit. Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who sits in his office watching television all day, complains that no one notices what he does, yet moments later his office is flooded with onlookers staring at the TV, trying to catch a glimpse of what’s going on. It’s harrowing, but it’s a moment of transition both for Harry’s career and America’s relationship with television. The episode effectively strikes a balance in every reaction scene between the tone of utter desolation and disintegration and the feeling that the characters are also changing in some way—it’s a moment of both death and rebirth.
Perhaps the most striking scene of the entire episode is Carla (Deborah Lacey) entering the house, obviously distraught, and sharing a moment with Betty (January Jones) in which all social norms collapse and in which everything that had been so tersely separating the two women becomes trivial. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see Carla collapse onto Betty’s couch and smoke a cigarette again, but that it happened even once demonstrates how even the most constraining of social rules can ultimately prove incredibly frail.
But somehow I find Pete and Trudy (Alison Brie) most interesting. In an episode called “The Grown-Ups”, we witness a fair amount of regression and childish behavior. We become adults when we develop a firm idea of who we are and are able to maintain a concrete sense of identity. The Kennedy assassination caused many people to question these very things, and in that respect the episode questions the very notion of adulthood. Yet Pete and Trudy fill a special role here, as they are typically the characters most unsure of who they are. They’re married, they live in a nice home, Pete has his career and Trudy wants children; they are two people who continually try to act out expected, adult behavior, yet ultimately doing so only serves to confuse and alienate them. Coming on the heels of Pete being passed over for the promotion, the assassination affords them the opportunity to differentiate themselves from those older or from different social groups who react improperly to the event. Trudy’s transition from encouraging her husband to do the respectable and sensible thing, to actively cheerleading the idea that he gather his clients and set out on his own path, is incredibly striking. At a time when everyone else’s identity seems to be thrown into question, these might just be two people who are finally developing their own.
And this is part of what makes Mad Men such a complex show: it deconstructs the identities we build for ourselves, yet it always manages to acknowledge the necessity that we continue to build these identities. Naturally, we see this most of all with Don. At the wedding reception, Betty asks him if everything is going to be okay, and in a rare display of self-doubt, Don is without an assertive reply. They kiss, and Don says, “We’ll see.” Later, when Betty musters the initiative to demand a divorce, she cites this kiss as evidence that she no longer loves him; it becomes clear that it’s not the lying, cheating and mistreatment that’s breaking up the Draper household. It’s that Betty can’t love Dick Whitman. We’ve been waiting for Don’s bravado, philandering and arrogance to get him in trouble, but ultimately it is his frailties and vulnerabilities that cost him his marriage. This may not condone some of Don’s actions, but it does give us a glimpse at the reasons why Dick Whitman had to become Donald Draper. It makes it all the more fitting that the episode ends with Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) together: She understands much more than most—and certainly much more than Betty—what’s involved in becoming the person you need to be.
Some other stuff:
• Working off the last point, I want to ask an open question: Has Mad Men made Don too sympathetic? This is a common problem with anti-heroes, where attempts to critique who and what they are fall apart simply because we like them too much. We’ve all seen Travis Bickle and Alex DeLarge posters in various dorm rooms, and I can’t help but wonder if the same phenomenon is happening with Don. Sure, most people recognize that this is a social critique, yet at the end of the day Mad Men fans typically just think Don is really, really awesome. I know I do, even after his monstrous treatment of Sal (Bryan Batt). Is this a problem?
• Something a little silly: my wife and I play a game where, riffing off of the “dick/asshole/pussy” thing from Team America, we try to separate the male cast of Mad Men into the categories ’dick’, ’asshole’ and ’douchebag’. We’re working on the assumption that none of them are particularly good people, so we divide them up into the dicks, whom we love anyway (Don, obviously), the assholes who are often amusing, but just all-around miserable people (Pete, when he forces himself on foreign nannies, though not when he dances or punches Cosgrove), and the lowly douchebags, whom we hold in scorn and contempt. Some big moves this episode! Roger’s (John Slattery) been mired in asshole territory for the better part of two seasons now, but between his chance to explain himself a bit last week, and his overall decent handling of Margaret’s (Elizabeth Rice) wedding and his very genuine phone call to Joan (Christina Hendricks), we’re in agreement that he’s shot back up to being a dick. With authority! Duck (Mark Moses), meanwhile, has put himself back in the running for the show’s #1 douchebag by unplugging the television so as to not allow JFK to rudely disrupt his plans to sex Peggy. It’s a position he seemed to have for life after the whole Chauncey affair, but we couldn’t deny Greg Harris (Sam Page) after the raping-Joan thing. Don, of course, continues to transition from small ’d’ dick to big ’D’ Dick, but that’s a different story altogether.
• Quite a few characters act childish and petulant in this episode, but Pete, opening the episode by complaining about his hot chocolate being made with water instead of milk, just continues to top himself.
• Roger, sitting on his bed with a glass of whiskey and a cigar, the phone ringing on the bedside table a foot away from him: “Would somebody get that?”
• “Just because she went to India, doesn’t mean she’s not an idiot.”
• I apologize about the lateness of this article, and fully realize that it’s about as relevant as a season one Lost theory now that everyone’s seen the superb finale. I still wanted to get it up, though, if for no other reason than to organize my own thoughts before recording the podcast Todd has planned for the coming days. I look forward to participating, and discussing the finale. Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about.
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