Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for, when a public event collides with the very personal world of Sterling Cooper. When the news of Kennedy's assassination breaks, everyone reacts differently, but in a way consistent with their character.
At times it seems like Mad Men—our favorite historical drama about the personal and professional lives of retro ad men—is populated by a bunch of selfish egoists who only care about themselves. But, then again, so is life, so it makes sense that when a national tragedy strikes, everyone reverts back to the basic foundations of their personality to deal with the news. Their coping mechanisms say more about how these individuals deal with their own lives than they do with the passing of the president.
Despair and Confusion: When the president is killed, people are naturally going to be upset because, well, it's sad, and it upsets the natural order of things. We're used to a hierarchical structure of government with someone at the top who is wise and strong and who will protect us when bad things happen. When an event occurs to disrupt that, we begin to question not only our safety, but everything about our lives and the fragility of our happiness. That leads to confusion, and confusion often leads to clarity, but it always leads to rash acts.
This plays out beautifully with beautiful, beautiful Betty, whose fragile shell cracks when she learns the news. She puts herself to bed and withdraws even further from her family. For her, Kennedy being shot is her way of dealing with Don confessing the truth of his past. The strong, handsome man she can trust has been murdered, and she is sad because her life has been ruined. The pretty fairy tale facade that she tries so hard to cultivate has been nothing but an illusion, and when she wakes up from her dream, she finds a very scary reality: she is deeply unhappy.
That shouldn't be too much of a shock to her, but when the only stability in her life—the cool control that Don exerts over her—is subverted by the disclosure of his past, she has to find some way to recover. Initially, she lets Don control her again. At the wedding, she accepts that everything is going to be OK, because Don tells her that it will. When the ill-fated reception is over, Betty (in a rather dowdy dress that Michael Kors from Project Runway would describe as "mother-of-the-bride") is walking towards both Don and Henry, her object of unfulfilled desire. She chooses Don, hoping that, like he says, everything will go back to normal shortly.
Then, Oswald is shot by Jack Ruby in front of America, and Betty freaks out again. Passively listening to Don isn't going to work anymore, and she needs something else—someone else—to satisfy her.
Selfishness: Naturally, some of the characters are only worried about how the assassination is going to affect them. Most notably is Roger's daughter, who finds out about the news and cries, in her wedding dress, that the ceremony will be ruined. Damn right, sister.
Pete is the king of selfishness and uses the whole incident as a substitute for his unhappiness at Sterling Cooper. We start off the episode and hear that he's being demoted from co-head of accounts with Ken to a lesser position. Ken will be the new head of accounts, and Pete will be working under him. How their jobs are different, we don't quite know, but we do know that Pete lost. Well-bred and ambition, Pete is distraught because he thinks that he deserves the job more than the stupid yahoo Ken, who still manages to succeed in spite of himself. Ken is Lydon Johnson to his Kennedy, at least in his own warped mind.
On an aside, we're still not quite sure why the office was freezing when Pete got the news of his demotion (the cold shoulder?) and sweltering when Don blew his top about not having an art director (hot headed?). Maybe it just shows that no one has control in the office anymore, not only over their own careers but also of the environment itself.
Back to Pete, who deals with the news by pouting and eating cereal and getting drunk, which is exactly how he copes with the president being murdered. "I felt for a second like everything was about to change," Pete says about the Democrat's death, but he really means about his own station following his promotion at the beginning of the year. He says he's so upset that he's not going to the wedding. Trudy (who may have better style than even Betty Draper, but she definitely had better hats), tries to get Pete to go, because he has to play the game of office politics. But eventually this Lady MacBeth relents, and they are the only ones conspicuously absent from the party.
Trudy realized the same thing Pete did, he may still have a job, but he is done at the firm. Ken won and he will be the one on the rise, while Pete's career will fester in middle management until he dies. He is using the excuse of the president's death to get out of a social obligation, just like he will soon get himself out of the firm. We bet the first thing he does on Tuesday is call Duck for a job.
Pull the Plug: While waiting for Peggy to arrive for their "nooner," an invitation that she brazenly accepted in front of Paul, Duck hears the news of the attack on the TV. When there's a knock on the door, instead of saying "Hey, check this out," he pulls the plug on the television so that Peggy won't hear and he'll still get to have sex. When the romp is done, he starts thinking about it again. When he and Peggy hear that the President has been killed, he reacts by thinking first of his children. Peggy doesn't see that this relationship, for him, is primarily about sex, which is sad, because she seems to be falling for him.
Like Duck (who looks much better with his clothes off than we imaged he would, not that we ever imagined it before we saw it, but still), Peggy has pulled the plug, and would rather have a relationship than deal with the news that it's not right with Duck. We find out that she has been having lunch with him often and that he's been spending nights in her apartment, that is starting to smell like his aftershave. It seems like Peggy wants their relationship to become something more, especially when we find her in the office at the end of the episode.
Rather than dealing with the president's death, she goes in to work to pretend like it isn't happening. Also, she has been displaced from her life. She says that her apartment is full of her roommate's friends being frivolous, and her mother's house is too full of her mother and her emotions, so she heads into the office. Peggy is ready for the next step. She doesn't want to be at home with her domineering mother or living the single life with a bunch of giggling office girls, she wants to be playing house with Duck. Obviously, that's not going to work, and she's going to end up married to her job. And as the door closes on a sad, lonely Don drinking in the dark while the nation mourns, we get a little snapshot into Peggy's future.
Life Goes On: Just because the president has been killed, does that mean everything should stop. Roger certainly doesn't think so, and refuses to cancel his daughter's wedding, just days after the event. Of course, no one shows, and all his employees who do—which is everyone but Pete—is in the kitchen watching the television, along with Roger's child bride, who would rather hide out than deal with the stepdaughter who can barely disguise her contempt for her new mother.
When he returns home drunk from the reception with his very drunk wife (this is the second time we've seen her get shitfaced beyond belief), he gets on the phone with Joan. Just last week we saw Roger asserting his happiness with Jane, is that starting to sour already? First, he is pissed off with her for going to lunch with his daughter (an anger than makes the Misses just as mad), then for hanging in the kitchen, and then for being a mess.
Of course, Saint Joan is beautiful, patient, and sober and offering very sage advice on the other end of the phone. Life is happening, she tells Roger. Mourn as you will—both the president, and his unpopular decision to dump his wife for a young secretary—but that doesn't mean that the world is going to stop for you. And she will not allow any joking about this. Oh no, mister.
Life hasn't stopped for Joanie, who seems to be doing well with Doctor Rapist, who is off working in the E.R. now that he joined the Army. She's at home being the happy housewife, or so it seems. Making the best out of a bad situation and keeping a cool head. That's our girl. Let's just see how long this is going to last.
Control: Like always, Don tries to exert control over the situation when everyone is mourning the president. He does the right thing and tells his television-addicted future hippie daughter and future Studio 54 denizen son that everything is going to be OK. He tries to do the same thing to Betty, but, at the end of the night, he's borrowing one of her sleeping pills to forget the pain inside.
Initially Betty reverts to her old behavior, letting Don have the upper hand, but when his control is shattered by the unpredictability of world events, she goes running to Henry. She makes a quick excuse to get out of the house and meets him in her car, the seat of their last act of intimacy, but instead of kissing through the window, he is now invited in. "Have you thought there are other ways to live?" he asks her. Well, thanks mister, now she has. And rather than just patting her hand, sending her to bed, and telling her it will be fine, Henry says he would do something for her to cheer her up, like take her to see her favorite movie. She tells us it is Singing in the Rain—romantic, escapist fare, no surprise there.
The scary thing is that Henry tells Betty he wants to marry her. Haven't they only met a handful of times and shared two kisses, and he wants to talk about marriage? That is just crazy talk. But she buys it. She trades in one controlling man for another, even though this one might be a slightly more benign model, but wouldn't he say anything to convince her to leave her husband for him?
Thoughts of running away with Henry and being happy in her head, she returns home to confront Don. The scene plays out like Betty is still reacting to Kennedy's death, but now we see that she is really talking to Don about how he's lied to her and cheated on her for years. She wants to scream at him for ruining "all this," and by that she presumably means not their happiness, because both of them have scant amounts of that, but the illusion that they are the perfect family. Betty can't pretend anymore, and now she knows that she doesn't love him.
She drops that bomb like a scratch to the face. Like always, Don tries to control her, saying that she'll get over it and everything will be fine. But the passive, docile, and confused Betty of yore is gone, and it no longer works. Instead of trying to work things out with her, Don pulls away, letting her stew in her unhappiness which will no doubt only drive her into Henry's arms—more as a reaction to Don than because of how nice Henry's guns most certainly are. And that's where we leave it, going into next week's season finale, with Don drinking alone in the dark, his distraught wife at home alone hating him, in an office where he can't even control the temperature.