Did JFK's Assassination Change Everything for 'Mad Men'?

·Contributor
The Sterling Cooper staff react to the assassination of President Kennedy in a Season 3 episode of 'Mad Men' (Carin Baer/AMC)
The Sterling Cooper staff react to the assassination of President Kennedy in a Season 3 episode of 'Mad Men' (Carin Baer/AMC)

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy changed everything — or so those who've grown up in the wake of the events of Nov. 22, 1963 have long been told. But did it change everything for the characters of "Mad Men"? With the 50th anniversary of the assassination being marked Friday, we looked back at where the Sterling Cooper crew were on that historic day and where they’ve gone since.

Coincidentally, or possibly not, given series creator Matthew Weiner's eye for both detail and duality, this past season's finale, "In Care Of," is set around Thanksgiving 1968 — almost precisely five years after the history-marked goings-on in Season 3's assassination episode, "The Grown-Ups."

And coincidentally, or possibly not, Weiner's characters keep living out the same drama.

[Related: A Guide to TV Coverage of the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination]

In "The Grown-Ups," Roger's adult daughter Margaret had the misfortune of scheduling her wedding for the day after JFK's murder. In Season 3, Margaret is shown as a petulant child, upset about her father's new wife; by the time of "In Care Of," she's still a petulant child, upset that her father won't invest in her husband's business.

Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) attend the wedding of Roger's daughter in a Season 3 episode of 'Mad Men' (Carin Baer/AMC)
Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) attend the wedding of Roger's daughter in a Season 3 episode of 'Mad Men' (Carin Baer/AMC)

In November 1963, Pete loses out on a promotion because basically he's, well, Pete and is afflicted with all the awkwardness and oiliness that comes with being Pete. In November 1968, Pete (presumably — we don't know for certain) blows his shot at the Chevy account because basically he's, well, Pete. And also, he doesn't know how to drive a car with a manual transmission.

The Peggy of 1963 was getting it on with the icky Duck Phillips. The Peggy of five years later is getting it on with Ted Chaough, who's more chivalrous than the usual ad man — right up until he sleeps with Peggy, slinks back into bed with his wife, suffers cheater's remorse, and plans an escape to California. And still, years after the events in Dallas, the men in Peggy's life keep making all the big decisions for her.

[Photos: Check Out More 1960s Pics From AMC's 'Mad Men']

Then there's Roger and Joan: still not together, but still not apart.

And then there's Don.

At the conclusion of "The Grown-Ups," the first Mrs. Draper (Betty) tells Don she doesn't love him. At the conclusion of "In Care Of," Don tells the second Mrs. Draper (Megan) that he loves her, and she walks out the door.

See how the "Mad Men" characters reacted to JFK's death in this behind-the-scenes clip:

But don't get the wrong impression: The "Mad Men" universe was not unchanged.

"Change doesn't always mean for the better," says Hofstra University psychology professor (and devoted "Mad Men" viewer) Joseph Scardapane. "I think the show has shown some changes of growth and of falling back."

And so Betty, who was deeply affected by the news of JFK, leaves Don and a dysfunctional marriage, and finds a degree of happiness with Henry Francis. She grew.

And so Don, who was shown to be as aloof to the dramatics of the assassination, moves on with his work and to another marriage until he returns to his drinking and womanizing ways. He fell back.

[Video: What Were the Final Words JFK Heard Before He Was Assassinated?]

There is a glimmer of hope for Don by the end of Season 6: He opens up about his wretched upbringing (during an ill-timed pitch to Hershey's) and lets his children see the real him via his real childhood home.  So maybe Don grew, too, post-JFK; maybe it just took him longer to get there.

In that way, the fictional "Mad Men" characters are not unlike the real-world people of the Camelot era.

"In many ways, people's lives did go on," says Scardapane, who was a first-grader on Nov. 22, 1963. "It wasn't like everything changed. The changes were gradual."