Set in the 1960s, the AMC series "Mad Men" documents the dramas of that turbulent decade through the personal, everyday lives of its characters. As "Mad Men" creator and show runner Matthew Weiner explains, "One of the theses of the show is that whatever’s going on in your life is still more important than history."
Sunday, October 14, 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a historical event that serves as the backdrop to Mad Men's season two finale, "Meditations in an Emergency." The episode features a series of Cold War-style negotiations between the characters, as Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) sell Sterling Cooper to the British firm Putnam, Powell, and Lowe.
Weiner explains that while the business stories are drawn from his experiences, and the economics of the 1960s, a seminal scene between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) represents the era, and the crisis.
As Kennedy negotiates with Khrushchev from Washington, in the world of "Mad Men," "Pete warns Don about the merger happening, which he doesn’t have to do, and he takes sides," Weiner says. Indeed, Pete tells Don, "You know they stopped a ship this morning. I bet the Russians are reconsidering, now that we made a stand."
Weiner explains that Pete is warning Don. "You're going to be in a stand-off, but you should hold your ground," Weiner says. "That to me…that is the Cold War."
As with the Kennedy assassination, and the Beatles playing a concert at Shea Stadium, Weiner uses the real-world events of the Cuban Missile Crisis to examine his characters' lives. As characters panic, "deathbed confessions start to tale place," Weiner explains.
"I used [the crisis] as a jumping off point to say, Don, a survivor in a crisis, is trying to resolve his relationship in the best way possible. His business is up for grabs in a very strange way and, of course, business goes on as usual. That’s one of the themes of the show, too, is that Americans in particular always respond to crises by going to work," Weiner tells Takeaway host John Hockenberry. "Then Betty Draper, who has to face the fact that she’s pregnant with a baby that she doesn’t want, and there are no rules."
Weiner also defends Betty Draper's impulsive behavior. "I do think that what Betty does is brave," he says. "I think that Betty Draper has probably been with only one man her entire life, and she is pregnant, so there is no risk, and she is drunk, and she drops her kids off and she is alone again for the first time, maybe in ten years…and she has the illicit romance in the back of a bar…it was for her a transformational experience that allowed her to go back to her husband."
The critically-acclaimed scene between Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) also rests on the "deathbed confessions" premise. Pete confesses his love for Peggy, and Peggy finally reveals that she gave his child up for adoption. Peggy, Weiner notes, has to "step back and think about what love is…and how she wants to live even if it’s her last few minutes."
Finally, Weiner reflects on the Crisis itself.
"I can’t believe it was 50 years ago, because I think we still live in its shadow…I think that the United States had a sense of leadership, and understanding of this enemy [that was] much more comfortable. It’s just hard to believe how different the country is now and it’s a reminder of how vulnerable we always are."