From the instant Mad Men blinked on in 1963, you knew the entire season was leading toward a certain late November day. Matthew Weiner telegraphs his punches like Henry Cooper in the ring with Cassius Clay. Cue the foreshadowing. We all know where this is going.
Yet, as we read "son of Camelot" headlines one last time this damp August weekend, the promise of the short Kennedy era is entirely lost on the character designed to look like JFK. Don Draper is handsome and tall in his custom suits and skinny ties, but at the core he's a sour and angry man slumping toward middle age in one long and achingly dull existential crisis. Don looks relentlessly backward; his is a life defined by the 40s and 50s, not the 60s. His "struggle" - in between soft-core poses with strategically-placed sheets and women - isn't even brave in any definable way. This isn't exactly Dr. Rieux in Oran we're talking about here. Draper doesn't so much search and question, as demand and whine. He twists "Is that all there is?" into "that's all there should be."
The sunny optimism of JFK's White House (arguably fetishized in memorial by the nation's myth builders) doesn't permeate the dark center hall in Ossining or the offices of Sterling Cooper. This year's British side plot seems more like post-War meat rationing than the earliest psychedelic light from soon-to-be-swinging London. The Brits and their strange American aversion stand in direct contrast to the actual history: in fact, ex-pats coming to New York in the 60s loved American culture, embraced all the change and technology, and reveled in the merging Anglo cultures that transformerized Elvis into the Beatles. Yet, the imported London boss Lane Pryce goes all Bridge on the River Kwai on Sterling Cooper's girls and guys. "Lemme ask you a question, why'd you buy us?" Draper asks. "I don't know," answers Pryce. Heavy man, real heavy.
Meanwhile, the cold gray meaningless center of Mad Men, the blase and boring Draper household, continues to suck the remaining heat from the stylish series that should (and occasionally does) revolve around the action on Madison Avenue. I'd hoped that in this third season, the show-runners would expand on the only interesting characters: Roger, Peggy and Pete. But their screen time remains carefully modulated and hideously cliched. A divorce turns Roger's daughter against him. Ambition proves a tough ride for Pete. And Peggy does the Ugly Duckling, unfortunately not a new dance on American Bandstand from the summer of '63, but the umpteenth librarian takes off her glasses routine. Ho-freaking-hum. These characters - like the decade Weiner sought to explore - once held real promise in the talented hands of the actors, but the writing lets them down hard. The Patty Duke Show sported more dramatic scripts.
So the 60s continues to stall and its lead character remains a statuesque stick in the mud, the antitheses of the soon-to-be-martyred JFK. Why Draper doesn't even understand branding! The young London Fog scion had it right: brands in the 1960s were the new thing, little pieces of lifestyle gold that could be invested in and expanded upon. Draper gives us his he-man "it will always rain routine" and attempts to doom the business to cyclical raincoat sales. And he gets it wrong. His talent as an ad man is for plying clients with alcohol and taking the safest possible creative course.
Don Draper shilled for Nixon in 1960. He will hate the Beatles. He'll despise the Rolling Stones. He'll ignore the Who, and the Velvets and Hendrix. His brush with Dylan was about getting some beat chick action on the side. He still wears a hat at a time when young men went hatless, in favor of the Kennedy style. He is tempted by the freedom of California, but he won't make the leap. And when Kennedy falls to the assassin's bullet later this season, you can be sure Don will be perfectly framed in a cartoonish pose of faux introspection. He'll turn his prop cigarette, finger the cocktail glass, and stare handsomely into the middle distance - a mere model of someone who cares.