Well, Mad Men had the moment yesterday that the entire season, set in 1963, was leading up to. WARNING: SPOILER ALERT! DON’T READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED LAST NIGHT’S SHOW YET!
The credit in the opening titles that yesterday’s show was directed by Barbet Schroeder, whose name rarely graces American TV shows, was probably the first clue that something was up, but still, kudos for the way the show weaved the Cronkite moment into the early proceedings. Two of the junior account execs are discussing being screwed by their bosses at promotion time, while the now legendary clip of Cronkite quietly plays in the background, before everyone rushes in:
And kudos for the show for attempting to show that life went on in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. (Though that also benefits the drama of the show — there wouldn’t be that much if the characters stared at CBS for 55 minutes.)
There’s a moment in series creator Matthew Weiner’s video recap of yesterday’s show that doesn’t ring true from the period:
In the clip above, Weiner says:
I called [the episode] “The Grown-Ups”, because to me, it’s a lot of people realizing that they are orphaned, or that their father is gone, or that it’s time to be an adult…When Oswald is shot, there’s a kind of nihilism that takes over, because the system does not work. There’s all the stuff in that show about the System, and how the institutions that are supposed to take care of you, be it marriage, be it government, be it justice – everything breaks down.
Their father is gone? In 1960, Mort Sahl was doing jokes about how the dominant theme of the then-ongoing president campaign was “Oh yeah? Well, so your old man!” Kennedy and Nixon were both were dependent on much older and more experienced men for their careers. Nixon wouldn’t have been running without Ike’s two successful terms in office of course, and Kennedy’s wealth and power came literally from his father.
Mad Men is of course, the latest Boomer victory lap for how the Most Enlightened Generation Ever™ brought civilization out of the dark ages of their parents’ gray flannel past. But I honestly doubt most people of that era viewed Kennedy as “their father”, in the same way that wide swatches of today’s left seem determined to create some sort of strange paternalistic connection with the equally youthful-appearing Obama. Also, despite 30 years of the New Deal and its aftermath, most Americans still weren’t as intimately connected with their government as the now increasingly all-encompassing nanny state and wall-to-wall 24/7 cable news makes it seem today.
And as far as the system not working, Weiner has a point — one element really broke down. The media narrative of the time was crafted to avoid discussing the facts of the case as much as possible. As Jackie Kennedy was quoted as saying, her husband “didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little Communist. It even robs his death of any meaning.” Rather than credit JFK as a victim —the American victim — of the Cold War, a wildly incoherent narrative was crafted to place Kennedy on the vanguard of civil rights. The result was an astonishing case of societal cognitive dissonance, as James Piereson noted in Camelot and Cultural Revolution, and discussed in depth with Peter Robinson:
Weiner is right though — as a result of that cognitive dissonance, the dominant forms of society that were built in the wake of the New Deal would break down and the sixties would get progressively weirder and nihilistic as they went on. It will be interesting to see where Mad Men goes from here.