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'Mad Men' recap: The vision thing

Don contemplates the future (literally) in the latest episode of #MadMen

Sometimes “Mad Men” can be so inscrutable it feels like it was written by David Lynch. At other times, Matthew Weiner might as well post its themes on a billboard in Times Square. I probably don’t have to tell you which kind of episode “The Forecast” is.

"Mad Men" has never really been about propulsive narrative, and as such in its home stretch the series has been quietly revisiting major themes rather than setting up a major denouement. “Severance” was about the life not lived, while “New Business” was a contemplative look at the women in Don’s life. “The Forecast” is, in the most literal sense possible, about the future. Presumably because he'll be too busy shopping for swim trunks, Roger asks Don to write a "Gettysburg Address-type speech" about the agency's future that he'll deliver at a McCann retreat in the Bahamas. (Dear Matthew Weiner, Please, please, please let us see this retreat.)

Don spends most of the episode trying and failing to come up with a bold vision for the company, in between procrastinatory trips to the break room for donuts and Clark bars. (Maybe Don is eating his feelings these days instead of just drowning them in booze?) At one point, he scans a stack of magazines with cover stories all about the decade ahead: "Presenting 1970," reads The New Yorker, while an ad inside Look promises "the 1970 VW will stay ugly longer." (Those irreverent Volkswagen ads: Driving Don crazy since 1960.) He's so stumped, he even asks Peggy for his long-lost thesaurus, the sure sign of a desperate writer.

There's a reason Don is so blocked: He keeps looking to the past. Note how he asks Meredith to dig up a copy of the press release announcing the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce from December 1963, which is nearly seven years in the past at this point. Even the magazines he's flipping through are, by now, about 6 months old. 

Just to emphasize how lost Don is, Peggy walks in his office demanding a performance review. When she clearly and unapologetically articulates her professional goals, which include becoming the agency's first female creative director and dreaming up a famous catchphrase, Don fires back with skeptical follow-up questions. Peggy thinks he is doing this to belittle her (she puts it more colorfully), but in fact it seems like he is genuinely curious, perhaps even envious, of her sense of purpose.

For a guy who created his own identity, Don is curiously short-sighted. As he laments to Ted, he hasn't thought much beyond keeping the company afloat year after year. He is so uninspired that he can't be bothered to buy some furniture for his now-empty penthouse, a source of much frustration for his real estate agent. Instead, his solution is to lie about the past, suggesting she concoct a wild story about a Frisbee investor fleeing to a castle in France to avoid taxes. Don is great at painting a picture, but apparently only when it's about the past. As for the future, to borrow a phrase from the world of politics, he lacks "the vision thing." Even Lou Avery, possibly the least visionary employee in the history of Sterling, Cooper & Partners, has a dream of turning his cartoon ("like 'Gomer Pyle,' but he’s a monkey”) into an animated series for Hanna-Barbera.

Not that Don is the only character in "The Forecast" struggling to figure out what lies ahead. Sally is also stumped about how to answer the incessant questions about what she wants to be when she grows up. Her anxiety is also heightened by the discovery that her old friend Glen is going to Vietnam -- this, despite his apparent objection to the war and the recent slaughter at Kent State. His defection is troubling to Sally for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it seems to delight the hawkish Betty.

"Don’t listen to Jane Fonda here," she tells Glen. "It’s a very brave thing to do."

As we all know, Betty hasn't always been so delighted to see Glen; she even relocated to Rye as a way of keeping him away from Sally. Why the change of heart? Clearly, it helps that Glen has morphed seemingly overnight from a moon-faced adolescent into the Marble Faun from "Grey Gardens" and that, now that he's 18, there is legally speaking, nothing wrong with her feelings for him. 

I confess to having some very mixed feelings about Glen's return to "Mad Men." Back in Season 1, Betty's relationship with Glen was fantastically creepy, if also a little bluntly symbolic; did Betty really need to fall in love with an 8-year-old boy for us to understand she was an emotional child? Now, a decade and numerous Glen subplots later, it seems ridiculous to think these two would still be pining for each other, unless they were Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. It comes as a relief when Betty, rightly sensing that Glen is motivated less by romantic yearning than desperation, shoots down his fumbling overtures. Turns out he didn't enlist in the Army to impress her -- he did it because he flunked out of college. Fear of the future can drive you to crazy things.

As they are elsewhere, particularly in Whitney Houston songs, children are the future in "The Forecast." They are literally the next generation, but more abstractly they also represent the potential for correcting mistakes of the past.  Disgusted by how both Don and Betty "ooze" when given inappropriate romantic attention -- in this case from very young admirers -- Sally says her main goal in life is not turning into them. "You are like your mother and me. You’re going to find that out," Don fires back. "You’re a very beautiful girl, and it’s up to you to be more than that.” Translation: Your mother and I have been defined by our good looks, but you don't have to be.

If children represent the promise of the future, they can also be an obstacle to it. Just ask Joan. On a business trip to L.A., she falls for Richard, a handsome older man who puts their romance on hold when he learns during their New York-set second date that she has a 4-year-old son. Joan's future is dictated by her son's needs, while Richard's is wide open. "I have a plan, which is no plans," he says. There's a clear sense that Joan is ambivalent about motherhood, that like virtually every parent the world over, she genuinely loves her child but occasionally longs to escape the endless obligations he requires. She's almost relieved when her call with Kevin gets disconnected, and when she barks "you're ruining my life" at her babysitter, there's no mistaking her real target: the toddler on the floor watching "Sesame Street." Thankfully, Richard comes around and decides Joan is worth the baggage. Now if she can just get Richard to stop dressing like Mr. Furley from "Three's Company," her life will be perfect.

 

Stray thoughts:

-- Joan tells Richard that she's been divorced twice, which means she must have been married before Greg. It's a bombshell revelation disguised as a casual aside, sandwiched in between things we already know about Joan almost as if Weiner wanted us to miss it. I doubt we're going to get a thorough explanation about this information in the four episodes that remain, but oh, how I wish we would.

-- Joan takes off her earring before she picks up the phone to talk to Richard, something she always seems to do before important calls. This is one of those little gestures that makes Joan seem like a flesh-and-blood human; I wonder whether it's in the script or something that Christina Hendricks dreamed up. Either way, it's a wonderful detail.

-- Meredith once again brings the comic relief. "More awards ... international business ... and a space station?" Don: "Gas station."

-- Vulgarity is another theme in this episode. First, Mathis drops a "four-letter word that begins with F," as Pete puts it so delicately, during a pitch. Don acts like Pete is being prissy for being offended by Mathis, but later on scolds him for his "foul mouth." Then Sally lets a bleeped-out F-bomb fly in her fight with Glen. It's yet another sign, as if we needed one, that the '50s are ancient history at this point.

 

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