Tuesday, November 3, 2009

”MAD MEN”: “The Times They Are A-Changin'”



”There's a battle outside; And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.” - “The Times They Are A-Changin”
(recorded by Bob Dylan on October 24, 1963)



”MAD MEN”: “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

Not long after I had watched the latest episode of ”MAD MEN” called (3.12) “The Grown Ups”, I walked into a pizza eatery and heard a song being played on the jukebox. To my surprise, it was an old Bob Dylan song called ”The Times They Are A-Changin’”. I could not help but feel that it could have been an appropriate song for this latest episode.

Although series creator Matthew Weiner had claimed that he wanted to avoid airing an episode about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963; I never saw how he could avoid the topic in the first place. Not only was the Kennedy assassination one of the major events of the 1960s, but one in this country’s history. And one of the series’ major themes is supposed to be the changing social mores of 1960s America.

The interesting thing about ”The Grown Ups” - at least for me – was how certain characters reacted to the assassination. Someone on one of the ”MAD MEN” websites had brought up a comment that the series lead character, Don Draper aka Dick Whitman, had made about a funeral in which he had participated in the Season One episode, (1.10) “The Long Weekend”:

”I remember the first time I was a pallbearer. I’d seen dead bodies before. I must have been fifteen. My aunt. I remember thinking, ‘They’re letting me carry the box, they’re letting me be this close to it, they’re not hiding anything from me now.’ And then I looked over and I saw all the old people waiting together by the grave and I remember thinking I, I just moved up a notch.”

Judging from the above comments, Don seemed to view his participation in this funeral as a sign that the adults in his life considered him mature enough to accept death and the changes it brings in the lives of many. His comments also made me wonder how the characters and the title of last Sunday’s episode. Who exactly were ”the grownups”? Were they characters like Don, Roger Sterling, Mona Sterling, Peggy Olson and Joan Harris; who seemed the least shaken by Kennedy’s assassination? Or were they characters like Pete and Trudy Campbell, Betty Draper, Jane Sterling and Bert Cooper, who not only seemed profoundly shaken by Kennedy’s death, but aware that the event might be a sign of the social upheavals to come?

JFK's assassination seemed to have a very interesting impact upon many of the series’ characters. For Pete Campbell, the assassination encouraged both him and Trudy to realize that he was wasting his time at Sterling Cooper. Earlier in the episode, Lane Pryce had informed him that Ken Cosgrove had won the battle for the position of Sterling Cooper’s Head of Accounts. Although he managed to keep his disappointment in check in front of the Englishman, Pete allowed his feelings to finally pour out in front of Trudy. When he informed that he plans to take up Duck Phillips’ offer for a position at Grey’s, Trudy informed him to hold back on that decision and remain at Sterling Cooper. Then came the assassination. Both of the Campbells were not only shocked by the event, Pete saw it as a sign that society was about to change. In his odd way, Pete has had a talent for realizing that the world is changing. He was the one who saw Kennedy as a potential head of state. And he was the one who was willing to view African-Americans as consumers to be targeted – a concept that that the old-fashioned Sterling Cooper executives had frowned upon. When he and Trudy learned that the Sterlings planned to go ahead with Margaret Sterling’s wedding on the following day, the couple found the whole thing distasteful and decided not to attend the wedding. More importantly, Trudy encouraged Pete to go ahead and consider leaving the firm. Perhaps they had both finally realize that Pete could no longer pretend that nothing has changed.

I believe that other ”MAD MEN” characters were aware of the possible impact of John Kennedy’s assassination. But whereas some wanted to pretend that nothing will really change, others seemed certain that changes are in the air. During Margaret Sterling wedding reception, her stepmother Jane Sterling and Bert Cooper seemed pivoted to the hotel kitchen’s television set during the media’s coverage of the assassination and its immediate aftermath. Cooper seemed to have become increasingly aware of the changes that were affecting the country. I believe it had began with the sale of Sterling Cooper to the Putnam Powell and Lowe, a British firm in the Season Two finale, (2.13) “Mediations on an Emergency”. It continued with him facing the death of a former colleague and Sterling Cooper’s 40th anniversary in (3.10) “The Color Blue”. While watching him remain glued to the television set during the wedding reception, I wonder if the assassination might prove to be the last straw for Bert Cooper. And how will he react in the months and years to come? Will he wither away, longing for the days when he was younger and social values were different? Or being the pragmatic man he has shown to be in the past, will he learn to go with the flow?

Many fans have commented that Jane Sterling, nee Siegal, is too young for Roger Sterling. Perhaps. However, I find this sentiment rather interesting, considering that many viewers have been fans of the Roger Sterling/Joan Holloway affair . . . and Joan is at least two decades younger than Roger. But Jane was barely 20 years old when she first met Roger in (2.05) “The New Girl” and 21 years old, this season. As she had pointed out, she was not old enough to vote for Kennedy back in 1960. So far, she has been portrayed as a young and immature trophy wife for Roger. And he seemed to treat her more as a child than his spouse, as his reaction to her attempt to befriend Margaret proved. But like Cooper, Jane’s attention became glued to the hotel kitchen’s television. Many fans accused her of using the assassination news to ignore Margaret’s reception. I disagree. I believe that Jane was not watching the news just to ignore the wedding celebrations. The assassination had made an impact upon her, just as it has obviously made an impact upon Bert Cooper. Once more, Roger treated her as a child and tried to pull her away and shield her from the media coverage . . . just as Don tried to do the same to Betty, Sally and Bobby. Jane refused to allow Roger to pull her away. The assassination bothered her and she was being honest about it. I am not saying that Jane is a fully mature character. After all, she is only 21 years old. But considering her reaction to Roger trying to pull her away from one of the hotel's TVs, I suspect that sooner or later, Roger will no longer have a child bride on his hands. And I cannot help but wonder how long Jane will remain with him.

Duck Phillips had an interesting reaction to the assassination. After calling Peggy Olson for an assignation at a hotel room, he heard the news of the events in Dallas on the television. Duck expressed silent shock before ripping the television’s extension cord from the wall. Then Peggy appeared. Many fans saw this as a sign of Duck using Peggy for his own nefarious means. When their affair had first started in (3.07) “Seven Twenty-Three”, fans were claiming that Duck was using Peggy to get even with Don for his termination from Sterling Cooper last season. Considering that Peggy has not left Sterling Cooper, fans are now claiming that Duck is using Peggy as some kind of addiction. Frankly, I no longer care. I am getting tired of these bigoted remarks about Duck. I realize that he is not perfect. But he is no more or less flawed than the other characters. I also get the feeling that fans have not forgiven him for abandoning his dog in (2.06) “Maidenform” and continue to view him as some kind of slimy villain. As for his actions regarding the hotel room’s television, I believe that the assassination had upset him so much that he tried to turn away from it and continue his assignation with Peggy. But even after they had sex, he realized that he could not run away from it. Duck told Peggy what he had done and turned the TV back on. The interesting result to all of this is that he - quite rightly - thought about his kids and wanted to check on them. On the other hand, I found Peggy's reaction to the assassination rather interesting. She seemed a little put out by her family's reaction to the news and went to the office to hide from the media coverage by working. This reminded me of her reaction to Marilyn Monroe's death. I wonder if Peggy is slowly becoming a Don Draper. If not, good. But if she is, I cannot view this as a good thing.

For the Drapers, I think the assassination made Betty realize that the world is changing and that it was useless to pretend otherwise. Don tried to shield his family from the bad news and pretend that everything was going to be okay. Even Joan Harris had pointed this out to Roger Sterling during a telephone conversation that the world will continue, despite traumatic events like the assassination. And in a way, both Don and Joan were right. Life will continue. But the two characters also failed to see the long term affect that the assassination would have on American society. Betty seemed to feel that life as she had known it will change. Which would explain why she had no qualms about Sally and Bobby watching the news about JFK's death. As she had pointed out to Don, what was the purpose of trying to shield them from the news. And I think the assassination made her confront that she no longer has a marriage. Or perhaps she never had one.

I have always suspected that Don and Betty never really loved each other when they first got married. Both had married each the other for superficial reasons. Betty tried to maintain the marriage by pretending to be the perfect housewife and making attempts to emotionally connect with Don. She also fooled herself into believing that a third child might finally improve their marriage. Don simply tried to maintain the status quo as successful professional man and suburban husband/father. Whenever things went wrong with Betty - her discovery of his communications with her psychiatrist, her discovery of his affair with Bobbie Barrett, her kicking him out of the house and finally her discovery of his identity as Dick Whitman - Don tried to be the perfect husband/father and pretend that all is right with the world. I found myself recalling his comment in (2.08) "A Night to Remember", when he told Betty that he doesn't want to lose "this", following her confrontation about Bobbie Barrett. There is a good chance that he might be in love with Suzanne Farrell. But I suspect that he harbor doubts that she could be the perfect social wife that he feels that Betty can be. But the assassination and other events of the year, like her discovery of Don’s true identity may have finally made Betty realize that her marriage is a lie. I suspect that Don's attempts to placate her over the assassination may have been the last straw. Even Sally had failed to buy Don's reassurances that everything is going to be all right, by a strange look she had given him. I feel that Betty is tired of living the lie. I feel that she is tired of being a "housecat". Her dream in (3.05) "The Fog" made me wonder if she would ever start to reject that role. I think her confession to Don that she no longer loved him made me suspect that she has had enough. When will Don realize that he has only loved the idea of Betty and not the woman, herself?

I might as well say it. I believe that ”The Grown Ups”, like (3.11) “The Gypsy and the Hobo” from the previous week, to be one of the best episodes in the past three seasons of ”MAD MEN”. Some seemed to think that showing the assassination on the series was pointless. They feel that Weiner will return both the Draper marriage and everything else to what it used to be. If that was true, what would have been the point of creating a series like ”MAD MEN” in the first place? Or better yet, what if those people proved to be wrong? What if ”The Grown Ups” proved to be the catalyst for more changes, as the series moves deeper into the 1960s?

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