“I just root for the underdog”: Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 10 – The Forecast: Nostalgia, Generations and the Future

Mad Men cover

by Linda Beail and Lilly Goren

Last night’s episode was a fascinating and perhaps hopeful narrative – even with Glen Bishop shipping off to war. The episode focused on imagining one’s future, and high-lighted conflicts among and between generations. Don is Sally’s father, but he is also acting as the parent mediating between Pete and Peggy as they continue to clash over the Peter Pan/Tinkerbell account. Betty is operating as Sally’s mother, instructing her about the trip that Sally is about to take through the United States. But the tables turn, as Sally is critiquing both Don and Betty for their egoism and self-centeredness. Betty and Sally clash over the Vietnam War—another generational conflict, even if it is a predictable one. Glen Bishop is trying to move into Betty’s generation—he always has, and joining the Army is how he is going to do this in 1970. Supporting the war and choosing to enlist is entre he sees into Betty’s realm. Glen wants to be the kind of hero who went to World War II—protecting the country, being brave. Glen’s step-dad is so proud of his stepson’s choice to join up. But Glen’s decision turns out not simply to be about becoming the man he thinks Betty knows he can be; he has flunked out of college, and enlists before he can be drafted.  He is out of options, and is trying to make the best of a desperate situation.  Even his pass at Betty “was going to be the good thing that came out of all this.”  The forecast for his future in heading to Vietnam in 1970 may be grim, but with his own dreams shattered he attempts to at least grasp at the daydream of Betty, or some moral (not just sitting home getting stoned) or patriotic rationale for what his wartime experience might mean, before he ships out.

The younger generation keeps putting the older generation in an uncomfortable situation—from Sally’s friend Sarah who keeps flirting with Don, to Glen’s pass at Betty, to the reality of Joan’s motherhood that Richard initially can’t accept. Joan’s articulation and performance of feminism, only at that moment becoming a real option for women like her (and Peggy), is encapsulated in her explanation to Richard that she works not because she has mouths to feed (though she actually does), but because “I just finally got the job I always wanted.”  This trajectory of increased possibilities is highlighted and reemphasized by Don’s questioning of Peggy, and then of Sally and her friends, about what they want to do in the future. These queries get real answers of the kind that were only starting to be normalized—even Don’s admonition to Sally that she has a pretty face, but that she should be more than that is a breaking from the past, indicating that she should choose options beyond what her mother chose to do (as even Betty is now opting for a possible career with her return to graduate school).

The “forecast” of the episode’s title is perhaps most straightforwardly the “nice Gettysburg Address type speech” that Roger asks Don to write about the future of the agency for a McCann executive retreat.  Don spends much of the episode thinking about how to imagine the agency’s future, and asking colleagues like Ted and Peggy for their ideas.  When they both give him answers about landing bigger accounts or becoming famous for coining a catchphrase, he presses them further.  Peggy responds that she’d like to create something of lasting value, Don laughs bemusedly, “In advertising?”  Peggy responds that this conversation is supposed to be about her job, not the meaning of life, and Don queries, “So you think those things are unrelated?”  His question indicates how much purpose is bound up in work for these characters – what else is there? – and perhaps both his hope and his cynicism that anything of lasting value can be created.

Don is also moving toward a different future by selling the penthouse apartment he shared with Megan during their marriage.  His real estate agent, Melanie, bears a striking resemblance to his first wife, Betty.  Her voice, as she snaps at a still-sleeping Don to wake up and get out before potential buyers arrive and nags him about replacing his stained carpet, sounds very much like Betty’s pitch and inflection.  Her short blond hair is teased and flipped up on the ends in the same hairdo that we see on Betty throughout the episode, and their style of dress is similar.  Most tellingly, two of the shots of the opening conversation between Don and Melanie are created by not showing her directly, but as reflected in a mirror as she speaks to Don; she is a reflection of his first wife, and from the distance the mirror creates, posed with her hand on her hip as Betty often does, the call back is unmistakable.  After two episodes of the dark-haired Diana reminding us of Don’s relationships with Megan, Midge Daniels, Rachel Menken, Sylvia Rosen, and even perhaps the young whore from his childhood, now we have the circling back to his marriage to Betty.  Is there any possibility of a new forecast for Don’s relationships?  Or is he destined to keep looping back around through his past?  One not-so-hopeful indication is Don’s response to the tag line for Tinkerbell Cookies:  “Love again?”  He dismisses it as a concept with little value:  “Kids won’t get it and adults won’t hear it.”  How true, in this show, that children do not understand or receive the love they so desperately want, and that adults can’t sense or accept it when it might be offered, as they are so often isolated or at cross purposes.

The apartment itself “reeks of failure,” its emptiness an indication that a sad, lonely person lives there.  Don tells Melanie not to blame him if she can’t sell it.  Its emptiness is just an opportunity for imagination.  In true Don Draper fashion, he tells her to make up a good story for potential buyers, with “a little glamour, a little hope.”  She quashes his vision – of both the apartment, and of himself – by saying she isn’t a magician.  People are looking with eyes wide open at a place, and a man, who “got divorced, spilled wine on the carpet and didn’t care enough to replace it.  Even for himself.”  This view of Don, so different than the version of the story he tells himself, is reiterated at work in his conversation with Mathis, who has insulted a client and gotten kicked off the account.  After taking Don’s advice to brazen it out with humor and charm, rather than apologizing, he is fired.  Don tells him he should take responsibility for his failure and that he has no character, but Mathis stuns him into speechless reflection when he accuses Don of being the one with no character.  “You’re just handsome.  Stop kidding yourself.”  Whether from his real estate agent, his employee, or his daughter who accuses him of oozing all over everyone whenever someone pays him the slightest attention, even if it’s one of her underage friends, Don keeps getting shown a picture of himself that isn’t flattering.  The prognostication is grim.

The episode puts Joan in some parallel comparison with Don, as she heads off to California and mistakes a stranger for a potential employee while interviewing candidates for the L.A. office. But the man, Richard Burghoff, is intrigued by Joan and charms her into going to dinner and then to bed with him.  Joan treats the encounter like a one-night stand—again, in parallel to Don—but Richard shows up in New York and wants to see her again.  It’s lovely to see Joan falling for someone who seems to truly appreciate her.  However, Richard is a newly divorced and recently retired real estate developer who is relishing being “free as a bird” to do things he put off earlier in life.  When Joan tells him she has a four-year-old son, he reacts angrily:  “This is not how I saw things.  I have a plan, which is no plans!”  His forecast for his future is one without those kinds of responsibilities.  Joan, too, is struggling with the weight of balancing her career, her romance, and her mothering.  When her babysitter arrives late the next morning, Joan yells, “You’re ruining my life!”  Though she seems to be screaming at the babysitter, she’s looking right at Kevin in the nanny’s arms.  Given that Richard has broken it off with her because of her son, her resentment and confusion seem to be actually directed at her little boy.  But Joan and Richard’s story seems to end on a hopeful note:

Richard shows up at her office with flowers to apologize and ask to try again, in an interesting reflection of both Bob Benson’s proposal to her and her opening up of Kevin’s life to Roger Sterling when Roger comes to Thanksgiving dinner.  Richard admits he wants to be part of both her life and her son’s, despite how it might be different than the relationship he anticipated:  “I don’t want to be rigid.  It makes you old.”  Open to flexibility, change, and unexpected opportunities, Richard breaks free of his previous demands and assumptions.  The shot of the two of them agreeing to continue their relationship (without Joan being forced to choose between her son and her lover) shows them both in the same frame, neither in the foreground or background but from the side, smiling straight into one another’s eyes: symbolically equal partners.

Unlike last week, when Don was adrift in the midst of his empty apartment, this week’s episode closes with him outside his penthouse apartment, looking again towards the future, and searching again for a new home. Dick Whitman was taken from his home on the night of his birth, and Don has never seemed to feel grounded, to be at home, yet he has often been looking for that place. He should listen to Peggy’s selling of Burger Chef, and see just whom his family is, even if it is unconventional and not stationed within a structure known as a home.  This shot of Don framed by his closed apartment doorway can been seen in contrast to the open door final frame from season 4, episode 7, The Suitcase, when Don/Dick also had to start anew without what he had before, without Anna Draper, since she had died in the course of the episode. He was then burdened with his excessive drinking, and his unmarried life, and his struggle to create his own future. He spends the entire episode here trying to create the idea for the future of the agency but also thinking about his own future. He has no love interest at the moment, he will need to find a new abode and since he has no furniture, he will again have to recreate his home. Each of the three “end of an era” episodes this spring have ended with shots of Don alone – in the diner, in his empty living room, and now moved out into the hallway of his former home, with the door firmly closed in his face as new owners sign the paperwork.

In yet another call back to episodes early in the series,

this episode has Don lying on his office couch, speaking into Dictaphone.  The scene is filmed from the ceiling, directly above him, so he looks almost like he is floating as he intones the opening of the Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago. We know where we’ve been, we know where we are.  Let’s assume that it’s good.  (Sighs) But it’s got to get better.  It’s supposed to get better.”  His musing echoes his earlier conversation with Ted when he asks, “What’s the future going to bring?  It’s good as it is, but is there a scenario in which it’s better?”  These queries pull us back to American political history.  The Gettysburg address is acknowledged to be a rhetorical refounding of the country by Lincoln, at a time of great division.  Certainly the narrative about Glen Bishop moving from opposition to the Vietnam War to participating in it echoes the divisions of the Civil War – a country divided against itself in so many ways, in the 1860s and 1960s.  The Gettysburg Address also makes redemptive meaning out of the past and its violence, and sets the country on a path toward hopeful progress and reconciliation, though the promises of Gettysburg may be seen as unfulfilled by the following century of continued racial violence, injustice and exclusion and regional factionalism.  Don “assumes” that where the agency (and the country) have been is good—and his own “rags to riches” embodiment of that assumption is pointedly articulated at dinner with Sally and her friends.  After all, Mad Men has been about the rise of America as a superpower, the peace and consumer prosperity of the post-WWII world as it moves into the 1960s.  Yet the show has also shown us the cracks, fissures and unfulfilled people and promises of that era, with Sally’s and Mathis’ critiques of Don highlighting his failings, the attractive surface that covers over many faults.  So perhaps we cannot rely on knowledge that the past and present are “good,” even if we assume it, just as we may think about the political dilemmas of our own time with ambivalence.  Insisting “it’s got to get better.  It’s supposed to get better,” Don echoes our own classically liberal insistence on progress and faith in the future.  But if this show has communicated anything, it is that our own nostalgia or even perception of the past may be flawed, and that the future is not disconnected from our past identities and actions.  The future may be better, as it perhaps will be for Joan and Richard, or for Sally, or even (we may hope) for Vietnam-bound Glen to come back safely.  But the future is fragile, and precarious, and can often reflect back to us our past, or be hindered by our inability to imagine anything greater than bigger accounts or a new slogan.

–Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.

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