This was the first TV-mediated national tragedy in the country's history. And although it might not make for gripping entertainment to watch people watch TV, that's exactly how the "where were you when...?" tragedy played out in offices, homes, and schools throughout the country.
Don, a man so traumatized by the tragedies in his own life that he refuses to feel, stood apart, an outsider to the grief both in his office and home. As with James Agee's masterpiece of a novel, "A Death in the Family," the show conveyed a visceral sense of the confusion and wariness that Sally and Bobby were experiencing.
Don didn't want his kids to watch the TV coverage of the assassination. He was in the minority, since, just as the episode showed, whole families stayed glued to their sets, horrified, from the Friday afternoon of the assassination, to the swearing-in of LBJ on the plane, with Jackie standing by in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit, through Jack Ruby's shooting of Oswald on Sunday, to the funeral (based on Lincoln's) on Monday. Weiner did a brilliant job of interweaving these iconic clips into the episode to convey a sense of bodies piling up, of inexplicable loss upon loss, in real time.
A nation lost its official Daddy. And yes, there was a new (unmediagenic) president, but what changed forever, in the reborn TV age, was that we ceded control to the Daddy on the screen, to Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley; watching them reassured us. Called "The Grown-Ups," the episode once again led us to question who was who. Sally tried to comfort her mother, in one reversal; at his daughter's wedding, Roger had two babies on his hands; Ken, with his youthful exuberance and Kennedy haircut, got promoted at work. But Pete, who starts out like a whining child, used the crucible of death to make some grown-up decisions. Carla sits on the couch with her boss and pulls out a cigarette. They are equal partners in grief.
Half-child Betty also summoned the strength to change her status with her actual partner. She was all emotion, and having Don tell her to "lie down and take a pill" -- just as an unfeeling doctor would in the face of her tears -- reverberated. She decided she didn't love him, and couldn't stay in the marriage.
So she played the Don role, leaving the family to rendezvous with a lover. I couldn't help feeling that there was a suggestion of Ford's Theater, and Lincoln, in the scene in the parking lot, behind what looked like an old warehouse or theater, where she meets Henry. He drives up in his white Ford, and she's in her Lincoln. He tells her he'd love to take her to the movies. Why he would offer her marriage after three meetings, one involving physical violence with a lockbox, and one quasi-phony phone call, is a mystery, but perhaps it's just meant to suggest the career-defeating decision that Governor Rockefeller himself made to marry Happy, a divorcee with four children.
The half-baked wedding -- no burned brides, but no cake or waiters -- was brilliantly done. But here again, I thought the scene of Jane and the other guests watching a violent scene on TV in the hotel kitchen evoked the RFK assassination -- to come in a hotel kitchen a scant five years later.
Pete loves Roger, and was the life of the party on Derby Day, but decided not to attend the wedding; Don hates Roger, and stood isolated on Derby Day, but showed up, and had to sit there and make small talk, adding layer upon layer of numbness and phony obeisance to the already uncomfortable scene.
He did seem hungry for his wife in her ice-blue suit. They danced, and their quietly out-of-synch movements were beautifully choreographed. "Everything's going to be fine," he told her. "How do you know that?" she responded. He kissed her; she felt nothing.
After kissing Henry (or perhaps it was getting the offer of marriage for her back-up plan) she felt something. Her pas de deux with Henry allowed her to say "I don't love you" directly to Don. And that was as sad a moment as I can remember on the show. He wanted to tell her to stop, to take a pill. Instead, the enormity of that statement finally sank in, and he went upstairs to the bedroom, and sat in his chair, wringing his hands, a crumpled man. (The beautiful fading light and his folded shirt sleeves suggested the portrait of JFK in the Oval Office during the worst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
So Don ended up in the only place he could feel in control and function: his office. His female counterpart, Peggy, had a similar inability to access emotion, and came in to redo the Aqua-Net campaign that showed two couples riding in a convertible Lincoln, completely open to the elements. She's not writing condolence notes, but she knows she can't leave that in place; no revised storyboard can put those shattered heads back together again.
Any predictions for the finale? I'm shattered.
Dorothy adds: "Speaking of the Pete/Duck relationship, Pete seems to be setting his cap to leave, and is happy to have the offer from Duck in his back pocket. But won't he feel destroyed when he finds out that Duck and Peggy are trysting the night away? (And by the way, I know it's simply a relationship of convenience for both Peggy and Duck, but why do they meet in a midtown hotel if Duck isn't married?)