Politics

On eve of Cuban Missile Crisis anniversary, Mad Men creator reflects on incident's influence

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January Jones plays the role of Betty Draper in the Mad Men season two finale, "Meditations in an Emergency." (Photo courtesy of AMC.)

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis — the moment, some say, when the world came closest to nuclear war.

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The 1960s, from the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the Beatles performing at Shea Stadium, are the backdrop for Matthew Weiner's AMC series Mad Men. Weiner used the missile crisis as the backdrop to a pivotal scene in Mad Men's second season finale.

"One of the theses of the show is that whatever’s going on in your life is still more important than history," Weiner said.

"Meditations in an Emergency" 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 — and Pete takes a side. He tells Don, "You know they stopped a ship this morning. I bet the Russians are reconsidering, now that we made a stand."

It's a metaphor for how Pete wants Don to approach the merger.

"You're going to be in a stand-off, but you should hold your ground," Weiner said. "That to me ... that is the Cold War."

Weiner uses the real-world events of the Cuban Missile Crisis to examine his characters' lives. As characters panic, deathbed confessions start to take place, Weiner explained. 

"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 said. "Betty Draper ... has to face the fact that she’s pregnant with a baby that she doesn’t want, and there are no rules."

Weiner said Draper's behavior when she meets a strange, was actually brave in a way.

"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," Weiner said "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."

"I can’t believe it was 50 years ago, because I think we still live in its shadow," he recalled. "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."