Mad Men: The Forecast Isn't Bright

Don's dreams are turning to dust, but will anyone else find a happy ending?

Justina Mintz/AMC
Every week for the seventh and final season of AMC's hit period-drama Mad Men, Sophie Gilbert, David Sims, and Lenika Cruz will discuss the possible fates facing Don Draper and those in his orbit.

Gilbert: After a terrific season opener followed by a slow and somewhat befuddling episode last week, I’m a little concerned by two things in “The Forecast.” The first is that it was horribly unsubtle. The second is that the show is racing toward a conclusion (only four episodes left) and spending so much time on Don’s perpetual midlife crisis reaching its inevitable nadir that there’s barely time to consider anyone else. What has Roger done these past three episodes beyond test the boundaries of acceptable facial hair? How did Harry Crane take over from Pete Campbell as Mad Men’s most oily character? Who is Johnny Mathis, and why should we suddenly start caring about him now, of all times? What happened to Peggy’s adorable date?
Instead, the episode introduced Melanie, a perky and fearless blonde with a key to Don’s apartment, who, it turned out, was there to help him offload it. (New Yorkers, who among you didn’t shed a tear at the asking price of $85,000?) The only snag in the plan is that the apartment, much like Don, is an empty shell, with stains on the carpet and lawn furniture pointed at the television. “This place reeks of failure,” said Melanie, who apparently has no problems with real talk. “It looks like a sad person lives here, and what happened to him? He got divorced, spilled red wine on the carpet, and didn’t care enough to clean it up.”
The sense of Don falling faster and faster toward rock bottom was emphasized constantly throughout the episode—by his unkempt and hungover state when Melanie told him to wake up and clear out; by his fights with Johnny and Sally, two people who can definitely see past the Draperian facade; and by Don's inability to summon up a vision of the future of SC&P for the annual McCann Erickson retreat in the Bahamas. “You don’t have any character,” said Johnny, bitterly, after his attempt to channel Don’s ability to reframe the truth failed miserably. “You’re just handsome. Stop kidding yourself.” Meanwhile Sally had to remind her father that the girl he was flirting with was 17 years old. “It doesn’t stop you, and it doesn’t stop Mom,” she said. “Anyone pays attention to either of you, and they always do, and you just ooze everywhere.”
We get it: Don’s entire life and career has been based on his ability to project a fantasy, no matter how hollow. Melanie’s inability to sell his sad divorce apartment sparked his interest for a minute (he encouraged her to tell a story about a man who invented the Frisbee, made a million dollars, and moved to a castle in France), but he’s increasingly unable to sell his pitches to others, or even to himself. “You’re so much better at painting a picture,” said Ted, but Don’s draft for his state of the agency speech only reminded him how lost he feels. “We know where we’ve been and where we are,” he said. “Let’s assume that it’s good, that it’s going to be better. It’s supposed to get better.”
Compare him with Joan’s new love interest, Richard, who had a dream, a very specific one, but is starting to get the sense that it, too, might be castles in the air (or pyramids, anyway). Or with Peggy, his mentee, who seems to be suffering from the same kind of career ennui. Here they are talking about her goals:

PEGGY: I’d like to be the first woman creative director at the agency.
DON: But say you get that. What’s next?
PEGGY: I’d like to land something huge.
DON: And then?
PEGGY: Have a big idea. Create a catchphrase.
DON: So you want fame. Yes. What else?
PEGGY: I don’t know. I’d like to create something of lasting value.
DON: In advertising?

It was a fascinating exchange (and probably badly transcribed, apologies), because it gets to the crux of Don’s disillusionment: Advertising is an industry that sells products by tapping into people’s desires and dreams. It promotes unachievable fantasies and materialistic pleasures, but it doesn’t ultimately contribute to making the world a better place. It’s enriched Don and Peggy and Pete and Roger materially, but maybe not spiritually. This being the 70s, maybe Don will discover EST, or Scientology, or Buddhism, and find a new career writing self-help books (jumping conveniently from one cult to another). It’s certainly interesting analyzing his endless seven-season breakdown, but where can it possibly go from here?
David and Lenika, I’ll let you expand upon poor beleaguered Sally and the return of Glen, but I do want to note how Betty seems to have finally grown up, proving that maybe there is promise within every human being. Also: how Joan apparently sleeps with her hair in an undo (time to re-up this amazing piece by Megan Garber on the significance of Joan’s coif).

Sims: Running with your point about this episode’s lack of subtlety, Sophie, Glen’s return just about crossed into the realm of fan service while driving home too obviously several points about his generation’s loss of innocence. Probably the most well-handled was Betty’s rational decision not to kiss him: not something for which she deserves applause, but part of a series of mature decisions she made in an episode where many of the characters seemed to be badly regressing. I don’t know that Betty would have ever indulged Glen’s fantasy—while there’s a certain pleasure viewers derive from her villainy, that would be a crazy decision no matter how emotionally needy she felt—but I appreciated that Matthew Weiner wanted to put a cap on these characters’ enduring fascination with each other.

The tragedy was that it ended in heartbreak for poor Sally, crying on the phone with (one assumes) Glen’s mother as she tried to bid him goodbye after rebuffing him in person because he was making eyes at her mother. I wasn't fond of this episode, but all the Sally material worked great, and in one brief monologue she did a superb job of devastating Don’s self-image, something the rest of this season has wrestled with. The thrust of Mathis’ goodbye speech was a little too on the nose, which is something I’d say for this episode in general, dismissing Don as a Ken doll who's cruised through life much too easily. As much as Mad Men’s audience might want to see Don taken down a peg, they haven’t been watching for seven seasons just because they enjoy the adventures of a handsome but empty suit.

In case the audience didn’t pick up on the symbolism from the close of last week’s episode, Don’s empty apartment is a metaphor for his own emptiness as he approaches middle age. It’s hardly surprising that this final season is focusing on Don’s quest for a new narrative after the loss of Megan and his demotion at the office. But there’s been plenty of material, at this point, regarding his inner sense of loss. Do we really need a real estate agent complaining about how she can’t sell his $85,000 penthouse because he seems like such a sad tenant? As the series finale draws ever closer, a plot like that feels especially wasteful.

Don’s hypocrisy really shone through when he tried to lecture Sally after his somewhat pathetic performance at the Chinese restaurant. Talk about regression—here’s a man who’s struggling to keep his life afloat and is falling for anonymous diner waitresses because they remind him of an old flame. But put him at the table with a bunch of 17-year-olds, and his tarnished charm finally gets a chance to shine again. Sally’s right about him “oozing,” but what she doesn’t realize is that he can’t help himself—she’s 17, so she’s not in the right place to empathize with her father, but this is a man whose real estate agent thinks he’s pathetic.

Then again, I'm also somewhat resistant to efforts to tie things up with a big bow, like the appearance of a potential new partner for Joan, a debonair silver fox played by Bruce Greenwood. Here’s another man-child in an episode filled with talk of Tinkerbell and Peter Pan, of trips to Playland and the World’s Fair. He’s drawn to Joan, of course, and why wouldn’t he be—she’s a beautiful millionaire ad exec making a cross-coast visit to Los Angeles. But when he learned she’s divorced with a kid, that didn’t conform to his vision for himself frolicking around well into his old age. Again, he seemed to make the mature decision—similar to Betty rebuffing Glen—but there was a hint of melancholy there on both their parts.

Back to Glen, then, whose goodbye hustled in a reminder that the Vietnam War is ongoing, and is robbing his generation of the innocence they were promised in the 50s and early 60s. It’s an important reminder, for sure, and we had that episode with Betty’s war objections in a previous season, but why then tie it into some sad final plea of sexual fascination from Glen? Most of his appearances in recent years have tied him to Sally, not her mother, and it uncomfortably brought his character full circle to his first creepy appearance rather than his later, more human arc. It’s hardly surprising that the show is calling back to its earliest days in an effort to tie everything up, but I wish it would happen more gracefully.

Cruz: As you both noted, how apt that a final-season episode titled "The Forecast" riffed on the murkiness of tomorrow! "What do you want to be when you grow up?" seemed like the dominant line of inquiry for Don, who appeared to be out of ideas for his own future. His house no longer belongs to him, Diana has vanished, his clout at work has diminished, and no one feels bad about telling him how much of a loser he is. Meanwhile, Peggy wants to be the first female creative director of the agency, Sally's friends want to be translators and senators, Ted wants to land a pharmaceutical account, and Joan finally has the job she always dreamed of.

It's unclear what kind of an answer Don hoped he'd get from Peggy. Tired of being quietly scoffed at (or maybe she was reading her own insecurities into his responses), she snapped, "This is supposed to be about my job, not about the meaning of life." Everyone else is happy to find fulfillment in their careers, much like Don did for years, but now that it no longer holds the same promise for him, he's back to soul-searching.

While I didn't love the way Glen's side-burned reentry played out (it's easier to tolerate a creepy kid when that kid is 8, not 18), I appreciated the callback to Don's own reasons for joining the Army. In short: as a means of escape and the chance to make something of himself, whatever that might be. And there was a pathetic kind of purity to his entire exchange with Betty. Here's a kid pretending to be bigger and stronger and braver than the confused college dropout afraid to go to war he actually is. In this entire episode we saw adults playing at being children, children playing at being adults. (If viewers didn't catch the whole perversion of childhood theme, the scene of Betty throwing the toy gun into the trash should've clarified things.) In addition, there was Lou slacking off in Los Angeles with his Hanna-Barbera comic, teenagers drinking beers and smoking, and Joan's new beau wanting to run off to Europe just like his kid.

This all reminded me of the two-part, sixth-season premiere, "The Doorway," which featured a subplot between Betty and Sally's Juilliard-bound friend Sandy, who ran away to New York. Admittedly, that was a far more moving and subtly written arc that found Betty chasing down a girl she barely knew and ending up in a freezing, abandoned house for young squatters. Incidentally this was also the episode in which a vacationing Don encountered a young soldier on R&R from his stint in Vietnam, and in which the firm dealt with a mini-crisis after a stand-up comic joked about American soldiers cutting off the ears of Viet Cong soldiers. All of which is to say that the show has looked at lost childhood and war before (with the help of Betty!), but in a much more meditative way and powerful way.

Like you both, I’m concerned about the next four episodes, but I’m also not expecting some kind of path to a cohesive resolution. I’m not even sure at this point that I’m expecting closure from the show. If the title of the next episode “Time & Life” is any indication, then more heavy-handed theme-iness awaits viewers. Mad Men excels when it allows fans to tease out meaning from the slightest of hints, so it’s a bit disappointing to see the show do much of the work for us. But the fact remains that the show has been so good already, and so consistently, that even if the ending doesn’t offer rapturous satisfaction, I’ll be able to live with the dozens of hours I’ve spent watching (and rewatching) this show. I haven’t given up hope yet.