So what does the tractor scene represent, exactly? What does it mean? Probably only Matthew Weiner can say for sure, but I think it embodies multiple metaphors and foreshadows more than one volatile event of the 1960s.
- The JFK assassination. Think about it. The lurching, slow-moving vehicle. The optimistic young leader, a hybrid of sorts, as victim. Joan's (aka Jackie's) bloody dress. That feeling of horrendous tragedy coming fast and out of nowhere to blow everything apart, despite the slow-motion sensation leading up to it. More on the JFK angle at Pandagon.
- The Vietnam War. The violence of it, the blood that spattered everywhere. The mangled, lost limbs -- Guy's foot, but also Roger's reference to a severed arm. The talk about how getting drafted is no big deal. And, oh yeah, it was 4th of July weekend. British and American mingling together, in an uneasy balance of power where the British had control, yet were handed a defeat with the loss of their promising young leader. All of this recalls the violent history and original meaning of that particular day, the 4th of July. War. More on the Vietnam angle at Slate.
And we can't forget:
- The Civil Rights Movement. Here we have the lawnmower as the symbol of suburbia, a suburbia that was rumbling with discontent in the early 60s, a suburbia formerly somewhat neutralized under an American version of the Pax Romana. The fact that it's a woman on the tractor emphasizes women's close connection to suburbia, although originally there is both a man and a woman on the tractor waving and smiling at the group, almost in a political fashion (back to Kennedy again). The man (Smitty?) is driving and yelling, "I'm going home!" The next time we see the tractor, the original smiling pair is gone, which perhaps represents a white, patriarchal, mechanized society setting a seemingly benign course that ultimately spins out of control. The solitary woman on the tractor could be a nod to the forthcoming feminist movement, which, along with the other Civil Rights movements, aspired to chop up the old order through activism and protests. Or, it could also be viewed as another example of women being scapegoated for the mistakes of others, usually men, i.e., Ken shouldn't have brought the tractor to work in the first place.
One last thing that strikes me about this scene is the deep ignorance of it. No one in the room, with the exception of Ken (who doesn't try very hard to stop it), recognizes the inherent danger of a machine on the loose, not even the drivers. And only Joan has the presence of mind to deal with the aftermath. So if the lawn tractor ultimately represents a juggernaut of radical change, it is one that explodes within a society mostly ignorant of its coming, a society on the very brink of awakening and consciousness-raising.
Watch the scene again. What's your take?