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How Characters on Mad Men Think About the Future

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

You don’t often hear the characters on Mad Men state what day it is unless it’s a holiday. But last night’s “For Immediate Release” made a point of having Peggy directly say the date: May 17. It was a moment that lingered, and one that called back a scene from season three’s “Love Among the Ruins,” when we see Margaret Sterling’s wedding invitation, with the date November 23, 1963, carefully embossed in tasteful script. “I hate change,” Peggy says. “I love Bobby Kennedy,” she says, a moment later. Look around, kiddo: The storm clouds are gathering.

Once we knew that this season of Mad Men was set in 1968, a few events loomed large: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and RFK, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon. Robert Kennedy died June 6, which means Peggy’s about to have the changing-est few weeks of her life, stair-pooping tenant or no. So much about “For Immediate Release” was about how our characters think about the future, whether they’re in control or just along for the ride.

“Nobody knows where they’re headed,” says Ted. “The future is something you haven’t even thought of yet,” pitches Don. Don also insists that he “[doesn’t] believe in fate,” that we make our own opportunities. It sounds beautiful to the two of them, this idea of how the future unfolds, but then, they’re rich, powerful, healthy, white, straight, and male. Ted refuses to go along with his dying co-worker’s wishes, instead insisting that the company stick with Ted’s Chevy strategy and flatly refusing to accept that his colleague’s cancer is terminal. Ted’s version of the future is bright and promising and dreamy. It’s an “adventure.” Don, too, has a rosy notion of what the future holds, because he feels utterly in control of what happens to him — rightly or wrongly. As he sees it, he’s completely made his own way, grabbing for and getting a future that for a young Dick Whitman was probably “impossible to imagine,” a line he uses in his Chevy pitch. But Don’s whole life changed on a moment of coincidence. The actual Don Draper’s death was just a vine that Dick Whitman was able to Tarzan himself to. Don’s the biggest beneficiary of fate on this show, even though he doesn’t see it that way. He’s someone who only likes the beginning of things, remember? If you like beginnings, you’re pretty future-oriented.

For Joan, thinking about the future is substantially less romantic. That’s because Joan hasn’t had a tremendous amount of control over any aspect of her life, and this is just the latest instance of her having to go along with what other people decide. “What now?” she asks Don, barely holding back tears. “Just once, I would like to hear you use the word we. Because we’re all rooting for you from the sidelines,” she spits at him, “hoping that you’ll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.” Joan’s future really is something she can’t even imagine — because it doesn’t matter what she imagines, that’s never what she gets. The future’s not a mystical treat from the universe she’s about to unwrap: It’s a pile of problems she’s going to be forced to solve, by herself, for no credit.

Pete’s thinking about the future, too, but then, he’s scheme-y, so of course he is. “You’re gonna be sorry when this is over,” he tells Trudy. “You’ve given up on me at exactly the wrong time. I have big things coming. You have no idea.” If it’s supposed to sound seductive, it doesn’t; it does sound threatening and menacing. When Pete wants to insult Don, he shouts that Don doesn’t have a plan. Because Pete’s nightmare is not having a plan. He loves plans. He needs plans. Even if his plans tend not to work out. Maybe Ken Cosgrove can convince himself not to worry about the bomb, but Pete can’t operate that way. So when he tries to follow Ken’s advice and assume his father-in-law will stay quiet about their accidental run-in at the prostitute parlor, it blows up in his face. Account, lost. Marriage, lost. Pete, lost.

Which brings us back to Peggy. If she really did want things to stay the same, she’d still be a secretary. What Peggy really hates is a lack of agency, of self-determination. If she wanted to still be working for Don, she would be. Whoops! Sorry, Peggy: Now you have to be. She decided to buy a whole building (what!) in the grimy West 80s because that’s what Abe wanted. Her crush on Ted isn’t just because she thinks he’s “strong,” but because he thinks she’s strong, too. (And there was that time he pretended to be Bobby Kennedy in a prank call to Don in season four’s “Blowing Smoke.”)

Mad Men sometimes winks to the audience a little bit, and last night that wink came in the form of Abe’s off-the-mark guesses about what the immediate future held. The war in Vietnam is in fact not about to end, neither McCarthy nor Kennedy is about to be president. His promise that things were about to get better is well-intentioned, but we know he’s completely wrong. That’s the one part of the future no one really mentioned last night. As it turns out, it’s pretty tough to predict.

How Characters on Mad Men Think About the Future