“Mad Men” has always been marinated in the past—the raw wounds of nostalgia, betrayal and the cumulative lives of each character living ghostlike alongside the present. So, it’s no surprise that it’s main character, Don Draper, has such difficulty finding something to say about the future.
That’s what he’s tasked with doing by Roger Sterling, one character who lives totally in the present and who is being asked to address the future at a McCann Erickson management meeting in the Bahamas. Don spends most of the episode trying to borrow future visions from his coworkers and ultimately his sardonic daughter, Sally. When asked what she wants to do in the future, she demonstrates that she’s a Draper by answering “to have dinner”. Of course that rejoinder happens after she has been sitting for too long at a restaurant, while having to watch one of her teenage friends flirt with her father. Don’s response to the youngster is just ambiguous enough to recall for the troubled younger Draper her father’s flagrant indiscretions.
In fact, the future is such a conundrum for both Don and Betty Draper, because the past is always staring them in the face. In Betty’s case, it’s in the form of the lean, mean (and still strangely creepy) Glen Bishop (Marten Weiner, still in need of acting lessons), who saunters back into her life only to announce that he’s joining the army. The furious Sally (the remarkable Kiernan Shipka), considering his decision a betrayal, storms away from him as she contemplates the termination of perhaps the most durable relationship of her young life.
January Jones as Betty may do her best work in this episode, as her moments alone with Glen betray a jumble of emotions, as she copes with her own sadness and sense of foreboding for the young man (not to mention a moment of terror as she contemplates the possibility that he enlisted as a means of impressing her). At the same time, she evinces a vague attraction to him that is certainly a shade more than maternal. When she raises Glen’s hand to her cheek prior to his leaving for the last time, you literally don’t know what she’s contemplating or where the scene is leading. It’s a tender, nuanced and a bit cringe-inducing moment from a main character that has been pushed largely to the side, and it demonstrates that while Don and Betty’s relationship is long over, they still have more in common than meets the eye.
Most of the rest of the episode involves Don taking abuse from all quarters, as this entire semi-season could be rebranded “Piling On…with Don Draper.” He turns Peggy’s request for a performance evaluation (one that Ted can’t bring himself to give) into an annoying, bantering duel about what she wants out of life. When Don challenges her aspirations, she storms out, telling him that she’s hoping to be in a position one day to “s-t on all of your dreams” (the irony here is that he has none). Don’s moral authority has eroded to such an extreme degree that he’s even taking abuse from the young copywriter who is arguably the most obnoxious character in the show’s entire run. That scene is a foreshadowing of the later encounter between Don and Sally, when Sally expresses her justifiable contempt for both of her parents, and Don’s only rejoinder is to remind her that he’s her father (and that she’s more like him than she’s willing to admit). Cold comfort for Sally, who has seen enough strange parental behavior in her short time on earth to merit a do-over.
Even Don’s realtor gets in on the act, telling him what a challenge she’s going to have in trying to sell his apartment, given the palpable aura of sadness and failure in each room. When someone can walk into the Draper abode and actually feel the bad vibration of a failed relationship, you know the owner is headed for trouble (and perhaps a low-ball offer). And that’s the problem with Don’s contemplation of the future—he has to live off the visions of others, because for him, the future is just more of the same.
At the end of the last show, he’s faced with the desolation of a cleaned-out home. In this one, he’s literally locked out of that home and his past life by the realtor, who against all odds has found a buyer. He’s again on the outside looking around, trying to figure out his next move, with no place to go, and no one left to talk to about what the future holds. It’s a haunting scene. You kind of expect at the end of the next episode he’ll be out on the street, looking up at the building. And, then ultimately, out of the frame altogether.
One person with potentially a more hopeful future is Joan, who finds more than she bargained for during a business trip to Los Angeles, where we are a bit surprised to find that our favorite cartoon strip creator, Lou Avery, still has a job. Joan finds perhaps the one person in the entire cast who has a firm idea of what he wants out of the future—a West Coast real estate mogul (played by the durable Bruce Greenwood) with a penchant for bad looking leisure suits (was there any other kind?) who envisions a life of travel and recreation and is looking for someone who shares his vision. When Joanie admits she’s got a son, it’s too much to absorb and he drives her away from him. By the end of the episode, he’s reconsidering, and we’re left to wonder whether he’ll stay or Joan will chase him away. The answer to that, of course, is in the future.
Submitted by Harlan R. Teller
Editor’s Note: The most disappointing and underwritten role of this truncated season is that of Ted Chaough, who has come back from the West Coast essentially a shadow of his former self. He was heartsick for Peggy and ready to leave the ad business, and now all he wants in his future is a large pharmaceutical account. Who is this guy? And will there be any closing of the loop between he and Peggy, other than his refusal to do her performance evaluation? The only thing that stands out about Ted in these episodes is his mustache, as well as his strange passivity in Don’s presence. There’s got to be more to Ted than this after all this time. Kevin Rahm does what he can with the character, but he’s not getting much to work with.