Mad Men: We Didn’t Start the Fire

Mad Men

The Grown Ups
Season 3 Episode 12

Last week, Joan bashed the bad doctor over the head with a vase and reconnected with Roger, while Betty and Don had the epic face-off we’d all been anticipating. This week, the second-to-last episode of the season sets up the finale with a bang. But don’t worry — Don says “everything’s going to be fine.”

This season has always been about demystifying, if not debunking, nostalgia about the sixties. So this strange, splintered episode might make the most sense as a kind of rebuttal to the gauzy “way-we-were” romance of questions like: Where were you when Kennedy died? Well, where was everyone?

Pete was in Harry Crane’s office, complaining about being passed over for a promotion he knew he deserved (clients actually preferred the never-let-them-see-you-sweat confidence of “Kenny and his haircut”). Pete felt much better at home, where Trudy not only sympathized with him, but urged him to leave the office and take his clients with him. United in resentment, self-pity, and haughty contempt, Trudy and Pete have never seemed more perfectly matched. When Pete looks back on that day, will he see the beginning of some new independence, or a failed plan?

Roger will remember where he was the next day: his daughter’s half-full, funereal wedding. (Sick joke No. 146: “Church was packed.” “Those weren’t our guests.”) Valiantly bailing out a sinking ship, Roger gives a sparkling, class-act speech, then drags home his drunk, arm-candy wife, Jane. “He was so handsome,” the underage ninny mumbles, “and I’ll never get to vote for him.” So Roger calls Joan and, appreciating her decency and tact, tells her “nobody else is saying the right thing about this.” We might not see more of them in the finale, so if this quiet little scene is their last moment together before season four, it paves the way for a sincere connection, and that’s enough for us (even if she isn’t reunited with the boys via a Grey takeover).

Duck? He’s finally back. He will remember that this was the day he seduced Peggy with the cheesy promise of a Monte Cristo sandwich, and then melodramatically yanked the TV power cord out of the wall so as not to disturb his “nooner.” Despite her roommate’s reservations about Duck’s aftershave (and, probably, his general skeeziness), Peggy will remember her no-hickey-attached fun in the sack with Duck, and then his rush to turn the TV back on. “I gotta call my kids,” he says. Will she also remember his nervousness? Chain-smoking and jittery, Duck seems like a man who’s hiding something. Decades later, will Peggy tell friends that on the day Kennedy died, she was having a “nooner” with the man who eventually (might) become her boss or (gasp) husband? Or that she was being used as part of a cynical power-grab? Our money’s on the latter.

Betty takes Kennedy’s death the hardest. Her world has already been rocked by one shock, and she’s not repressing anymore. Don’s still clinging to denial — “Everything is going to be fine” — but Betty is trying to live in the world now. The only problem is, that world has gone haywire. “What is going on?” Betty yells after Oswald is shot. She could be screaming that about any number of things and it would be the appropriate response. And Don just doesn’t get it. So after a kiss with Don that meant nothing, and a brush with her politico at the wedding, Betty runs off for a parking-lot rendezvous with Henry. The conversation is rushed and implausible, like many of the scenes in this too-packed episode. (Really, a marriage proposal, Kennedy’s assassination, and Don’s secret identity in less than three minutes? Don’t Betty and Henry have a little more to say?) Will Betty look back on this and remember Henry’s quickie proposal? Or the moment when she told Don that she just didn’t love him anymore? And if Betty “can’t believe in anything right now,” does this thing with Henry stand a chance?

Sally and Bobby get no support from their parents: Don just sends them to their rooms while Betty sobs. Don is trying to make amends, but his main strategy seems to be denial: The adman in him just wants to put a positive spin on all this and ride it out, rather than grapple with what’s in the can. He gets points for waking up once with the baby — but it’s too little, too late. Betty understands the craziness of the situation; finally, her hysteria makes sense. On the other hand, Don is reacting conservatively to radical events. It’s not so different from the way he’s behaved in the office: solid, but not especially innovative. “There’s no point, Don,” Betty tells him, and he looks stricken. “You can’t even hear me now,” she says. “You’re right,” he replies. “I can’t.” We just keep thinking of Don as Mr. Jones: “Something is happening and you just don’t know what it is.” Will Don bitterly remember that these were the days when he refused to admit that Rome was burning? (What was the sight of Don dancing obliviously at a spoiled rich girl’s silly wedding, in the aftermath of the assassination, if not Weiner’s latest fall-of-Rome metaphor?)

We all expected Kennedy’s assassination to play into Mad Men’s final episodes, but we didn’t know how they would pull it off. Honestly, we worried that the episode would play out like this. Last week, the show took a seemingly impossible scene — Betty finally confronting Don over his secret identity — and produced an almost unbearably tense, formally simple piece of television. This episode felt rushed and overstuffed. It attempted to heighten the tension of each character’s drama by overlaying the assassination — but, for the most part, it seemed awkward, with too many quick-cut scenes of characters watching television, and a few important moments (like Henry’s proposal and Betty’s confrontation with Don) given far too little screen time. Instead of uniting the characters, the assassination seemed to dissipate any real momentum. Not our favorite episode — but the silver lining is that JFK’s assassination is now out of the way. Who knows what surprises are in store for next week’s season finale.

More Recaps:
Alan Sepinwall: “It wasn’t very satisfying to watch.” [What’s Alan Watching?]
John Swansburg: “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.” [Slate]
Lisa Natcherian: “I’m finally feeling a little sorry for Don, who is described perfectly in this song, and I’m angry with Betty.” [Mass Live]

Mad Men: We Didn’t Start the Fire