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AMC's "Mad Men" Serves Up a Stunning Surprise -- And a Modern-Day TV Triumph
November 3, 2009  | By David Bianculli

mad-men-huntley.jpgIf you've recorded, but haven't yet seen, last Sunday's episode of AMC's Mad Men, don't read any more of this column until you've watched the episode. It contains surprises too potent to spoil - but too artistic and well-handled, on the other hand, not to celebrate. So if you HAVE seen it, read on, as I praise Matthew Weiner's series for playing its hand magnificently...

When the current season of Mad Men began, one of the most anticipated secrets to be revealed aboutthe show's 1960s world was exactly what date it was. Was the show coming back before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or after? Would Weiner, perversely, skip over one of the most tragic and significant events of that decade, or build up to it as the season progresssed.

We learned instantly that, in the Madison Avenue world of Mad Men, the unforgettable date of Nov. 22, 1963 was still in the future. But then, all this season, Weiner and company did something impressive. They made us forget that the tragedy might be coming.

And, in the most amazing magical feat of all, they managed to sneak it up on us and stun us with it, just as people were stunned in 1963. Advance promos of the episode on American Movie Classics revealed no hint of it. Nor did publicity photos, advance TV log-line descriptions, or anything else. In short, Mad Men took its biggest plot point of the year, and kept it secret, in an age when almost NOTHING is kept secret any more.

And my, was it a fabulous TV viewing experience as a result. So much to remember. So much to love. So much to praise.


I love, for example, that Mad Men didn't take the obvious approach of showing only Walter Cronkite, whose CBS reporting we now see as synonymous with JFK assassination coverage. Instead, the first image we saw, as folks from Sterling Cooper turned on their TV at work, was NBC's Chet Huntley.

And we got to see the reactions of many major characters as the news developed. Peggy, still flush with the thrill of illicit afternoon sex with a colleague from a rival agency, was stunned.

mad-men-betty-crying.jpgBetty Draper cried when she first saw the news, then, witnessing Lee Harvey Oswald's shooting on live TV, screamed in anger, demanding to know what was happening. Then she fled the room -- leaving Don, whose secrets she had discovered the episode before, as well.


The master stroke of the episode, though, was another continuation of a plot thread from a previous episode. Peggy and Don had been among those working on a new campaign for Aqua-Net hair spray, and the approved campaign, which we had seen illustrated in storyboards, had two couples driving in a convertible.

One woman wore a scarf to protect her hair from getting mussed by the wind. The other -- the Aqua-Net user -- needed no such protection, and enjoyed the open-air ride with giddy abandon. Excellent campaign -- until, the Monday after the JFK assassination, Peggy and Don, the only two people who came in to work on a national day of mourning, looked at the storyboards and saw two couples in a convertible... an eerie, uncomfortable echo of the last TV images of the presidential limousine driving through Dallas before JFK was shot.


When I saw those Aqua-Net images the first time, the Kennedy connection never occured to me. When the camera closed in on them in Sunday's episode, those same images took my breath away. Matt Weiner had played his cards extremely close to the vest, yet let us peek at them at the same time. That episode was a major payoff, and a master stroke of TV direction. And misdirection, too, because we never saw it coming.

This Sunday at 10 ET is the season finale. Is there any question it's an hour not to be missed?






Karen said:

I absolutely loved this episode and have been waiting for the chance to hash it out with other Madmen followers. I cried just as the characters cried. I continue to be highly impressed with the classiness and realness of the show. Hats off and bravo!

Comment posted on November 3, 2009 12:03 PM

Daniel M. Conti said:


Every week when I sit down to watch Mad Men, I pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming.

In a sea of mostly bland and often horrible television offerings from the networks, we have but a few gems to look forward every week, and Mad Men is at the top of the list.

At times it is necessary to watch the episodes more then once to enjoy the numerous plot lines and sub plots being offered every week.

This show could potentially go on forever, the characters and their stories, written against a time period of immense change in our nation , could easily continue for another ten years!

Hopefully, that will happen and the superb quality of the writing and direction will continue.

I know I will be watching every year!

Comment posted on November 3, 2009 2:05 PM

Eileen said:

I have one word for this week's episode -- W-O-W!!

There was so much going on, they could have spent three hours on this episode, and you would never have been bored for a second.

It had a real season finale-cliffhanger feel to it, but I'm certainly glad we've still got one more episode to savor. So many story lines, and so little time. Joan, Sal, Peggy, Betty, Pete -- so much more to explore and resolve.

And, David, what is the story with this episode being directed by Barbet Schroeder? Please share.

All I know is I'll be glued to the tv at 10 pm next Sunday. Always sad when the Man Men season ends, and it seems to take forever to get to the next season ala the Sopranos.

But, what a season!!

Comment posted on November 3, 2009 2:31 PM

Greg Kibitz said:

Yes, not to be missed. And I don't know about you, David, but, with the season finale already here this coming Sunday, not nearly enough to watch each season either. Each haitus between becomes a very long wait for a very short period of ecstasy. But I guess in that too the makers of this show have nailed the true human experience quite sublimely.

BTW, I didn't follow you back in the days of American Dreams on NBC, What were your impressions of that show?

(Yes, I know this blog probably did not yet exist then but I did listen to NPR/Terry Gross).

I quite liked it and was similarly often very moved by it as well. Same basic time period, 'similar' attempt to maintain period authenticity, but yet a whole different show, but yet one that was just as real to me as Mad Men, and maybe even more real because Don Draper's and the Social Elites are few and far between (other than on TV and in movies) but the inner city nuclear family just trying to get by, well, that is and always will be quite ubiqutious.

But I also quite like Swingtown, so my tastes are hardly worth trusting. }:-)

Comment posted on November 3, 2009 4:44 PM

Tausif Khan said:

John F. Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963 [My typo, mea culpa. It's fixed. Thanks for catching it. -- David B.]

Comment posted on November 3, 2009 4:46 PM

Sarah said:

It might have been a little more surprising to me if I hadn't read a interview with Weiner just days before where he was asked if the season was going to end with JFKs assassination but he never gave a yes or no answer so it was still interesting to watch. I did love all of the moments you pointed out (afterwards my mom told me her brother was also watching tv when Oswald was shot) and felt wierd (when Don and Peggy were at the office) but wasn't sure why until you reminded me of the storyboard connection. I also liked Roger's daughter's wedding and how less than half of the guests showed up and the comment about "I heard the church was full" and answer "those weren't guests" just show the detail this episode had. I admit I watch but don't really pay attention to Mad Men, but there was something about this episode that made me realize just how good the sereis is.

Comment posted on November 3, 2009 5:28 PM

Rich said:

Impressive indeed. I saw things in the episode from another direction (as JFK doesn't mean the same thing for my Gen.?) It was a superb use of of dark and ironic comedic tragedy in that you learn about the characters through their reactions to things that 'really happened'. Examples being Pete Campbell's father on a crashed plane & The Cuban Missile Crisis 'saves Dons marriage' (kind of).

The fact that Sterling's daughter has to get married during a national crisis was so sad and yet awkwardly clever and a brilliant plot point- showing who'd show up and who'd care. It was touching to see everyone's reaction. I liked how Don explained it to his kids. Pete on the other hand had me confused- He hated Kennedy (as per season 1 comments about him & Jackie) but it was nice to see him being sensitive with his wife. I loved how Pete & Harry are venting when the "Special Bulletin" appears on Harry's TV- I knew. Then Duck turned it off to ravage Peggy- it was clever pacing.

I personally was more blown away by Don's previous week's reveal to Betty about his past and even showing remorse about his brother Adam. It was certainly better than last season! I don't like the Betty & politico storyline- too much melodrama, she's really starting to annoy me, which is sad, 'cause Betty was much more interesting in season 1. They turned the volume down on Joan way too much, maybe they don't want her to be 'too popular'? The school teacher was interesting. I'm sure the DVD commentaries will be very revealing and help appreciate what I'm "Not Getting" this season.

Comment posted on November 3, 2009 9:34 PM

Mac said:

On a technical note,I believe that there was so much NBC footage used on the show was because NBC's archive is the most complete of the four days, Nov.22-25. Didn't one of the cable channels do a real time retrospect of the events for one of the anniversaries (35?), and if so,I believe they used NBC footage.
At first, I was annoyed about the amount of news footage used in the show was cutting into storytelling time, but I slowly realized that most of the viewers needed this stuff as reference points. Ruby shooting Oswald was possibly the first time a murder was seen live on TV, let alone a murder of someone so instantly infamous. Today, though still unsettling, cell phones, and security cameras make this almost commonplace.
Interesting in the story, Harry Crane had "As the World Turns" on in his office (how many white collar workers would been watching a soap opera as their job) but had the sound low and missed the original CBS bulletin. Also,Duck unplugs the hotel TV set, getting ready for his tryst with Peggy and misses the death announcement. And Don, as always, is in his own world and pretty much ignores the events, telling everyone that everything will be OK. It won't. Don even comes to work Monday, the national day of mourning, as if it was another work day (and the only other one there is Peggy, Don of the future).

Comment posted on November 4, 2009 7:47 AM

Greg Kibitz said:

Ditto to everything Karen, Daniel and Eileen said. Even as a guy, like Karen, I too cried right along with everyone in the show (but that is nothing new for me). Like Daniel, I plan to keep my wagon hitched to this show for as long as she runs. And like Eileen, every week is yet another big W-O-W!! for me too (and I've already written about the very long wait).

As I said right here after the 2009 Emmy's, some shows and actors really did not deserve the Emmy's they got. However, as I also said, Mad Men (show plus actors, producers, writers, directors and all the other staff) not only deserved what they got, but all the others that they did not.

FYI: JFK was assassinated the day before my only sibling's 1st birthday (2 1/5 year older brother). I am therefore quite sure his 1st was not unlike Sterling's Daughter's wedding. Thought some of you might find that interesting.

Comment posted on November 4, 2009 11:03 AM

Gregory Kibitz said:

I find what Rich had to write/say about Betty quite interesting and intriguing and thus I would like to give my own take on her.

To me Betty is a character I both Hate to Love and Love to Hate.

Sometimes she shines as someone with great integrity, decency, care and compassion, especially the way she mother's her newborn, show's such compassion towards her maid/servant/nanny and the plight of Black America, and feels so deeply for JFK and his passing. But then there are all the affairs and the flirting and the way she is all too often very egocentric and thus emotionally detached from, not to mention harsh & short with, her two older children. And then there are the all too stressed (but oh so real) relationships she had with her own family, be it her father, brother or mother (and most of those will remain forever unresolved as 2/3 are now dead - yet again, oh so real).

And none of that even mentions her infinitely more complex relationship with Our Beloved and Adored Hero/Protagonist, Don. And then I even wonder, is he really rather our Hated and Loathed Antihero/Antagonist? (At this point, I'm really not so sure, but such deep ambivalence alone makes it all even that much more real). I can only guess that due to Don's overwhelming influence, Betty is at once both herself (that spoiled little uber-rich girl she grew up as), and also a mirror of her relationship to/with Don, and to/with which Don or Dick or whomever, whenever and why ever, we oft know not. And in that again, it is all oh so real to me (and presumably to everyone else as well).

That said: IMO, Betty is by far one of the most nuanced, multi-dimensional and complex characters I have ever been lucky enough to experience on any show at any time, ever.

That said: January Jones's portrayal of Betty is surely quite sublime and, IMO, quite easily Oscar Worthy (if only they gave such awards for Basic Cable TV Shows. Let us just hope there is at least an Emmy for her by next year).

Comment posted on November 4, 2009 11:34 AM

Sam Tomaino said:

Actually, I think the last shot of the coming attractions from last week was of Don & his kids on the couch, obviously watching TV, with grim looks on their faces. So I thought that might be a hint but the description of the show on digital TV was deceptive.

As soon as I saw the shot of Harry watching what I knew was As the World Turns, I knew we were going to get the news bulletin very shortly. Pete & Harry talking about their petty concerns & not noticing the new bulletin was a nice touch.

I admit to tearing up when Betty got the news that JFK was dead and relating it to Carla. I was 11 at the time and footage from those days still gets to me, regardless of what I have heard about JFK since.

Comment posted on November 4, 2009 12:14 PM

Melissa said:

Was I the only one to notice that Roger announced his daughter's wedding date in the 2nd episode? I've been waiting all season for this. [Impressive. Maybe you were! Good for you! -- David B.]

Comment posted on November 4, 2009 9:24 PM

Esther said:

And what a nice touch to see Joan at the end, no make-up, facing the Vietnam crisis in a way none us had expected.

I, too, pinch myself. Every scene in this show is a gift, and not just the serious, heartwarming or heartbreaking scenes. Also the random ones.

Comment posted on November 10, 2009 12:23 AM
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