Mad Men, Season 3

Week 12: Aqua Net Is Going To Need a New Campaign
Talking television.
Nov. 1 2009 11:19 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 12: Aqua Net Is Going To Need a New Campaign

So let's see here. I believe I owe one old-fashioned to Patrick, two to Julia, and four to Slate "War Stories" columnist Fred Kaplan, with whom I made an especially foolhardy side bet. Back in August, Fred interviewed Matthew Weiner, who assured him that Season 3 would "handle everything." Yet Weiner had been coy about the Kennedy assassination, suggesting to other interviewers that while he wouldn't ignore it, he might not dramatize the president's death in the same way he had Kennedy's election and the Cuban missile crisis. Silly me, I believed him. All indications—Margaret Sterling's inauspicious wedding date, the constant references to Dallas, the eerie Aqua Net campaign—were that this season was hurtling toward just such a treatment of Kennedy's death. And as Julia sagely predicted, it happened this week.

Boy, did it ever. Mad Men has always featured period television footage—the previous Kennedy episodes being notable examples—but never before have we seen so much of it, used so powerfully. Characters were glued to the set in nearly every scene in this episode—desperate, at first, for news of the president's fate, and later, mourning his loss in the company of Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite. (The deaths this summer of Cronkite and Ted Kennedy made this episode all the more affecting.) Watching people watch TV doesn't usually make for scintillating viewing, but Weiner and company did a masterful job of crafting these scenes for maximum dramatic effect.

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We know for sure that the episode is taking place on Nov. 22 when a bulletin from Dallas appears on the TV in Harry Crane's office. It's a brilliant setup: The TV is positioned in such a way that we can't help but see the news, yet Harry and Pete are so absorbed in their discussion of office politics that they fail to notice it. Harry instead goes on complaining that his hard work has been overlooked by the Sterling Cooper brass. "I'm going to die at this desk unnoticed," he says, a wickedly ironic line I only caught the second time I watched the scene. A moment later, a gaggle of colleagues rushes into Harry's office bearing the awful news.  

In this scene and others, Weiner and his writers seemed intent on capturing the way tragedy intrudes on the quotidian. One minute you're carping about the office thermostat—or trying to convince your lover to meet you for a "nooner"—the next the president has been shot, the world has changed. Perhaps the most chilling scene in the episode takes place not on the 22nd, as news of the assassination was breaking, but two days later. While Don is mixing an old-fashioned, Betty—and the viewer—witness Jack Ruby's murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Though we know the gunshot is coming, the cry Betty lets out is no less shocking. (January Jones appeared to be wearing no makeup in the scene, and her pallor was as disconcerting as her shriek.) "What is going on?" she demands of Don. But he, too, has been reduced to watching the screen through his hands. As disturbing as Kennedy's death had been, it's the murder of Oswald—perpetrated live, on the living room TV—that seems to make both Don and Betty feel like the world is spiraling out of control.

There's still one more episode this season, and I clearly should stop making predictions. But no matter what happens next week, I think we'll look back on this season as having been defined by two parties: Derby Day, which as Betty notes, now seems like it happened 100 years ago, and Margaret Sterling's wedding. The parallels between the two events are numerous and surely no accident. Both are hosted by Roger Sterling, both end with Jane Siegel Sterling fall-down drunk, both feature a charged moment between Betty and Henry Francis outside the ladies room. (What is it with this guy?) Yet these parallels serve mainly to point up what's changed. Pete and Trudy, the life of the Derby Day dance floor, refuse to attend Margaret's wedding. Roger, so eager to speak of the happiness Jane has brought him in May, has soured on her by November. Betty first met Henry at Derby Day and seemed from the start to be intrigued. Yet that day ended with she and Don sharing a passionate kiss. At the wedding, Don kisses his wife, but it doesn't have the desired effect. "I didn't feel a thing," she tells him the next day. 

I'm eager to hear what you guys make of all this change. How did you interpret the Campbells' response to the assassination? I was having trouble distinguishing Pete's bitterness at having lost out to Kenny (and his haircut) from his real indignation at his colleagues' response to Kennedy's death. Were you surprised to learn that Pete had such high hopes for the Kennedy administration? Do you think he'll strike out on his own, as a wonderfully indignant Trudy suggests? And where did that black turtleneck come from?

I'm also curious to hear what you guys thought about Betty and Henry Francis. His proposal took me by surprise, in part because he still feels more like a plot device to me than a three-dimensional character. Does he really love her, or is this just a final gambit to get past first base? By all accounts, he is an ambitious political operative, yet he's willing to give up his place on the Rockefeller campaign for a life with Betty and her three young children? He barely knows this woman. Maybe he reads GQ.

As for Betty, I couldn't quite tell if she has real feelings for Henry or merely sees him as a means to an end. But I believed her when she said she doesn't love Don anymore. Mad Men's directors love to frame shots of Don Draper brooding, alone. This episode featured not one but three such images: At the office, when everyone has gathered around the TV for news of Kennedy's fate (and Don has yet to hear the news); at home, in the Draper bedroom, after Betty has told him she doesn't love him any more; and again in the office, after turning down Peggy's offer to watch the funeral on Bert Cooper's TV. Surely all these images of a solitary Don are meaningful. Is Nov. 22, 1963, the day the '60s began—and the day the Draper marriage ended?

Don't go to bed angry,
John

John Swansburg is Slate's editorial director. Follow him on Twitter.