A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I get you a map to the powder room…
“I had a plan, which was no plans!” -Richard
Early in “The Forecast,” Don gets into an argument with his realtor Melanie, who can't be bothered to conceal her disgust with her client. As they study the barren living room tableau created by Marie Calvet's thievery, Don insists that it's a selling point, because potential buyers can more easily imagine their own furniture in the space. Melanie dismissively wonders if he's ever sold an apartment, and in a later conversation suggests, “this place reeks of failure.” Don again shrugs off her contempt and says, “I have a good feeling about things.”
In a way, Don is proven right, since Melanie winds up selling the place at the asking price. But that empty apartment – and Don's reaction to realizing he'll be moving out of it within 30 days – serves as a reminder that limitless possibilities can be far scarier than a life filled with pre-existing furniture and all the rules and regulations that come with that.
Tasked by Roger to write a proposal of SC&P's future, Don realizes he has no idea what that might be. He tries at different points to pick the brains of Teddy and Peggy, and at one point even asks Meredith to dig out the press release announcing the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – a sad admission that Don's eight-year-old ideas could be more forward-thinking, or simply better, than anything he can dream up now. Professionally, he has everything he thought he ever wanted – money, power and, thanks to McCann, stability – but no more of a plan going forward at work than he has on the home front.
It's an episode where plans are either hard to come by or held by people who seem to believe in them much too strongly.
After offending the Peter Pan people with an impromptu f-bomb(*), Mathis seeks Don's counsel for how to move past it, and ultimately just borrows a move Don used way back when with Lucky Strike. When it only makes the situation worse, poor Johnny Mathis winds up just another copywriting redshirt working under Don and/or Peggy (a hazardous post that at previous points has claimed Paul Kinsey, Kurt & Smitty, Danny Siegel and Michael Ginsberg). When he tells Don, “You don't have any character; you're just handsome,” he's only half-right. We know Don has gotten by on more than just looks – though he also gets away with certain stunts that a less attractive and/or charismatic guy like Mathis couldn't – but we also know from frequent experience that Don's character is a very abstract notion at times.
(*) We don't get to witness it, because the episode's lone, if muted, use of that word comes from Sally, who asks Glen, “Are you fucking stupid?” for enlisting.
In the episode's most interesting storyline, a trip out to SC&P West puts Joan in the path of Richard Burghoff, a handsome but much older retiree who has designed his entire post-divorce life around a lack of responsibility. He can recognize all that Joan has to offer, in a way that so many men on this show have failed to because they were too focused on her body, but she also comes with baggage that he's no longer interested in carrying. That he so quickly turns to yelling at the thought of having little Kevin in his life should probably scare Joan off of this guy, but then we get the later scene where she tells the babysitter, “You're ruining my life” when the barb is clearly directed more at her son. (When he says goodbye very sweetly as she's on her way out the door, she's shamed about what she just said, even if it wasn't directed at him.) Richard's apology and desire to move to New York full-time just for a chance at being with her is more promising, though, and at least speaks to the idea that having a plan, even if it's a repeat of one you've been through before, is better than having none.
For a while, it seems like Glen Bishop has come up with a clear-cut plan, even if enlisting in the Army horrifies both Sally and his mother. Now a taller, skinnier, much hairier young man, he's even an acceptable houseguest again as far as Betty is concerned(**). But just when it appears “Mad Men” is going to land the Betty/Glen relationship in that disturbing territory it's been circling since Marten Weiner was a little boy, she brushes off his advance, and he confesses that his enlistment wasn't so much by choice but a lack of one, as he flunked out of school and needed to appease his stepfather.
(**) A fat lot of good that does poor Carla, whose successor gets in no trouble at all for letting Glen into the house without alerting Betty.
Like Megan last week, Glen's not a character I necessarily needed to see again, but at least he brought Sally back on stage with him, as she got to witness both her parents being inappropriate with kids her own age. (This was a great, great episode for Kiernan Shipka side eye, and her delivery of “I just want to eat dinner” was hilarious.) Like Mathis, Sally calls out Don for trading too much on his looks, and suggests that the only plan she has is to get as far away from her vain, gross parents, physically and emotionally, as possible. Though Don was way over the line with Sally's friend Sarah, even allowing for his explanation that he didn't want to embarrass her, his own struggles with picturing the future at least inspire a strong parental moment, as he tells her that she will be very much like her parents, and that it's up to her to be more than just a beautiful girl, if that's what she wants.
It's a shame Sally didn't wind up at the office again, since it holds the one character of the episode who has a concrete idea of the future, even if it involves becoming more like Sally's dad. When Don invites Peggy to share her plans, she knows exactly what she wants. The problem – as so often unfortunately happens between those two – is that Peggy's answering the question Don is literally asking, when he's really looking for something else entirely. Peggy's designs on becoming SC&P's creative director and creating a catchphrase are perfect for her, but they're of no use to Don in his quest to figure out his own life, or even to complete the assignment Roger gives him. (He's also taught Peggy too well, making her far more of a true believer in their profession than he's ever been, and his amusement at that only irritates her further.)
“Mad Men” has never been as intensely serialized a show as many of its cable drama counterparts. Each episode is designed to exist as an individual objet d'art, to be studied as its own thing, even though events of the past inform the characters' present, and hint at what's to come in the future. But with the series four episodes away from ending(***), and with AMC's misguided decision to split the final season in two, that intensely episodic nature stands out more than it previously would have.
(***) Or, to borrow AMC's confusing marketing, with “only three episodes left until the series finale!”
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. I'm assuming Matt Weiner does have more of a plan than his protagonist – last year's episodes also felt a bit aimless at this point, and then we got “The Strategy” and “Waterloo” – but for the moment, it feels just a bit like Don standing in the hallway outside the apartment, having once again gotten what he wanted, but with absolutely no idea what to do next.
Don theoretically has many decades ahead of him to fill with God knows what. “Mad Men” has a month. Each can be terrifying in its own way, but I have more hope for the show to make its remaining time satisfying than I do for its hero to do the same with his.
Some other thoughts:
* Bruce Greenwood, who played Richard, has been busy on the big and small screen for over 30 years (here he is, opposite a similarly baby-faced Kyle Secor, as an obnoxious young doctor on “St. Elsewhere”), but also has ties to the “Mad Men” era (albeit a much earlier part of it), having played JFK in “Thirteen Days.”
* Upon learning that Joan was in Los Angeles, I wondered who was running that office now that Pete and Ted were back home. Turns out the west coast is where Roger chose to dump Lou “I have a contract” Avery, and that Lou continues to be the absolute worst person in any time zone, here skipping out on work so he can go pitch “Scout's Honor” to Hanna-Barbera.
* Joan mentions being divorced twice. I have no memory of the first marriage coming up in the past, but several people insist it was discussed in the episode where her friend from Mary Kay comes to town. (Linda Holmes points to this line from that episode, though she acknowledges it's ambiguous.)
* Still waiting on a Pete-centric story, but I enjoyed how disdainful he and Peggy can still be of each other after all these years. We know they can also occasionally be warm and nostalgic together, but this level of bickering feels more natural as their everyday state of being with one another.
* Looking forward, as always, to Tom & Lorenzo's fashion analysis of the episode, and particularly their discussion of Richard, whose wardrobe embraced all that was ugliest about men's fashion in the '70s, from leisure suits to ascots to butterfly collars. Blech. And yet he was at the cutting edge of style – ideal late-life crisis-wear.
* Roger's suggestion (related by Mathis) that Lee Garner Jr. lusted after Don potentially – assuming Don was aware of it – puts an added bit of ugliness into Don's firing of Sal way back when.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com