If you haven’t seen the episode, feel free to read this. No real spoilers ahead.
As someone who knows a little too much about the subject, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Mad Men’s portrayal of the Kennedy assassination. And when it came, on Sunday night, I thought the episode was beautifully done. But I found myself less intrigued by the portrayal of the event itself than by how the writers used the assassination to advance the one of the show’s main themes: that white, middle-class American women suffered from the feminine mystique in the 1960s, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. In Mad Men’s universe, John Kennedy died Sunday night, but Betty Draper is just starting to live.
The writers have dropped hints throughout the season that the show would address the assassination: the brief shot of Margaret Sterling’s wedding announcement, with its portentous date; the eerie recreation of the Zapruder film with the John Deere accident in episode 6; the frequent references to dates as the episodes moved through 1963, with November always looming in the distance. And, when the event finally came, the show handled it with grace and intelligence. I loved the way that Walter Cronkite came on the television set in the background, with the volume on low, as Peter and Harry discussed office politics, completely oblivious to the news, and the sudden emphasis on TV, as everyone gravitated to sets throughout the episode. Overall, there was the general sense of tragedy, loss, and confusion, especially after Oswald’s murder. “What is going on?” both Don and Betty ask, separately.
But the story of Betty’s gradual awakening was integrated with the narrative of the assassination in a way that brought home to me why so many women like this show. I know a lot of men who despise it; they see a loathsome main character, Don Draper, who lies and cheats on his wife; they see pervasive misogyny, and it makes them feel uncomfortable and depressed.
Many women, though, understand and empathize with how the female characters are objectified and mistreated. But at the same time, we know that, while sexism has hardly disappeared, women have a lot more options and, yes, a lot more power than they did in 1963. As the show moves through the early 1960s, the anger builds, but the opportunities unfold. We know where this story is going, and we like the ending.