The virtues of mad men
The Grown Ups
How does a virtuous person respond respond to a crisis? Last episode we left Don and Betty in a crisis. In this episode a larger crisis comes along like a steamroller and runs over everyone.
The name of the episode is always important with Mad Men. This episode divides people into grown ups and non-grown ups. The grown ups distinguish themselves by their inability to see beyond the crisis to a time when things will be okay again. They see adversity as something you go through and emerge stronger on the other side.
And the non-grown ups? What do they do? They do what Peggy's mother does:
My mother was crying and praying so hard there wasn't room for anyone else to feel anything.Emphasis added. The adult children don't see beyond the adversity or beyond themselves. They don't pick up and deal with life.
So, in the order we see it on the screen, here they are.
Margaret Sterling: Begins a child and grows up through the events of the day. At the beginning, everything is about her and all she can do is cry and complain that everything is ruined for her. But, later, at her wedding reception, we see her listen to some idiot ranting about taking out the South and we see her begin to grow up.
Mona and Roger Sterling are grown ups. The chemistry between them is wonderful and that is perhaps not surprising as the actors playing the parts are married in real life. One quibble, the show never deals with what Mona has done wrong. We see Roger's affairs but we never see her contribution to a sexless marriage.
Betty Draper: A child and a lousy mother to boot because she is so wrapped up in her own emotions she forgets all about her children, which, I have to point out, is the way Betty always is, crisis or no crisis.
Don Draper: Grown up. For all his failings, Don has become a guy you can count on in a crisis. The growth we saw in Seasons 1 and 2 is in clear evidence here. He acts and he fulfills the role of father and leader. He, and only he, is the one who turns to his kids and assures them that things will be okay. We haven't seen a hero like this since Gregory Peck: flawed but good.
Pete Campbell: A child and, this time, dragging Trudy into similarly childish behaviour. There is some positive growth showing in Pete's character as indicated by his apology to Hildy in the opening sequence but he is still a child.
Henry Francis is an adult. After Ruby shoots Oswald, Betty runs to Henry Francis who, interestingly, gives her the very same answer Don gave her earlier: "It will be okay, we've lost a lot of presidents and we're still standing." And he is right. There were three presidential assassinations between 1865 and 1901.
Jane Sterling, not surprisingly, is a child.
Joan has grown up. Only a season ago she was a sniveling child in response to Marylin's death. There was a gorgeous bit of dramatic when she snapped at Roger that one day he will lose someone who really matters to him and know what it feels like. This was silly because Marylin was just a celebrity—a train wreck of a personality not unlike Lindsay Lohan is now. To wrap yourself up in an illusion like that is classic adolescent behaviour; it's fine in an adolescent but not in a woman Jaon's age. But it was also silly because she ought to have seen that someone with Roger's experience would likely know much more about loss and adversity than she does.
That has all changed now. She has faced some loss and adversity of her own and she has grown as a result.
One false note, though, she says there is nothing funny about this but Roger has, in fact, had several good funny lines just as anyone like him would have back in late November 1963 would have done. (Tom Wolfe has a great piece somewhere about how journalists at the time filtered out the gallows humour. The business of JFK myth-making started very quickly after the shooting.)
The best moment in the episode is Roger's toast:
This could have been an awful day. But here we are not watching TV but watching the two of you.Absolutely right. If you ever have to choose between joining the mass hysteria around some person who is, after all is said and done, is only a politician or celebrity and celebrating an important milestone for someone you know and love, take a lead from Roger. Politicians aren't that important and it is only a very sick society that thinks they are. (That the later 1960s made so much of the JFK assassination tells you a lot, and nothing good, about the culture of the day.)
The TV coverage
One bonus of this episode is that we get to see some footage of the coverage of the day and we can see just how ordinary it was. It's quite a jolt to see the tape of what Walter Cronkite was really like and realize that Cronkite was every bit as tiresomely stupid as Wolf Blitzer is today.
I like the way Sally and Bobby are both more interested in other things—reading a book and playing with a toy—than the endless stupid TV commentary. My mother used to love to tell people about the time I angrily turned the Santa Claus parade off that December because I didn't want to watch them "bury President Kennedy again".
She doesn't love him anymore
And then Betty tells Don she doesn't love him anymore. (Did she ever love him? Could she ever love anyone but herself? Based on what we have seen so far these there seasons, the answer to both those questions has to be "No!") In a very telling bit, she tells Don that she knows he will make verything alright if she lets him but she doesn't want to let him.
Like Don Draper, Henry Francis is an adult who has a weird compulsion to love children like Betty. It's not an uncommon failing and I think most men will, if honest, see this failing in themselves. I did it for more than a decade myself.
It's telling that Betty leaves Don Draper only to seek someone who will play exactly the same role in her life. This isn't going to end well. Who do you blame? I blame both the men and the woman but I blame the woman more. I know others disagree but the greater failing is Betty's for failing to grow up. Running away from Don to yet another father figure is not going to fix her problem. Staying and facing adversity together would have.
Don is not, to pick up from something in the comments, a great moral hero. No one on the show is and that is the best thing about it. But, as my Serpentine Pal always insists, the virtuous people are the ones who "keep on keeping on". They face adversity and work through it always having hope in a future they know will just as likely bring more adversity. If you wanted to pick a moral hero from the cast, Don would be your first choice followed by Roger, Joan, Peggy and Harry.
This is drawn out in the final encounter where we learn that Peggy Olson is one of the grow ups. There is a fantastic moment where Don picks up the story board for the Aquanet commercial and we see him making the connection with the Dallas motorcade. Peggy says, "It's okay, it doesn't shoot until Thanksgiving. We'll be alright."
Perfect that. She is wrong of course. Millions of people were about to enter into years of childish hysteria about JFK because they were unable to accept the mundane truth that JFK was shot by a communist who was upset by his Cuba policy. As late as 1991 it was still possible to sell $205 million worth of tickets to a film peddling juvenile conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination. But even if Peggy is wrong on the facts, her emotional response is the correct one.
Tomorrow I discuss the greatest Mad Men episode ever. A show good they will probably never make another quite so good.