Transcendent Tragedy: Prestige Television and the Anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination
|Download PDF version|
After more than fifty years, John F. Kennedy’s assassination continues to impact television programming. In its time, the devastating campaign stop in Dallas, Texas, forever changed Americans’ relationship with televised news. Since then, countless small-screen dramatizations, documentaries, and films have featured the event. Most notably, prestige television shows set in the 1960s typically exhibit the president’s untimely death in emotionally charged, standalone episodes. This essay will briefly examine two—Mad Men’s “The Grown-Ups” and The Queen’s “Dear Mrs. Kennedy”—to demonstrate how a real-life tragedy inspires screenwriters to build fictional narratives upon its thematic foundations. Ultimately, the assassination was, and still is, a dramatic focal point for American audiences. It allows creators and consumers to simultaneously investigate a searing historical moment and their own ideas and emotions. As scholars have shown, Kennedy’s assassination—like all events in history—is not fixed and unchanging (Bruzzi 2018, 237; Cimpean 2014, 110). Americans’ imaginations continue to use, shape, and transform the tragedy at Dealey Plaza.
On November 22, 1963, John and Jacqueline Kennedy waved at throngs of supporters from a black, open-top limousine. As the custom Lincoln Continental and its accompanying motorcade rode past the Texas School Book Depository, gunfire split the autumn air and shattered a nation. The president intended the visit to jumpstart his reelection campaign, unify the Democratic Party, and fundraise. He left, prematurely, in a casket on Air Force One, arriving to a sea of television cameras at Andrews Air Force Base five hours after his death.
For four straight days, networks broadcast nonstop updates on the shooting (Zelizer 1992, 49). Though viewers did not witness the president’s assassination itself, they consumed footage of Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest and murder, impromptu memorials, and, eventually, Kennedy’s funeral. For the first time in history, audiences in the United States (and, in some cases, around the world) stared at their screens for more than a fifteen-minute news segment. The national catastrophe revealed new possibilities for extensive, in-depth broadcasting. Unimaginable and unforgettable, the assassination also scarred Americans’ psyches.
Screenwriters for AMC’s Mad Men (2007–2015) captured the nation’s lasting trauma in the show’s thirty-eighth episode, “The Grown-Ups.” In its opening scenes, a fraught cast of characters shiver in the offices of Sterling Cooper advertising agency. The building’s heat is out on an otherwise unremarkable day. Promotions are made, bad news delivered, instant coffee drunk, and gossip shared. Through a series of quick check-ins, major characters navigate their respective story arcs. Following a gutting demotion, Pete Campbell questions his future at the agency. Roger Sterling’s daughter, Margaret, scolds her father for inviting his new wife, Jane, to her upcoming wedding. Don Draper, the show’s brilliant but adulterous protagonist, bemoans office budget cuts while managing a new baby and a failing marriage at home. The less-than-idyllic humdrum is suddenly interrupted by panicked television reports and ringing telephones. The President has been shot.
The episode’s titular grown-ups react to the assassination with disbelief and existential frustration. “I don’t understand this,” Pete exclaims to his wife. “Here we are, Lyndon Johnson, more of the same. Nobody voted for him. I felt for a second like everything was about to change.” At Margaret’s wedding, empty seats pockmark a sparse room of guests. Don dances with his wife, Betty, who is disenchanted with her unfaithful husband. The disrupting assassination poignantly reveals Betty’s unhappiness to herself. She begins an affair two days later. For each character, the president’s death represents an untimely end to their own dreams: the perfect marriage, a new promotion, a flawless wedding. Yet, those same dreams had already been snuffed out by successive, personal failures. As a candidate and statesman, Kennedy actively cultivated a youthful optimism that simultaneously inspired his supporters and cloaked his own flaws. Throughout Mad Men’s seven seasons, Pete, Don, and their peers progressively learn the futility of such disguises in everyday life. Despite the myths we construct about ourselves, disappointments and failures cannot be masked. With the dull glow of millions of television screens, Kennedy’s assassination merely exposed the shadows that grown-ups repeatedly ignore.
In “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” Netflix’s The Crown (2016–) also tackles 1963’s most iconic tragedy. The episode begins with an anxious Queen Elizabeth II navigating twin crises. The first is Britain’s wanning influence abroad. Following Ghana’s formal independence in 1957, President Kwame Nkrumah forged new relationships with Soviet leaders. The potential alliance threatened to shut Britain and its ally, the United States, out of Cold War Africa. The second is Elizabeth’s middling age—a personal sunset that, in the mind of the on-screen monarch, mirrored her empire’s gradual collapse. Meanwhile, the Kennedys embark on a mini world tour, attracting widespread fanfare and excitement with their visit to Europe. Elizabeth covets Jackie’s youthful beauty (despite their shared age) and the First Lady’s global appeal. The Kennedys are, as Prince Philip reminds his wife, effectively American royalty, and Europeans, much like the American public, assume their marriage is as pretty as the pictures. Elizabeth falls prey to the Kennedys’ illusion until a series of events, including the assassination, smashes her own insecurity.
In two private meetings between the queen and First Lady, Elizabeth learns that Jackie copes with hidden demons under a blistering public spotlight. Jackie’s regaled wit and humor (sometimes at the queen’s expense) barricade her, if imperfectly, from painful realities—most notably John’s unfaithfulness. By the episode’s end, Elizabeth triumphs on a diplomatic mission to Ghana and Jackie’s husband is assassinated. After watching the latter on television wearing a blood-stained dress merely hours after the events at Dealey Plaza, the former writes a letter to her American counterpart and orders the bells of Westminster Abbey to ring in recognition of the late president. The conclusion is solemn, but reflective, as Elizabeth—unlike Mad Men’s ensemble—relativizes her own disappointments. “That’s the thing about unhappiness,” she explains to the Queen Mother. “All it takes is something worse to come along and you realize it was actually happiness after all.” The monarch discovers her worth beneath the rubble of self-doubt and an adversary’s misfortune. Televised reports of Jackie Kennedy’s nightmare electrified Elizabeth’s perspective.
Viewers of both episodes can empathize with the characters’ disparate reactions to Kennedy’s assassination. The uncertainty, frustration, and fear they felt transcend 1963. On that sunny November day, promise and tragedy collided on the world’s television screens. Unbeknownst to those who watched Walter Cronkite’s newscasts, or Mad Men and The Crown decades later, the two did so every day in small, unremarkable ways. What makes monumental events in modern history different is that everyone simply notices, all at once. Technology fuses our pain together, whether it be with copper television wires or ethereal wifi signals.
Bruzzi, Stella. 2018. “Approximation, Mad Men and the Death of JFK.” Foundations of Science 23: 237-244.
Cimpean, Raluca Lucia. 2015. The JFK Image: Profiles in Docudrama. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Daldry, Stephen, dir. 2017. The Crown. Season 2, episode 8, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy.” Aired December 8, 2017, on Netflix.
Zelizer, Barbie. 1992. Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schroeder, Barbet, dir. 2009. Mad Men. Season 3, episode 12, “The Grown-Ups.” Aired November 1, 2009, on AMC.
SUGGESTED CITATION: Sease, Kasey. 2020. “Transcendent Tragedy: Prestige Television and the Anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published November 22.