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The Grown Ups (Mad Men S3:E12)

Posted by Christopher Moltisanti on November 5, 2009

“I wake up in the morning, and I wonder why everything’s the same as it was. I can’t understand. No I can’t understand, how life goes on the way it does.” – Skeeter Davis, “The End of the World”

So, it finally happened. The moment we all thought they’d save until the finale snuck up on us an episode early. “The Grown Ups” is a classic Mad Men episode and a captivating social history lesson all in one. The JFK assassination, and the fear, confusion and sense of mass betrayal that result, provide the context, while the dashed expectations of all our favorite characters propel the plot toward a tumultuous finale (for Don and Betty at least).

The last kiss?

It was fascinating how the assassination left every character in desperate, self-preservation mode. My only point of reference is 9/11, when, generally, people felt a sense of community. Here, though, everyone uses the assassination (and resulting confusion) to strike out on their own, realize how misguided their expectations were and tend to their own needs. Roger calls Joan with his wife passed out on the bed, Betty visits Henry, Roger’s daughter laments the tragedy’s effect on her wedding and Pete and Trudy turn vindictive after Pete is passed over for the big promotion. It not only shows the selfishness of the characters, but also the mass dislocation of that moment in history. Interestingly, only Peggy and Don, characters who’ve both had to struggle to get where they are, manage to demonstrate fortitude and move forward with relative grace.

No matter what the reaction, no one has any answers. The adults are watching the newsmen, the kids are looking at the adults, questioning their reassurances, and as Roger points out at the wedding, the adults will soon be looking to the kids for answers in a changed world.

Meanwhile, Don and Bets, like Tony and Carmela in Season Four of The Sopranos, are headed toward a calamitous demise. I know we have one January Jones hater on this blog, but you have to hand it to her for her consistently understated, yet powerful performances. She’s truly one of the finest actresses on TV today. Just watch her face at the wedding, and you’ll see everything you need to know about her and Don’s marriage. The empty, indifferent expression on her face as he looks at her imploringly is heartbreaking, yet so real.

But, we have to be honest. They’re not a good couple. They entered into a marriage searching for things the other couldn’t provide. Don wanted the stability and security he never knew. Betty wanted a white picket fence, the ideal family that she never had and constant affirmation of her own beauty and self-worth. Neither one married the other for what they were, and, in turn, set themselves up for disaster. Of course, this delusion extends beyond their marriage. From Don and Rachel to Betty and Henry, these characters are projecting what they want on another and searching desperately for an escape, an escape they mistake for a panacea.

For now, though, we’re left with heartbreak as reality rushes in. The ending, with Don walking into his office, beautifully shot a dark palor, with Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” playing, is as poignant as you can get. For Don, who, despite his strong exterior, is painfully lonely and longing for acceptance, the family life he’s finally come to cherish is about to be ripped from him.


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