'Mad Men': Tim Goodman on the Patterns Getting Clearer as the End Nears

New people are entering the lives of the 'Mad Men' characters, serving as signposts about possible changes — or the lack thereof — ahead.
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This is a Spoiled Bastard deconstruction of Mad Men. It contains spoilers. That's the point. Come back when you've watched the current episode.

 

In "The Forecast," Mad Men revealed a little bit more about how creator Matt Weiner is going to balance the remaining episodes.

Some of it may be in shorthand, some of it may remain enigmatically mysterious and, as it should, some if it will be unknowable.

However, three episodes into this last half (seven episodes) of the seventh season, a pattern is emerging. Weiner is giving us hints about a character and then pulling back.

For example, in a previous episode, when Peggy got set up by Mathis (with his brother-in-law Stevie), she had a great time, got drunk and looked to be heading to Paris with someone who wasn't "just a fling." That was Weiner circling back to the issues that have always been there with Peggy — what it's like when a woman at that time proudly chose career over family. Mad Men doesn't leave anything black or white, so even though it's been thrilling to see Peggy successfully (and sometimes not) climb the corporate ladder, a decision she doesn't regret, there still has to be some reflection on what that means regarding her relationships and happiness. And that's as it should be — even fiercely independent people are still people. To not see Peggy have some doubts, some what-ifs, wouldn't ring true. So we may never see Stevie again. Or we might. But in "The Forecast," we got Peggy once again so desperate to be lauded for her work that she was annoyed with Ted having said she'd have to do her own personal evaluation because he didn't see the need. She's great, she's invaluable, etc. But Peggy needs to hear it. She's always needed validation.

Unfortunately for her, she got mixed into one of the best elements of this episode: Weiner using the cover of business talk to reveal bigger-picture existential elements that primarily shined a light on Don and his continued "Is that all there is?" phase but Weiner also deftly allowed Don, in the first of two such discussions, to poke and prod at this ethereal notion of "What then?" and future happiness. It was brilliantly done in an episode that had plenty of other easier distractions — Glen and Betty! — and was the most thematically resonant set piece of the hour.

"I'm tired of this," Peggy complains when Ted doesn't see the need to evaluate her. "I'd start with that," Don quips. "I've had quite a year," Peggy says, as only Peggy can. Don asks her about the future and what she wants. She wants his job — the first woman to have it. She wants to come up with a catchphrase that everybody remembers. "So you want to be famous?" Don asks, and Peggy agrees. What then? What else? It's Don projecting, of course, but that's fine because that philosophical construct is what guides the examination of Don's life and thus Mad Men itself.

"This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life," Peggy says, with annoyance. Don: "So you think those things are unrelated?"

Peggy, not in the mood for philosophy, says maybe Don should state what he wants so she can shit all over it.

As for the patterns, Stevie and Diana, the mysterious diner waitress who got involved with Don, correlate with how, in this episode, Joan met someone who might just be a good fit: a man of wealth named Richard, who has flipped for her enough to move from Los Angeles to New York if need be. After nearly blowing it over Joan having a 4-year-old son — he's already raised his kids and wants to be free to go see the pyramids, etc. — he is willing to have not only Joan's son but her mother in the equation. (All of that and I'm still wondering if Joan's willingness to dump her kid was sarcasm or not, because it sure didn't seem like it.)

This conceit of bringing in new players who accentuate the worries and desires and life plans of the main characters is an effective way to deal with a lot of baggage with very little time to do it.

But this is also a pattern that has some drawbacks, since it looks like Weiner is at least willing to address loose ends that some might argue didn't need the screen time. We found out that awful Lou Avery is working in the Los Angeles branch (still trying to sell his war comic), and this episode's creeptastic moment was the return of Glen (played by Weiner's son, Marten Holden Weiner) and his still simmering love/lust for Betty (see what happens when you give a grammar school kid a lock of your hair?).

I'm not sold that Glen was necessary, but it was worth it to see Sally's side-eye about her mom and Glen (repeated when she thought Don was coming on to her 17-year-old friend). Both situations were defused by Betty and Don, but the overall impression was that Betty was more rattled by her encounter, while Don had no deviant attraction to the girl.

There was a nice callback moment to Weiner's idea of dreaming about what you want to be or want to do and then remembering it, because life is going to batter you back and forth so often you'll forget what you hoped for when you were once idealistic. He tells Sally to write hers down (because clearly he never did — the idea of what would make him happy, what he would want in the future eludes him).

Those scenes — Glen with Betty and Sally's teenage friend flirting with her dad — were the basis for Sally's disdain for her parents: "Anyone pays attention to either of you — and they always do — you just ooze everywhere." It set up a patented Sally snap moment: "You know what I'm going to write down for my dream? I want to get on a bus and get away from you and Mom and hopefully be a different person than you two."

But even though the brusque nature of it annoyed Don, he did leave her with a teachable moment, saying, "We're a part of you, and you're a beautiful girl. It's up to you to do something greater with it."

It might take all seven of these final episodes to judge whether this pattern is effective (or even holds). Will we see Diana, Stevie or Richard again? Will it matter?

And while Lou and Glen were surprise callbacks, I much preferred in this episode how Weiner used the conceit of Roger needing to write a state-of-the-agency summation for a McCann-Erickson retreat to the Bahamas — which means either Roger's going to die before he goes or the show will end before he has to leave on that trip. Having Don articulate the future (and Ted too) was particularly effective.

"You're so much better at painting a picture," Ted tells Don. And that's true, right? Don's the master of selling something ethereal. Being able to touch it and live in it? A whole other story.

"What's the future going to bring?" asks Don. "I mean, it's good as it is, but is there a scenario in which it can be better?"

Can we put that on Don's tombstone? Because that's how he's lived his life with his wants and desires. And yet, here he is, still wondering, not achieving or appreciating.

Before the merger made them rich and complacent, Don says, "All I ever thought about was will we be in business next year?"

"Or will I be here at all?" Ted says and then pauses. "Now it could be anything."

Later, Don muses about the future into a Dictaphone: "Let's assume that it's good. But it's going to get better. It's supposed to get better."

Someone put that Peggy Lee album on.

The last big thematic element of "The Forecast" was partly ominous, partly optimistic (well, some people might read it that way) was the effort to sell Don's apartment. "It looks like a sad person lives here," said his annoying agent. "This place reeks of failure."

"A lot of wonderful things happened here," Don counters.

"Well, you wouldn't know it," she responds.

Undaunted, Don seems upbeat about the sale or, more likely, about the future: "I have a good feeling about things."

We're in a place in the Mad Men evolution where Don is voicing his existential issues and concerns. He's openly questioning the future, but he's very optimistic about it. Even with Diana, he was the one prepared to do the saving, not the one who needed to be saved. When he talked with Ted and with Peggy about the future, it was with a sense that this job and this life it gave him weren't enough — that something bigger and better is out there, and damn if he doesn't look like he wants to experience it. It's the most upbeat Don has been in a while.

I like that forecast. I'm not sure I believe it won't rain.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

 

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