Life After Death 2: Learning To Carry On From Mad Men’s “The Grown Ups”

Warning: Spoilers.

Mad Men is an award-winning American television series about the fictional Manhattan-based advertising agency Sterling Cooper in the 1960’s. Created by Matthew Weiner, it is also why I didn’t leave my house during the winter break. I started watching the series over the summer when it was uploaded on Netflix and slowly but surely inched my way towards the season four finale. Now, I wait with baited breath for season five.

But a few weeks ago while I was watching season three, I saw an episode that made me think more than usual. I sometimes accuse myself of reading too much into things, but I really couldn’t help it this time. More than that, I tried relating to it. Did I?

In the penultimate episode of season three, “The Grown Ups,” the assassination of John F. Kennedy shakes up the employees, friends, and families of Sterling Cooper.

It’s important to bear in mind that, like any good television show, the attraction is the characters that have hooked in the people from day one; the assassination of JFK is merely a subplot that propels the characters forward in some way. There are three or four plots the episode juggles, and what strings them together is the assassination.

Around the end of the first act, Don is arguing with Lane against a replacement for the released Sal. Peggy rendevous with Duck at his hotel during her lunch hour. Pete and Harry shoot the shit in Harry’s office. Then, out of nowhere, their world changes.

Don finds no one working to discover they have all occupied Harry’s office, glued to the (only) television. While Peggy checks for a hickey, Duck turns on the television to hear that the president is dead.

From that point on until the end of the episode, no one know what to do. It’s a nation in stunned silence. Don wants his children to watch anything but the news, yet Betty (Don’s wife) urges them to keep watching while she cries her way through tissue boxes. “Everyone will be sad for a while, but it will all be okay,” Don says to his kids.

Later, the wedding of Roger Sterling’s daughter is in the crosshairs of this national crisis. Guests opt out from attending, tending to their fears than to forget with loved ones. Pete, in addition to rising frustrated with his place in Sterling Cooper, remains at home — a symbolic protest, a subtle “fuck you” to the agency for demoting him, and using the crisis as justification.

The episode continues and the characters’ lives unfold, Don’s in particular: By the end of the episode, Don’s marriage with Betty is over. She leaves him for Henry Francis, the New York governor’s public relations director. The episode’s final frame shows Don, alone in his office, pouring himself a drink.

Fact of the matter is, despite this dark hour in all the lives of these men, women, and children, life continues. And that fascinated me.

Everyone, everyone mourned the president’s death. Even Pete, who used it as an excuse to not attend in the same vein as using the swine flu “epidemic” to not leave your house, shed tears. I was fascinated by not only the writers’ excellent job at weaving actual events of the decade into the lives of these characters, but by how they mourned. It’s a stark contrast to decades later when the American public would wish for everything from impeachment to death of their president. I’d hear it in the halls of my own high school when Bush was in office. You hear it every so often when some guy is arrested for plotting to kill Obama. Really, it’s nothing new.

But I have to ask: Did people really mourn for Kennedy like that?

I know next to nothing of the politics Kennedy enacted during his tenure. I frankly don’t know if he was generally well-liked or hated. I’m sure there are people who hated him as much as they loved him. I mean, hell, I’m talking about people who hated him, hello, he was killed. But I’m just judging from this one, arbitrary episode of Mad Men, an amazing but imperfect time machine into a decade long gone by. I’m far removed from this era, and my mother was barely a teenager when it happened. Not to mention, living in the Philippines.

It was not so much the mourning that captivated me either. It was more than that. It was the idea of a cataclysmic event that not only manages to stop everything for at least a day or two, but how it affects everyone even if they’re not directly involved. It’s how people take bad news, take time to heal or at least understand, and then continue their lives. And then I realized: It fascinated me because I’ve been through with something like it already.

I still remember how beautiful the weather was on September 11, 2001. Most of the day has become a blur, but I remember on that day I looked out the window in my 4th grade classroom, gazing at the trees that stood across the street from my school. The sun reflected beautifully off the leaves, the generally bland shade of green would turn lively and warm when the sun shined on them.

I was day dreaming; I had just gotten past the ruins in Sonic Adventure on the Sega Dreamcast and I couldn’t wait to go back home and continue playing. I thought of Eric Meyers, the Quantum Ranger on Power Rangers Time Force. I was hoping that by the end of the season, he would mend his ways, stop being a gigantic prick, and join the rest of the Power Rangers in their fight against Ransik. I wanted to get an Xbox for Christmas.

I was only nine-years-old. I was born in 1992. Out of nowhere, my world changed.

I was happy to hear my mom survived. She stayed with her sisters in their Manhattan apartment. In the days, weeks, years that followed, certain words like terrorism and patriotism, words that I never even knew existed, became common. At nine-years-old I’ve watched this nation become a rollercoaster of unity and division, and over ten years later we couldn’t be more further apart.

I’m not saying the death of JFK is equal to the death of thousands of innocents — that’s not my point. My point is on the cataclysm: the life-altering, world-changing event, and how we as people pick up the pieces and move on. But there’s so much more to that that I don’t even know where I can begin to comprehend it. What was it about the president that garnered unanimous mourning? Or was that the show just making a point? If so, what was the point they were making? I don’t doubt in the real world, people may have had a divided opinion; I’m sure there were those who didn’t cry over Kennedy. Similarly, there were/are people who didn’t believe Clinton should be impeached. Welcome to Earth: Where No One Agrees On Anything.

But as I sit here, the last few seconds of the show’s theme song, “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2 fade on my iTunes, I can’t help but think of the show’s underlying theme (in my opinion at least): instability. The 1960’s were a time of great change in American society, from the Civil Rights movement that I’m inclined to argue isn’t over, to the paranoia of a communistic invasion and the space race. In 2011/2012, things are just as imbalanced. As pessimistic as it sounds, I don’t think things ever will be.

“The Grown Ups,” the twelfth episode of the third season of AMC’s Mad Men, aired on November 1, 2009. For a show set in the 1960’s, the burden these characters carry are very 21st century. The post 9/11 environment in which I call my teenage years allowed easy digestion of this otherwise strange and elusive period to which I have no direct connection to. But ultimately, did I understand? Did I understand exactly what these characters wen through? Do I know how they felt? In my opinion I really don’t know if that’s even possible. Aside from them being completely fictional of course.

See, you can’t just “understand” and draw parallels to a tragedy. I know what it’s like to be hungry. Do I understand, then, the millions that go to sleep without food in the fridge? It’s completely arrogant to try to understand a situation or event without living through it. If I wanted to be a doctor, I could read all the books, watch all the documentaries, talk to all the practicing surgeons and physicians I want. In the end, I’ll be informed. But I wouldn’t be a doctor.

Am I informed? Barely. Do I understand? No. I won’t say I do. But even so, life goes on.

Allow me to put this into perspective. In the Star Wars mythology, there are major events and wars that occur after the fall of the empire in Return of the Jedi. In Babylon 5, the Telepath War took place after the devastating Shadow War. In Firefly, the show is all about life after the Alliance civil war. And so on.

Life continued after the assassination of JFK. Life continued after 9/11. And whatever cataclysmic event that comes into our own personal lives — an addiction, abuse, depression, loss, or even gain and prosperity — life continues. No matter what.

The Earth is a self-repairing ecosystem. We humans are a bunch of disturbing parasites. We’ll build things, shape things, dig things, we’ll harm the Earth all we can. But when we’re gone, somehow, someway, the planet learns to take back what we stole.  Life continues.

I’d like to ask anyone who happens to be reading this and lived through the Kennedy assassination, to post in the comment box below. I know it’s a bit of a long shot, but I’m an optimist. So long as I shine the signal I know it can’t be stopped. If you lived through the Kennedy assassination, what was it like? How did the world around you change, if at all? How did it compare to the national mourning that took place after 9/11? Please, share your thoughts below.

Here’s the highlight reel from the AMC website for a more visual reference of the episode.

Mad Men is available on DVD as well as Netflix Instant. I am in no way paid by AMC, Matthew Weiner, or anyone from the show. I’m just a fanboy.

Although I am looking for a job. I have a resume! Do you want to see it? Do you? I have it right here, so… hey! Wait!

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2 comments

  1. Only you would go from Mad Men, to JFK assassination, to 9/11, to Star Wars… haha

    JFK was a very beloved president among the younger demographic, basically the same demographic that elected Obama.
    I can’t quite grasp how the death shook the nation so much that people were crying about it. If it were to happen today, I doubt it would get the same reaction.
    However, I suppose people were a lot less desensitized than they are today. You’d see him on the tv a lot because all stations would play what he had to say, unlike now when you can keep on watching your relatively meaningless shows in terms of the importance of what the President has to say.
    It was a very different time back then.
    But life does go on.

  2. […] it. It’s so ironed in (most) of our cultural psyches you can’t think of anything but. I’ve previously discussed the cultural landscape depicted in Mad Men as something not too unlike our own, but the opening […]

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