All creativity starts with a blank page full of possibilities. Advertising is no exception, but it’s distinct from art in that its purpose is to occupy the empty space between content and more content. It’s not surprising that advertising appeals to someone like Don Draper, a man whose adult life has been one long improvisation, a glossy veneer cloaking an abyss of disappointment. In the latest episode of Mad Men, “The Forecast,” the pervasive motif of blank space drives the point home.
It starts with Don’s huge, empty penthouse, which he hasn’t bothered to redecorate since Megan’s mother moved all the furniture out. The exchange between Don and his real-estate agent Melanie is particularly telling, because he can’t understand how filling the space with things, even if they’re frivolous, helps prospective buyers project a life for themselves.
Melanie: Couldn’t you rent a couple of pieces? It’s so lonely.
Don: This is better. They can imagine their own things in it.
Melanie: Have you ever sold an apartment?
Don: I’ve sold a lot of bigger things than this.
When he returns home to find that Melanie hasn’t sold the place, she tells him, “They loved the lobby, but the emptiness is the problem…this requires too much imagination.” He doesn’t see how that could be a limitation: “That’s the best opportunity in the world!” Don concocts a whole fairy tale for Melanie to tell visitors, but he doesn’t get that because his penthouse looks so glaringly uninhabited, it also feels uninhabitable.
There are other empty visual cues in the episode. The uncluttered California office where, it seems, only two people work. Don can’t grapple with the space Roger asks him to fill: a 2,500-word speech about the future. For someone who loves a clean slate, Don struggles with this task like it’s utterly unimaginable. Bringing Ted a doughnut (a pastry with a hole in it), Don tries to pick his colleague’s brain to help him fill the blank pages. Turns out Ted was asked to write Roger’s speech first, but passed the buck to Don, telling him, “You’re so much better at painting a picture.” And he’s right. Ted actually has desires to fulfill — he’d love to score an oil company, Goodyear Tires, or a pharmaceutical — but none of these tangible goals are the stuff of dreams.
When Peggy asks Don to evaluate her performance, a process that involves filling in the blanks on a form, he instead prompts her to envision the future for him. Like Ted, she has a plan: becoming the first woman creative director at the agency, coining a catchphrase. For her, that’s as good as it gets, but Don presses her: “What else?”
Don takes Sally and her friends out to a Chinese restaurant. Each dinner guest has an empty plate in front of her, and the banter revolves around what each girl wants to do when she grows up. Interestingly, Sally is the only one who won’t answer the question.
Don comes home to his penthouse with nothing in it, just as Melanie’s miraculously sold the apartment. “Now we just have to find a place for you,” she says. He stands agape in the hallway; Don hadn’t thought that far ahead.
People keep asking who Don Draper is. But I’d much rather know what Don Draper wants, and whether or not a hollow man can want things.