Mad Men heads into its final stretch seeming not terribly interested in giving the audience what it wants.
This shouldn’t be a huge shock — this is, after all, a show that ended its fourth season by having the hero marry a secretary he barely knew, and that plotline was created by a writer on The Sopranos, which spent a good chunk of its final season detailing the sexual awakening of a minor character. But the reaction in some quarters has still been betrayed and surprised. In a piece titled “On Mad Men and the Waitress,” Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Maerz summed up the feeling that Mad Men was neglecting established characters and noodling around when it should’ve been behaving with a sense of urgency: “This character we’ve just met is taking up precious time that could be devoted to people we’ve spent the past eight years caring about. More of the waitress means less Peggy, less Joan, less Sally. At this point, I’d take more Glen if it meant less Diana.”
Although there was no Diana in this week’s “The Forecast” (maybe we’ve seen the last of her?), we did get a visit from Glen, plus a meaty comic subplot for a minor office character, Mathis, and several scenes involving Joan’s new paramour Richard Burghoff (Thirteen Days star Bruce Greenwood), a wealthy, older retiree who initially balked at Joan’s single-mom status, then apologized and resumed courting her. Meanwhile, Peggy got two good scenes, Pete and Roger one. Early consensus seems to be that this was another wheel-spinning hour from a series that seems blithely unaware that it’s ending very soon. As my friend Alan Sepinwall wrote: “In an earlier year, ‘The Forecast’ would feel like a perfectly acceptable third episode of a Mad Men season. With so little runway left in the season, and series, it almost feels designed to suggest a show that’s as uncertain about its future as Don.”
If the series is uncertain about its future, and tacitly admits as much — and is sort of going on about its business with its hands in its pockets, whistling through the graveyard — I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. In fact, it seems consistent with Mad Men’s honest depiction of people going about their daily business while the known history of the 20th century looms over them and their personal fates lie somewhere off in the distance. As a friend observed, in life, we don’t often know precisely when we’re going to go, so we aren’t able to decide to suddenly quit making new friends or embarking on new relationships or projects for fear that they’ll take time away from whatever we’re already doing. A piece about Richard Linklater by the video essayist Kogonada inadvertently sums up the somewhat prickly MO of Mad Men: The show is “… aware of life’s temporality, of the characters’ temporality, of our own temporality.” Its studied obliviousness in the face of oblivion is consistent with everything it’s done up to now.
Obviously, series creator Matthew Weiner could, if he so chose, eliminate any and all new or new-ish or otherwise minor characters during this final stretch and just focus on the core group. But I’m not convinced he should have to, because what’s been happening in the back half of season seven is (to me) peculiar and original, albeit ostentatiously off-putting. It feels less like an extended climax that’s building to some sort of cathartic release than an extended postscript or summation or gradual ramping-down, rather like the structure of a typical Sopranos or Mad Men season (climax in the penultimate episode, dénouement in the finale) writ large. There’s also something to be said on behalf of a show going out in a manner consistent with what we know about its creative character. Mad Men was always aware of what viewers wanted but always seemed disinclined to satisfy for satisfaction’s sake. And it has always existed in a storytelling space that’s somewhere between the linear-plotted, novelistic serial and a collection of self-contained short stories that happen to involve a lot of the same characters but are mainly interested in exploring a related set of situations, propositions, or themes.
“The Forecast” is a perfect example of the latter. In time-honored Mad Men fashion, every exchange seemed as though it could be as heavily footnoted as “The Waste Land.” At times, the series seemed to be taking inventory before closing up shop. “Do you ever think there’s less to actually do, but more to think about?” asked Don, in one of many lines that felt like Mad Men instinctively guessing what naysayers would say about season seven and inserting it into the script. Then there was Roger’s tasking Don with writing a prognostication of the firm’s future, which prompted Don to interview fellow employees (including Ted and Peggy) and study magazine stories commemorating the arrival of 1970.
Roger used the phrase “science-fiction” to describe what he didn’t necessarily want Don to write, and the Newsweek cover that Don briefly glanced at showed some kind of domed city. Sci-fi fans might have been reminded of the old adage that the reason so many science-fiction films have great windups but disappointing payoffs is because the human mind literally cannot conceive of anything truly new; for that reason, whatever’s on the other side of the galaxy (or inside the Monolith, to invoke one of Mad Men’s favorite touchstones) is more likely be a set of variations on familiar situations or concepts: birth, aging, death, reincarnation, regret over the road not traveled, etc. There were also many scenes that showed characters shading or omitting key facts about themselves, or lying, or endorsing the act of lying, to keep potential happiness on the hook. These felt like microcosmic reflections of the story of Don Draper, whose identity is stolen and embellished and who, until recently, has only seemed interested in the beginnings of things. I love how they end the episode with Roberta Flack singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in that closing dolly-out from Don locked out of his own palatial apartment; it’s a song that can seem nostalgic or regretful depending on whether you read the lyrics as coming from somebody who’s in a happy relationship or thinking about one that ended long ago.
Don, Sally, and Joan’s stories guided us through a maze of symbols and associations and callbacks to previous seasons, but the subsidiary characters (including the soon-to-exit “idiot” Mathis, Don’s blunt real-estate agent, and Joan’s new boyfriend, with his initial revulsion toward dating a single mother) claimed equal or nearly equal time. The script was thick with talk of recent and past mistakes (variants of “failure” appeared in different guises), as well as a by-now-entrenched feeling of ennui-in-comfort (Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” could be the season’s unofficial alternate theme song). When the real-estate agent warned Don that she was having trouble selling a divorced man’s vast, vacant, wine-stained apartment because it pretty much reeked of “failure,” he suggested outright lying about his reasons for leaving (nothing wrong with giving buyers hope, right?) and insisted, “A lot of wonderful things happened here,” without offering specifics. Here, as in other characters’ stories, you got the sense of Don as a permanent work in progress, somebody who’s mellowed a bit (thanks to age as well as trauma) but is still the same as he ever was, and prone to make the same errors again and again.
Some characters doubled-down on their errors and plowed on toward personal oblivion: Mathis used a Don Draper line on a client he’d offended, got kicked off the account, then confronted Don and pushed him into firing him, blasting his boss as a man whose handsomeness hid low or nonexistent character (Mathis wasn’t wrong here, but he was less right than he might’ve been if this conversation had occurred a year or two earlier). Others reconsidered their previously inflexible-seeming positions: Such was the case in the Joan-Richard story line, which seemed to end with Richard adopting an absolutist attitude about Joan’s motherhood and Joan storming out of their hotel room, but circled back around to a mutual apology and an agreement to try again, without preconceived notions this time. (“I don’t want to be rigid, it makes you old.”)
Glen’s impulsive decision to enlist in Vietnam seemed inconsistent with his antiwar posturing in earlier episodes, until we learned it was a Don Draper–ish hail Mary pass meant to distract his parents from his failing out of school, at which point it made horribly perfect sense; he tried to leverage the soldier-boy narrative to bag Sally’s mother Betty, with whom he’s had a yuck-tastic relationship (Remember the lock of hair she gave him back in “Red in the Face”?) and was rebuffed, then invited to try again (Betty touching Glen’s hand to her face).
Sally didn’t witness this incident, thank goodness, but she did see her dad flirt with her pal Sarah over a Chinese dinner before their student bus trip to Washington, which led to a classic (and very uncomfortable) scene at the Port Authority in which the child confronted her father with tragic awareness of his flaws, only be met with a wearily defensive prophecy of what Sally herself will one day discover. “You can’t control yourself,” Sally said of both Betty and Don, two of the most embarrassing parents in TV history, then unleashed the memorably revolting phrase, “you just ooze everywhere,” before announcing her desire to be different from them. “You may not want to hear this,” Don said, “but you are like your mother and me. You’re gonna find that out.”
Then he added, “You’re a beautiful girl, but you can be more than that” — a lovely admonition that echoed his earlier scene with his onetime protégé Peggy, who said she wanted to land a big account, come up with an idea no one has seen before (that science-fiction problem again!), create something “of lasting value” (an impossible goal in advertising, says Don, even though this drama about advertising has done it already), and become the first female creative director at the agency. These are all worthy goals that the stargazing, recovering-fraud Don Draper nevertheless dismisses as not grand enough. To be fair, he was just as bummed by Ted’s recitation of goals, which included landing a pharmaceutical company; and all of his disappointment at other people’s concrete/mundane dreams fed back into that unsettling shot of him dictating ideas on his office couch (as seen from a God’s-eye-view shot, interestingly) and admitting, in essence, that he has no idea what he wants to say, and maybe no ideas left, period. Mad Men doesn’t lack for confidence — at times, it can seem like a pretty arrogant series, really — but in moments like these it reveals a core of humility about the limits of what it can do or say, and the prospect of giving us something in this final stretch that feels revelatory or new. I don’t think it’s going to happen, and the show doesn’t seem to think it’s going to happen, either. And on a series that’s so consistently been obsessed by repetitious, often-self-destructive patterns of behavior, and with disappointment, that seems like a reasonable and honest approach.