Sunday’s Mad Man starts and ends with someone standing outside the door of Don’s apartment, an apartment that has become a heavy-handed metaphor for both Don himself and Sixties culture in general. That apartment was the embodiment of the decade’s dreams just five years ago, with Megan singing Zou Bisou Bisou. It was so glamorous that once Betty got a look at it she had to run home and squirt whipped cream in her mouth.
Here’s the apartment at the peak of its glamour
Now, like much of modernist architecture, it’s decaying – not built to last, with a white rug that shows everything and no furniture to evoke a happy living environment. In her frustration at not being able to sell the place, Don’s realtor Melanie says, “It looks like a sad person lives here – and what happened? He got divorced, spilled wine on the carpet and didn’t care enough to replace it. … These place reeks of failure.”
Engaging in a bit of revisionist history, Don says, “A lot of wonderful things happened here,” although any steady viewer would be hard-pressed to recall anything wonderful about the arguments, cheap sex and embarrassing child-rearing mishaps we’ve witnessed there. Since he can’t be bothered to replace any of the furniture that Megan’s mother stole, he tells Melanie (who looks disturbingly like Betty, by the way) that she should sell the place by telling a story – the kind of thing that he does to sell products. He may believe in his power to cast a spell on a susceptible audience, but she pooh-poohs the idea – people buy real estate with their eyes open, she says.
Yet in the end, the apartment does sell. To a young and very pregnant couple – a couple at the beginning of their lives, with their dreams still in front of them. They probably adored the penthouse view. Or maybe they saw beyond the stained rug and glimpsed a life of possibility. And at the end, Don is left standing in the empty lobby, displaced from his home by a more future-filled family, with no home, no wife, no plan and no ties at all, really. He has all the freedom he could want and the final four episodes of the series will be about what Don does with that freedom.
But what does he actually want to do with that freedom? This was not a very subtle episode. Don’s quest for meaning in a world where all his material wants and needs are satisfied is evoked again and again. The ostensible trigger point for this navel-gazing is that Roger needs to provide his benevolent overlords at McCann with a company update and statement of goals (ugh, how I have hated writing these!) He asks Don to write the “vision” part of the report, something he could normally wrote in his sleep. But he’s got writers block, somehow conflating a banal corporate report about the firm’s goals and objectives with his personal meaning of life.
Roger has asked Don to write a “Gettysburg Address,” by which I suppose he means he wants Don to throw in some eloquent, soaring rhetoric, but if there’s one speech that shouldn’t be used as a model for a corporate vision statement, it’s the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s famous speech is meant to remember and honor the past, with a special emphasis on the honored dead. But the reference to the Gettysburg Address is more appropriate than Roger realizes since much of this new season has been about dealing with the past – everything from dead mistresses, to ex-wives and former clients. You don’t need Dr. Phil to tell you that it would be healthy for Don to confront the past in an honest way and then move on, but not as someone who only likes beginnings, but as someone who can build on a beginning.
And what does Don want out of life? Now that Sterling Cooper has been acquired by McCann, he has serious financial security, but, as he tells Ted, he has “less to actually do and more to think about.” When he quizzes Ted and Peggy on their dreams, they both answer prosaically. Ted’s answer in particular is hilarious in the way it’s shot. You know what I’d love, he says, slowly, thoughtfully dragging it out, so that you expect him to say “write a book” or “spend a year in France learning how to run a winery.” Instead he finally spits out that he dreams of landing a pharmaceutical company (i.e., a really big client.)
Don pushes Peggy a little harder, and we’ve seen Peggy dream of a different life, but her answers aren’t that much better. She wants to be the agency’s first women creative director. She wants to do something “big.” Maybe even come up with a famous catch phrase (imagine the immortality of the creative director who came up with “Where’s the beef?” Truly something for the tombstone!) Finally she says she wants to create something of lasting value, but storms out when Don scoffs, “in advertising?”
In the end, we never see if Don ever did come up with an acceptable vision statement for Sterling Cooper. Instead we get that vision of him standing alone outside his own symbolically-important empty apartment as he heads into yet another phase of life.
The passage of time – including how we deal with the past and future – are central to this episode’s two other storylines, which concern the surprise appearance of two very different men: Glen Bishop and Richard Burghoff.
We haven’t seen Glen Bishop in a few years and when his 18-year-old self shows up at the Francis Mausoleum with long sideburns and chest hair more than one audience member gasped. Glenn is played by Matt Weiner’s son, Marten Holden Weiner, which adds an extra element of weirdness to any scene he’s in because Matt claims not to think of Glen as “creep.” How he cannot see this is beyond me. Ten years ago he was spying on Betty in the toilet and seeking out locks of her hair. And he’s not a very good actor, which lends an air of strange stiltedness to the characterization.
In any event, the last time Betty and Glen conversed, Glen had run away from home (after Glen’s mother had banished them from seeing each other after the lock-of-hair scandal) and hidden in the Draper playhouse. Ten-year-old Glen wanted to take Betty away from all her troubles and “rescue” her. Now that he’s all hirsute and grown up, she doesn’t recognize him at the door, and is taken aback to discover that her daughter has been carrying on with him in secret all these many years.
Betty’s not the only one taken aback. Sally realizes that Glen has a thing for her mother when he wants to have a beer and visit with Betty rather than go to an amusement park with Sally and his girlfriend. And when she finds out that Glen has enlisted (by listening as Glen tells Betty about it) she blows a gasket and runs off.
As if this wasn’t emotionally freighted enough, Glen shows up at the Francises the next day knowing that Sally won’t be there and makes a pass at Betty, something he’s obviously been planning for ten years. Talk about playing the long game! All of Weiner-land held its collective breath at this scene – it would be morally incestuous for Betty to give in, but you can’t be sure what will happen since she’s obviously taking pleasure in being admired by this now-virile young man. Fortunately, she turns him down (letting him down easily by explaining she’s married, instead of the more appropriate “Are you friggin’ kidding me – I’m literally old enough to be your mother.”)
Once his advances are rebuffed Glen, reverts to the little boy and comes clean on why he joined the army. He had justified it to Sally as idealism (i.e., he was bothered that “a bunch of Negro kids [were] dying while we just sat at home getting stoned.”) Then he tells Betty that he wanted her to think it was because he was “brave and wanted to protect this country and everyone in it.” But the truth, as he finally confesses, is that he flunked out of college and rather than face the wrath of his stepfather, enlisted to make him happy. In other words, instead of doing something brave, he’s doing something cowardly (although, to be honest, he probably would have been drafted anyway, so better to take control of the situation.) The moment at the end, where Betty brings his hand to her face is sweet and touching, suggesting that Betty too might be growing an itty-bitty heart after all.
The other man who has dreams and plans is Richard Burghoff, Joan’s new squeeze. Now, with the end of the series bearing down on us, it was always a given that either Peggy or Joan would have their stories wrapped up romantically or face a revolt from series enthusiasts, and it now appears that the lucky girl is Joan. Unfortunately, for my money, this story arc was about as pedestrian as they come. Very little about it was fresh and surprising, from the moment they met cute (he was searching for his eye doctor and was near-sighted not blind, ha ha), to his unhappiness at finding out Joan has a son, to their reconciliation.
The sudden appearance of a rich, handsome, unattached, vigorous Prince Charming veers dangerously close to “Downton Abbey” territory. He’s the kind of suitor that’s always materializing on Mary Crawley’s doorstep. One day this guy is trying to find an optometrist in L.A. and after one roll in the sack, he’s prepared to buy property on the East Side of Manhattan so he can welcome Joan and her whole family into his life. Pretty damn convenient.
This is such an unworthy plotline that I wouldn’t mention it except for one aspect that fits into the overall theme-of-the-week. Richard is initially taken aback by the existence of little Kevin – and why not, since Joan told him she didn’t have any other mouths to feed. He stayed in a loveless marriage for 22 years for the sake of the kids, who are now out of the house: “I have one plan,” he says, “to have no plans.” And the presence of Kevin will require planning if he wants to get Joan to the pyramids. But upon reflection he says the key line: “I don’t want to be rigid. It makes you old.” This is the philosophy of a man who is comfortable in his own skin, open to new experiences and not worried about forecasting, planning, the “vision thing” and the Gettysburg Address. He’s a lot older than Don, but more confident about the future. And he demonstrates that no matter what your age, you can still embark on new adventures. That’s something for Don to reflect on as he’s contemplating the emptiness of his vacant apartment lobby.
Some other thoughts.
— There are no firm signifiers to tie us to a specific date, but this episode clearly occurs in June 1970, at the very beginning of summer. Glen’s just out of college and Sally’s on her way to a 12-day bus tour of 12 states — the kind of tour that takes place as soon as school is out.
— The closing song is Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face,” which was released on her “First Take” album in 1969 and became a major hit single in 1972. A meditation on remembering new love, the song could refer to a number of characters: certainly Glen remembering his first crush on Betty; possibly Don remembering Megan and the new apartment; and maybe even Richard, thinking about his new-found passion for Joan.
— After two grim opening episodes this half-season, “The Forecast” was practically a sitcom. The scene where Johnny Mathis blows up his career by using a Don Draper joke (“I’m surprised you had the balls to show up again after the fools you made of yourself last time”) was jaw-droppingly awful and hilarious. Also pretty funny were the dirty looks between Peggy and Pete as they squabbled in from of Don – like two siblings fighting in front of Dad.
— Of course any scene with Meredith is by definition a comedy gem. I’ve been meaning to mention this all season long, but she is on the verge of usurping Roger as the funniest character on the show – albeit unintentionally. Her combination of ditiziness, assertiveness, cluelessness, and protectiveness is comedy gold. This was an episode where people are constantly bursting into Don’s office, upsetting her vision of a well-ordered executive life. “Stay out of this,” Peggy snaps when Meredith tries to intervene in one such off-schedule meeting. Ha. She’s funny even when she’s being yelled at. And of course her vision of the future (“Did you go to the World’s Fair? That’s what I think it’s going to be like,”) is hilariously off.
— I’m not exactly Tom and Lorenzo when it comes to noticing the thematic implications of the fashion choices, but even I noticed the preponderance of green on a show that heavily featured Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up (gee, who could that be?) The very first shot in the episode is the green-clad boob of Don’s real estate agent, followed by Joan’s green post-coital outfit.
— Speaking of real estate agents, there have been at least three female real estate agents on Mad Men over the years and they’ve all been aggressive and assertive (this includes Pete’s girlfriend agent in California and Peggy’s agent when she wanted to move in with Abe). Selling real estate appears to be one of the few career avenues open to women, but only to a certain kind of woman.
— Speaking of career opportunities for women, consider Joan and Don’s differing responses to their jobs. As discussed, Don is nearly paralyzed with ennui, but Joan tells Richard that she needs to work – not because of financial needs but because she finally has the job she wants. The same is true with Peggy, for that matter. These women need the job to show their self-worth. You have to be at a very rarefied level of accomplishment and privilege like Don to worry about whether your job is providing the emotional benefits you need.
— Two jokes/sarcastic comments that stopped the heart. 1) Sally’s joke to Betty when she warns her about boys on her trip (“I’m sorry Mother, but this conversation is a little late – and so am I.”) and 2) Joan’s assertion to Richard that she’s sending her son away so she can spend all her time with him instead. These are both pretty alarming things to be said out loud even in jest.
— The most heart-breaking line of the show: When Kevin’s babysitter shows up late and Joan snaps at her, “You know what? You’re ruining my life,” a line that is really being spoken to Kevin. “Bye bye Mommy,” he responds and it takes Joan a moment to compose herself before replying in kind.
— Don gets verbally abused in practically every show now and usually he doesn’t really deserve it, although he probably thinks he does. Mathis says that he doesn’t have character, “You’re just handsome. Stop kidding yourself.” Not fair. Don is a creative genius, for better or worse. Then Sally, jealous of the way that Glen and her friend Sarah have come on to her mother and father respectively, says her dream is to be completely different from her parents: “Anyone pays any attention to you – and they always do – and you ooze everywhere.” More to the point, although Don is right that Sally is destined to be like them in some respects: “You’re a very beautiful girl – It’s up to you to be more than that.”
— Don is so checked out from his job that he OKs a terrible tagline for the new Peter Pan cookie: “One Tink and you’re hooked.” That’s probably about the worst tagline that’s ever been presented to a Sterling Cooper client. Of course Don has rejected the first proposal (about loving Tinkerbell cookies) asking, “Jesus, ‘Love’ again?” Pete: “We use it all the time.” An unbelievably blasphemous exchange.
— Well, we got an answer to two questions in the first five minutes of the show: Yes, Sterling Cooper still has a California office, and yes, Lou Avery is still employed, but apparently now exiled in California, where Pete and Ted were just a year earlier. Hilariously, he’s still promoting his cartoon “Scout’s Honor,” described by his loyal secretary as “Like Gomer Pyle, but he’s a monkey.”
— Not answered yet is where is Jim Cutler? He must have resigned after the buy-out but there has been no mention of this.
— Joan’s a liberal, preferring to use open space for low-income housing instead of a golf course. “I root for the underdog,” she explains. Except, of course when that dog is under HER, as numerous Sterling Cooper secretaries will attest.
— Betty’s a Republican. She tells Glen, “Don’t listen to Jane Fonda here” (i.e., Sally) when Sally is aghast at his enlistment. Jane Fonda was not always an exercise mogul and Ted Turner trophy wife. In 1970, she was merely an outspoken opponent of the war. Her treasonous trip to Vietnam, when she happily posed for photos in an antiaircraft gun that was used to shoot down American pilots, didn’t occur until 1972.
— Rye Playland, where Glen wants to take Sally, is a real amusement park with roller coasters and boardwalks in Rye, New York that still exists. I’ve even been there. Built in 1928, it’s a bit cheesy now, and probably was even in 1970, especially if it was a place where you could buy some grass..
— Jiminy Christmas, Pete has delicate ears. He’s furious that the Peter Pan client meeting did not go as smoothly as it should have: “Then Mathis said a four-letter word that starts with F. Have you ever heard such a thing?” No, Pete, I’ve never heard such a thing — because in the very next scene, Sally says that very word after learning that Glen has joined the army, but AMC beeped it out. (True, she uses the adjectival version of the word – “F—ing” – but morally it’s the same thing.)
— Peggy wants a real performance review. This is something that no person in their right mind would welcome and she should be glad that Ted lets her write her own review. You might think she’s one of those serious, diligent employees who uses the performance review to solicit honest criticism so she can improve her work, but I think she really wants to be praised, telling Don, “I’ve had quite a year.”
— A lot of ink has been spilled this year about Don’s unchanging image. In an age where Ted and Roger have grown bushy mustaches and others have tried to look more hip, Don looks the same except for the occasional blue shirt. This is sometimes attributed to Don’s rigidity and dinosaur-like approach to the new era. I tend to think he just has a superior fashion sense; every man from the 70’s who tried to adapt to the latest fashions looks back in horror on those days. Look at Richard’s horrible proto-leisure suits! Some men did manage to look good by staying a little square. Here’s Ronald Reagan in 1970, debating a Berkley radical. Like Don Draper, Reagan never changed his look after the 1950s.
Next Week’s episode is called “Time & Life.” I assume this is a reference to the Time and Life Building on Sixth Avenue, where Sterling Cooper has its offices, although the concepts of “time” and “life” are so broad that it could mean anything.