Believe It: 'Mad Men' Is a Story About Hope
We left Don in the ninth episode of Mad Men’s seventh season as he looked around his emptied apartment, wondering what the hell happened not only there, but in general. As episode 10, “The Forecast,” closed, Don still looked slightly shell-shocked, but this time he stood outside his apartment, it finally having been sold to a young couple no doubt excited about their future. New penthouse, baby on the way. It’s a new chapter for them, but it’s the end of one for Don, an end with which he hasn’t reckoned. He’s literally being pushed out of his old life and into a holding pattern while he figures out what his new one will be.
It’s tempting to groan a bit as Mad Men so squarely hits its thematic nail on its head, which Matthew Weiner has been known to do throughout the course of the past nine years. But the thesis needs to be clear as the series winds down and we only have a few hours left with these characters. Weiner needs to be clear in asking the bigger questions, even if characters’ guessed answers to them are anything but. “The Forecast” has everyone looking toward the future and asking not only what it is they want from it, but if they get it, will it even matter. “Four score and seven years ago,” Don says to himself, as he ponders what his own Gettysburg Address on SC&P should be for the new decade. “We know where we’ve been; we know where we are. Let’s assume that it’s good, that it’s gonna get better. It’s supposed to get better.” “Supposed to” is the key, and it’s the not-so-big secret of the show: We move forward hoping tomorrow will be different because that’s all we can do.
Tasked by Roger with writing the address, Don questions others about their visions for the future, looking for a hook to help him out and being surprised at everyone’s aim. Ted’s feels a bit low — he wants bigger accounts — and truly, Ted appears this season to be a shell of the man we knew in Season Six. His love for Peggy, their (very) brief affair, his move to L.A. and then his move back have broken him in many ways. Now, he’s focusing on the work but without the joy that comes from creating something. It’s a way to get by, but it’s not fulfilling. Peggy, likewise, is career-oriented, yet her dreams have her reaching higher, not only by achieving the position of the first female creative director at the agency but by creating “something of lasting value.” “In advertising?,” Don responds, as she discusses her goal during her performance review. “This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life,” she says. “So you think those things are unrelated?,” he asks.
Don, per usual, is busy not applying the lessons he’s spouting to his own life. His realtor, struggling to sell the apartment, berates him for not replacing the furniture or cleaning the carpets; “It looks like a sad person lives here,” she says. “Don’t blame your failure on me,” he says, to which she replies, “This place reeks of failure! It is an $85,000 fixer-upper.” Don has a similar conversation with Mathis, who unwisely attempted to charm clients in old-school Draper fashion and found himself kicked off an account. Here is where Don delivers lines that are clearly about his own character, lines that are far too precise. “Take responsibility for your failure,” Don tells Mathis. “That account was handed to you and you made nothing of it because you have no character.” “You don’t have any character!,” Mathis replies. “You’re just handsome; stop kidding yourself.” Don’s a million-dollar fixer-upper.
Sally throws essentially the same line in his face. First she watched as Betty not only flirted with a now-legal and chest-hair-baring Glen, but commended his joining the Army and shipping out to Vietnam as brave. Then, Don’s flirting with Sally’s friend Sarah, or at least his lack of outright rejection of Sarah’s advances, had Sally crying foul at the easiness with which her parents can be charmed. Pay attention to them, and they “ooze,” she says, incorrectly attributing their reactions to their good looks and not their insecurities. Sally doesn’t want to be like them, but Don’s retort is right: She only has so much of a choice when it comes to turning into her parents. She already is them, in many ways. And she’s beautiful, like them. “It’s up to you to be more than that,” Don tells her.
And isn’t that the story of Joan? Her beauty is striking, but it hurts her as much as it helps. It has taken her places, but when she gets there, she’s not taken seriously, and her journey has been learning how to fight her way to success and respect by not relying on it. It’s an uphill battle; she’s already a partner at the firm, but when she visits the L.A. office (where Lou is living out his cartoon-drawing days), she’s out of the loop, misidentifying a client right before Lou sweeps in with him and makes her feel even less needed. Her mistake is fortuitous, however, and she and the other man, Richard (Bruce Greenwood), are quickly smitten with each other.
Richard flies to New York after she’s returned home with the idea of romancing her, but learning about Kevin knocks him off-balance. His plan now that he’s retired and his kids are grown is to have no plans; the Joan of his dreams has no strings attached. His change of heart, though, in conjunction with his realization about best-laid plans, etc., represents the power of hope. Hope that even as the path you’ve planned to take has forked or strayed in unexpected ways, it’s still a path worth taking, and, hopefully, the endpoint is one worth reaching. It’s why you tell a scared kid heading off to war “You’re going to make it” — you have to hope it does, even if it doesn’t.
“The Forecast” brought to mind the closing lines from the 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors:
“We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale; most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
As often as Don was called a failure this episode, his lines to Sally — and Sally herself — prove he isn’t one. Sally is the promise of something better (her deft teasing of Betty alone should prove this), something only the future knows about. She’s got the confidence her parents never had, and she’s got a better start at an independent life than they ever had, either. Mad Men and Matthew Weiner aren’t telling us a story centered on the notion that everything is ultimately meaningless, and the winding down of the series shouldn’t be looked at in terms of if Don will have a “happy” or “sad” ending. Because, well, can you even define “happy” and “sad” when it comes to the lives of most people? Most people are in the middle, not at the extremes. Don may end up on his own, but that’s not necessarily a defeat. It’s what he learns, if he can truly learn it, that matters. It’s understanding the dream of something better, for you or for someone else, is always worth living for.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.