Spoiler Alert. Season 3, Episode 13:
Let’s start at the end shall we. It seems appropriate somehow.
This week’s episode closed with an old time fave of mine, Skeeter Davis’ 1963 classic ‘The End of the World’. And so it seemed, the world did indeed, if not end, at least stutter to a halt as JFK lost his life in the motorcade and Betty told Don she doesn’t love him any more.
Metaphor and double entendre plaited around each other like the braids in Sally Draper’s hair, as every time Don and Betty spoke they were talking about the death of a president, and about themselves.
I lost track of the number of times someone said ‘it’ll be OK’, ‘everything’s going to be fine’ or some other cold, useless platitude. I kept thinking of that line by Joan Didion when she says, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to survive.’ Don Draper tells stories for a living, but for a while now, and especially this week, he lacked the smooth phrases to convince or reassure. He was the man who gave us the Kodak ‘carousel’ back in those heady early days when we were still drunk on our love for him, now he’s almost monosyllabic, unable to find the right words, or any words at all.
As we watched the shockwaves ricochet through the lives of the characters, who among us did not think of September 11th 2001? All of use glued to our TV screens, watching it play and replay over and over; the same shocked faces, the same talking-heads stuttering out statements of disbelief, the same phones that stopped ringing…
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.*
And as the centre collapses, doors start to open, exits we have been looking for become available and catastrophe itself becomes the reason, the motive, the justification for doing that thing we’ve been too afraid to do before the world turned on it’s head and nothing mattered anymore.
So, personal agendas were quick to bubble to the surface. Betty had the permission she needed to flee into Henry’s arms and give a voice to her true feelings towards Don; for Pete and Trudi it was grist to the mill of their bitter ambitions and petty dissatisfactions – Pete’s manipulation of Trudi, convincing her to skip the Sterling wedding was masterful as was how he railed about a lack of ‘justice’ for Lee Harvey Oswald, quite clearly talking about himself and his own situation at the office with Ken Cosgrove. Dastardly Duck’s priorities were also all too clear and watching him quickly unplug the TV when Peggy arrived for their ‘nooner’ so she wouldn’t be distracted by the news, was utterly repellent.
So leave it to Joan and Roger to provide what was, for me, the one true emotional moment of the episode. There was more warmth and love in that phone conversation than in any of the physical interactions we observed all episode – hey, maybe all season - especially Betty and Henry’s dead-fish kiss in the car. Just as Don’s stories failed him, so too did Roger’s humour. He’s a man who was born to give a father-of-the-bride speech, caught in a situation where a joke wasn’t going to cut it. As Joan said to him, ‘there’s nothing funny about this.’ And when there’s nothing funny to say, where does that leave Roger? With tears in his eyes on the phone to the woman he loves while his silly drunk wife is passed out on the bed beside him. The people we choose to reach out to in times of crisis, say a lot about where our hearts really lie.
Mad Men is as good as it is because the past never feel like a curio or a museum piece, these people aren’t aspic-pickled day-players in a Masterpiece Theatre special, they are viscerally relevant to us. Their struggles are our struggles, at work and at home. Their costumes are not costumes they are clothes. They don’t speak lines from a script, they have conversations. The past of the characters and the present in which we watch them are inextricably linked, the weight of history, the manner in which we are seemingly doomed to repeat ourselves, JFK, 9/11, the death of love, the death of a president, the death of idealism, none of that has gone out of fashion, and ‘I don’t love you,’ will always mean the same, devastating thing.
Line of the week:
Trudi: Have you been drinking?
Pete: The whole country’s drinking.
Next week: The end. Say it ain’t so!
*W.B.Yeats ‘The Second Coming’
Diligently construed by E. Nolan
Photo by Carin Baer