Does Don Draper have a trajectory? Can you extrapolate from his past and see where he ought to end up? That’s a central question that Mad Men faces in its closing episodes, and “The Forecast” pursues it rather directly. Roger gives Don a task: Draft a statement about the future of the company. Predictably, Don treats the assignment as a rumination on his own future. It’s not a subtle setup, but it is efficient, and when only a few episodes remain, efficiency helps.
The limited ambition of the exercise frustrates Don. “Just reasonable hopes and dreams” is how Roger frames the project. “Doesn’t have to be science fiction.” That low bar is echoed later when Meredith reads back bullet points from Don’s initial notes. The list includes bigger accounts, more awards, and, Meredith adds uncertainly, “a space station?” No, Don corrects her, it’s a gas station. Nothing fantastical or otherworldly here—it’s just the future we’re talking about.
This earthbound dynamic is a counterpoint to the demand Conrad Hilton once made of Don: “I expect the moon.” Then again, by 1970, we have actually been to the moon. And it didn’t change us as much as we hoped. Maybe even Connie’s dream was inadequate.
In retrospect, the Hilton storyline foreshadowed Don’s own exasperation at the banal dividends of success. Like Connie, Don has achieved enough to guarantee his future, yet it’s the very security of that future that makes it feel routine and thus inadequate. Don remarks to Ted Chaough that before the McCann buyout, all he thought about was whether he’d be in business next year. Now, with his career path ensured, “there’s less to actually do, and more to think about.” It’s another way of saying that the thrilling uncertainty of his fights for survival provided a useful distraction over the past decade. Now, with time to think, he plays the Conrad Hilton role: demanding grand ideas to assuage his encroaching fear that he might not be a genius—that he might just be a man with a talent for a trade.
Eager for an uplifting roadmap of the years ahead, Don hunts for visionaries in his midst. The trouble is that his colleagues are too satisfied to dream big (or, at least, big enough for Don). Ted, for instance, looks forward to casting sessions and maybe a contract with an oil company someday. Don presses Ted to reveal a deeper desire, and Ted hesitates before answering that in his heart of hearts, he’d really love to “land a pharmaceutical.” It’s a shrewd misdirection by Mad Men, which has spent so much time convincing us that its characters are more complex and conflicted than their jobs would make them seem. The show sets us up for the usual emotional revelation—Don’s anticipation of it is palpable—only to reveal that Ted has no greater depth to offer at the moment. Instead, the revelation is that Ted has accepted the scope of his life. He doesn’t share Don’s need for profound meaning, which only makes Don feel more alone.
Peggy’s fantasies are also too modest for Don, to a point. In her impromptu performance review, he urges her to express her most towering ambitions. She tries to oblige. Among other things, she wants to “have a big idea—create a catchphrase.” The modesty of her “big idea” leads Don to press her further, until she volunteers that she’d like to “create something of lasting value.” “In advertising?” Don scoffs. Peggy gets rightfully angry, as it dawns on her that she has been suckered into a no-win sparring session against Don’s own insecurity. Don rejects her first goals as too modest, and then once she rises to the cosmic level of aspiration that he demands, he sneers that she’s unrealistic. So Peggy is doomed to inadequacy either way. It’s not clear whether Don—who, after all, is also in advertising—realizes that he has set the same logical trap for himself. It is clear, however, that Peggy and Ted’s means of escape, contentment, is not an option for him.
Contentment is a position of stasis for Don, and he is determined to craft a narrative of ascent. “We know where we’ve been,” he says into a dictating machine. “We know where we are. Let’s assume that it’s good. Imagine it gets better. It’s supposed to get better.” It makes sense. Simply draw a line from point A, the past, through point B, the present, and extend it to reach point C, the future. Yet Don struggles to build on this straightforward framework, and that’s because of the flawed premise at its heart: “Let’s assume that it’s good.”
See, it’s hard to chart a trajectory to point C when you’re fudging points A and B. Throughout the episode, Don compulsively insists that the past and present are hunky-dory. When he asks Ted to speculate on the future, he hastens to add, “I mean, it’s good as it is, but is there a scenario in which it’s better?” And when the real estate broker accurately points out that Don’s place has an aura of sad failure, Don snaps, “A lot of wonderful things happened here.” The remark invites the viewer to take a mental inventory of “wonderful” things that happened in the apartment; it is a line designed to make you come up empty, just as Don does in his own mind. Don will have trouble seeing the future as long as he deludes himself about the recent past.
At the same time that he’s trying to summon a vision of triumphant ascent, the reality of “The Forecast” paints a picture of Don’s slow decline. The Peter Pan pitch shows how his creative role has become perfunctory and thoughtless. He scorns a slogan that appeals to peanut butter lovers’ love of peanut butter, complaining, “Jesus, love again?” The formula he pioneered has become trite. “We use it all the time,” Pete shrugs. Don convinces himself that his ultimate choice for the tagline—“One Tink, and you’re hooked”—is better. It’s not, but it’s different enough for Don to pretend that progress has been made. He does that a lot in “The Forecast.”
We see Don attacking the problem of his “prognostication” in familiar ways: Using his colleagues as a sounding board, flipping through magazines, free-associating into a tape recorder. He has faith in his creative talents to produce an answer. Mathis attacks that faith. When he uses one of Don’s old jokes to paper over an untoward outburst with the Peter Pan folks, his bold zinger only makes matters worse. Mathis rages at his boss’ lousy advice and says that the line only worked for Don because he looks good saying it. Don thinks that he’s had success because of his deep-seated brilliance, and Mathis insists that actually, it’s just a superficial smoothness and charm.
To some degree, Don reaches the same conclusion, even if he fears it. More than once, he feeds the broker a line about using the power of imagination to sell his depressing apartment. Yet when she informs him that imagination actually came through—the up-and-coming stockbroker from Jersey is buying the apartment—Don is stunned. “Really?” he asks. His reaction is a sign that Don has stopped believing his own bullshit, just like everyone else in “The Forecast” (with the telling exception of a 17-year-old naif in Sally’s school group). He places so little faith in his notion of drawing imagination from emptiness—it was an idea he merely wishes were true, for his own sake—that he’s taken aback when someone actually buys it.
In the final shot of the episode, Don moves toward the door of his apartment as if he’s going to head back in. Maybe he wants to learn something from the new tenant inside who, apparently, possesses a vision of the future robust enough to fill the void of apartment 17B. Don has the impulse to ask the stockbroker what he sees, like he did with Ted and Peggy. But strip-mining other people’s dreams has led to nothing but disappointment in “The Forecast,” and there’s no reason this encounter would be any different. So Don turns away from his former home, weighed down by the realization that he can’t keep walking through familiar doors with the expectation of finding something new on the other side.
About to depart on a trip along the Eastern Seaboard, Sally shares her own dream with Don: “I want to get on a bus, and get away from you and Mom, and hopefully be a different person than you two.” Don grabs her and says that, in fact, Sally is already a lot like her parents. “You’re going to find that out,” he adds, a prediction-cum-threat that he delivers from experience—the line evokes Don’s speech to Megan in “The Flood” about his struggle not to duplicate his father’s failings.
If Sally could see herself like we see her in “The Forecast,” she’d know that her father is right. Betty and Don are her forecast, one that’s already coming true. You can see traces of Don’s smoothness in the way Sally handles Betty, for example. She still has little interest in connecting with her mother, but she’s learned to paper over the distance between them with humor. As they prepare for her trip, Sally makes a corny joke about Betty’s age and then, moments later, employs some more sophisticated wordplay to deflect some birds-and-bees talk: “I’m sorry, mother, this conversation is a little late—and so am I.”
Betty is charmed by the first gag, but her eyes narrow at the second. “Everything’s a joke to you,” Betty says as she glimpses her ex-husband in her daughter. Amplifying the echoes, this is the same episode where Don advises Mathis to smooth over hurt feelings with brassy humor. Mathis can’t execute that playbook, to his great chagrin, but Sally can and does. She’s a Draper.
She is also her mother’s daughter. There’s an irony in that scene at the bus station when Sally rants about her parents’ love of attention, because she likes having eyes on herself as much as the next person. She and Betty are practically mirror images as they passive-aggressively compete for Glen Bishop’s affections. “You know, Betty’s home,” Sally sneers when Glen first stops by. “You know, Sally’s not here,” Betty says when he returns. They both worry that his gaze is meant for the other Draper girl. By the same token, they each glow when Glen is looking in their direction.
Don tells Sally at the bus station, “You’re a very beautiful girl. It’s up to you to be more than that.” In context, these words are a tacit admission that his own good looks have carried him to some extent, and so will Sally’s. With Mathis’ impromptu exit interview still ringing in his ears, Don insists that his daughter strive to achieve something beyond the spoils her pretty face will bring her. He makes the same demand of himself. Don and Sally have the charisma to make the world smile while holding it at arm’s length, and they both understand that this is not a fulfilling way to live. That’s the most potent parallel that “The Forecast” draws between father and daughter.
Glen’s storyline in this episode—his decision to enlist in Vietnam and his related attempt to finally bed Betty Draper—is an overly pat way to finalize the threads of a character that didn’t need to be tied up so neatly. The Mrs. Robinson scenario does, however, produce the great moment when Betty refuses Glen’s advances. She explains that she’s not saying “no” because he’s the 18-year-old childhood friend of her only daughter, but rather because she’s married. Betty enjoys being the object of Glen’s desire, so rather than pointing out that their one-afternoon stand would be inappropriate, she laments that it’s impossible. This keeps the fantasy alive, for both of them.
Glen is crushed. “This was supposed to be the good thing that came out of all of this. It’s all I thought about,” he tells her. Indeed, he’s been nursing this fantasy, this vision of the future, since he was in grade school. (Note that he still asks after “Mrs. Draper” when he arrives, as that version of her is enshrined in his psyche.) He saw all those years of longing culminating in a moment of ecstasy, and therein lies the problem with a forecast. No matter how fervently you believe in it, everyone else has to play along.
The play-along rule is not lost on Richard, Joan’s Los Angeles paramour. That’s why he insists that if Joan is going to be part of his life, she needs to get on board with his plan, “which is no plans.” Richard first encounters Joan while he’s looking for his optometrist, and he’s near-sighted in more than one sense. His voice is tinged with awe as he tells Joan about the newfound freedom he felt when his youngest daughter graduated. It meant he’d finally escape the marriage he’d dutifully maintained for more than 20 years. He could travel, or not. He could sleep around, or not. Richard intends to live a life of unfettered choice, purposefully built with no long-term obligations.
Such an existence has a certain allure to Joan. She once married a jealous, abusive young doctor because she believed it was the first step in a natural course of events—the right way to conduct herself. That marriage didn’t go according to plan: Her spouse found a greater sense of purpose in the military than at her side. So like Richard, Joan is divorced, and they bond over a common disdain for the modern myth of marriage. They’re mutually jaded by society’s false promise that love can develop according to plan. Plus, Richard might conjure memories in Joan of her faded relationship with Roger Sterling, an affair that seemed to exist in a bubble free of consequences, at least until Joan got a son out of it.
That son proves to be the rub for Richard, who admits that young Kevin is a dealbreaker for him. (He commends himself for telling her of this decision before he had sex with her again. A true gentleman.) His point A was an unhappy marriage, and his point B is a happier freedom. Extrapolating, he insists that the path to a truly happy point C is absolute liberation from commitment. This straight-line fortune-telling works about as well for Richard as it does for Don.
Joan’s ensuing anger is directed partly at Richard and partly at her own plight. “You’re ruining my life!” she shouts at the end of an argument with her babysitter, and after that outburst, there’s a point-of-view shot that includes both the babysitter and Kevin. The implication is that the sentiment is intended for both of them.
Richard returns later with flowers and apologies. “If I have to choose between you and my son, I choose you,” Joan tells him. She’s being sarcastic for the most part, but her delivery has an element of self-recrimination to it, as her words are true in a sense, and she hates herself for it. No, she would never give up Kevin, but she is drawn to Richard and the world of possibilities he represents.
Joan, unlike Richard and unlike Don, has a clear forecast—continued motherhood—and she’s depressed by the restrictions it places on her. From Joan’s point of view, Don shouldn’t work so hard to perceive the future. It can be a burden to see where you’re going.
For his part, Richard realizes that even a “no plans” plan might be one plan too many. In his scramble for freedom, he ended up locking himself into another narrow idea of how his life ought to play out. Now he aims to correct his mistake. “I don’t want to be rigid,” he says to Joan. “Makes you old.” There’s wisdom to those words, and they contain a key theme of the episode. The human experience is an improvisatory one. The harder you try to follow your forecast, the less agency you ultimately grant yourself. You end up marking time until death, hence Richard’s epiphany that rigidness is equivalent to decrepitude.
This is not to say that all planning is bad, just that “knowing” where you’ll end up is overrated. Peggy and Ted have the clearest sense of direction among the characters featured in “The Forecast,” and neither of them comes off as especially vibrant when they logically outline their probable futures. Instead, they sound like they’re marking time. I take this as an indication that Mad Men will not give us a clear picture of where the people of Sterling Cooper & Partners are headed before the show signs off next month. That would only deaden them. Instead, the show’s creators intend to let the characters live, unfettered by the shackles of a preordained future.
- This is the final version of tonight’s Mad Men review. Because our readers are always eager to read about and discuss the show after it airs, each week I’ll post a review that examines the main storyline of the episode (probably Don’s), and then throughout the night I’ll update the review with analysis of the rest of the show, screenshots, and more stray observations from my notes.
- An earlier version of this review included a passage that confused Mathis with Danny, Jane Sterling’s cousin, who first appeared in “Waldorf Stories.” Apologies for the error, and thank you for the corrections!
- Sally has to watch both of her parents flirt with teenagers in this episode. But say this for Don: He sure knows how to make high school kids laugh. Maybe he has a future career as a substitute teacher, like Hannah on Girls.
- Don’s fear of being a superficial success is exacerbated by the fact that he’s not quite the dashing rake he used to be. “You’ve looked better,” Roger tells him. “You want me to get my barber in here?” Big words from a man with that mustache.
- As Roger’s meeting with Don draws to a close, Caroline buzzes in to tell him he has a phone call. He ignores her. She buzzes again before the scene ends, asking, “Roger?” and he ignores her again. Is he going deaf, or has he checked out that much? Maybe he’s only deaf to the sound of Caroline’s voice. The blithe deterioration of Roger’s relationship with his assistant is a funny sub-thread of this last half-season.
- Sally’s eye-rolls and slack-jawed disgust at her parents’ antics will be sorely missed. Kiernan Shipka was in fine form for her possible swan song tonight.
- Don is so eager for out-of-this-world moonshot concepts of the future that when Meredith says, “Did you go to the World’s Fair? That’s what I think it will look like,” Don actually perks up and pays attention. “What was your favorite part?” He’s really scraping.
- It’s fun and revealing to hear the way Don’s legend is reworked when he’s not in earshot. “Roger tells that Lucky Strike story, too,” Mathis says after his attempt to emulate Don’s bravado does awry, “but he says that Lee Garner Jr. was in love with you. That you always had to be at the meetings so he could think about jacking you off.” (Don surely appreciates his friend Roger sharing this insight with the mid-level copy writers.)
- A younger Peggy would have tried to follow Don on his quixotic voyage into the grand future, so I love that in this episode, she recognizes his selfish bullying for what it is. “I didn’t know you’d be in a mood,” she says, having seen it before. This comes after she makes multiple attempts to give Don the answer he wants to hear—and bares her soul along the way. It takes visible courage for her to merely say out loud that she wants to be the first woman creative director at the agency, and Don laughs at her. “Why don’t you just write down all your dreams so I can shit on them?” is one of the great Peggy-to-Don kiss-offs of the whole series.
- The first shot of “The Forecast” is Melanie, the real estate broker, opening the door to Don’s apartment. The final shot is Don standing outside that apartment. Last week, Marie cleaned out Don’s furniture, and now Melanie finishes the job by cleaning out Don.
- Sally: “I just want to eat dinner.” Don: “Nothing like having realistic goals.” Everything’s a joke to him.