April 19, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), AMC
“We know where we’ve been, we know where we are…but it’s gotta get better. It’s supposed to get better.”
Life is a series of moving targets. We set goals, we make plans, we have dreams. We achieve those goals, or we don’t; we watch our plans come to fruition or fall apart; our dreams spring to life or wither on the vine. But while we often tell ourselves stories about happy endings, that’s not where the game ends. You either win or you lose, in the short term. But the game keeps going. New objectives have to be found. New goals must be set. We’re all of us sharks, whether we know it or not. We have to keep moving or we die. We have to keep dreaming or what else is there?
It’s no surprise that in its final season, Mad Men is laying the need to find a conclusion on a little thick. This episode is, on its face, about Don thinking about the future and finding his inability to imagine a new dream to lay out frustrating, and it includes Melanie, his real estate agent, literally telling him “we have to find a new place for you.” Yet subtlety has never been Mad Men’s forte, nor its particular interest. This is a show that tracks in depth, that makes us do thematic work and try to understand all of the complex things that are left unsaid, but it is also a show that is usually happy to lay the take away out for the audience, and sometimes several times in an episode. Mad Men has always been a show about people who were predisposed to have everything and yet constantly feel like they have nothing. As they accumulate more and more, they find themselves lost as to what all of their achievements mean, and where they should be headed next. All they know is it has to get better. It’s supposed to get better.
The devil in all of this isn’t the people, it’s the plans. We spend so much of our lives cultivating a strategy for how to amass all of the achievements we are looking for that we become in some sense addicted to making lists and checking things off, laying out next steps and then taking them. There’s always another rung on the ladder to climb, so we never have to spend too much time thinking about what life is like at the top. It’s an abstraction, and those are dangerous things, liable to be filled with fantasies our real lives will never be able to live up to. This is underlined masterfully in the subplot in which Joan meets Richard Burghoff (Bruce Greenwood), a retired divorcee who falls for her quickly, and then recoils when he learns she has a son. Richard had made his next plan, you see, and it was to have no plans. He gets frustrated when he learns his plan has been blown off course, but he recovers. He finds a new north star. His new goal is Joan, and with that in mind, things may just get better.
As Don attempts to write the speech, he is shocked to find he can’t think of much. As Meredith reads his notes back to him, she mentions bigger accounts, more awards, and “a space station?” She’s wrong on that front, of course, but her mistake is telling. Don’s looking for the next big thing, but he’s too rooted in the past, too smart to think that he can really find another menial goal that will make him feel accomplished, that will let him truly be happy. It’s 1970. We’ve been to the moon. We came back pretty much the same as when we left. All we gained was an accomplishment. All we lost was the ability to be romantic about the possibilities of space travel. Maybe we know too much about what it means to want and then to have those wants met. Maybe we’ve gotten too good at fulfilling our own desires.
Don talks to Ted, whose greatest ambition is “to land a pharmaceutical,” and he talks to Peggy, who admits she wants to someday coin a catchphrase (an a classic Don/Peggy exchange where he yearns for her to answer a deep philosophical question and she takes him at face value and provides a practical response), but no one can provide the profundity Don needs, not just for his speech, but for his life. This all has to mean something. It’s supposed to mean something.
“The Forecast” has more to say about the future than that, though, or it would just be a retread of “Severance.” The episode harkens the return of Glen Bishop, who waltzes back into Sally’s life (and, perhaps more importantly, Betty’s) with a plan. Over the course of the hour, we learn that his plan is the result of one plan falling apart, forcing him to recalibrate his expectations. It’s scary, and its dangerous, but its forward momentum. It harkens back to Don’s earlier line about how he used to constantly worry about the firm’s survival. Don says that as if those were the good times. It’s hard to imagine Glen thinks of them that way as he prepares to ship out to Vietnam. Letting Glenn have one last moment where he creepily attempts to seduce Better and it even more creepily almost works provides another mirror when, later in the episode, Sally’s friend creepily tries to seduce Don and it creepily almost works. Sally sees these encounters for what they are: vapid, sad, empty older people clinging desperately to young attention because it makes them feel validated. When Don asks her what she sees for the future, she says “I just want to eat dinner.” But later, and more honestly, she admits she just wants to get as far as possible away from her parents, physically and emotionally. It’s a brutal bit of truth, and she gets more in return, as her father tells her, “You’re a very beautiful girl. It’s up to you to be more than that.”
The episode ends, as so many Mad Men episodes do, with a slow pan away from a closed door. On the other side is a couple who has a clear dream for the future, who has just accomplished their next goal and are looking brightly at what’s coming. But we are left with Don, who has 30 days to move and no idea where he’s going. All he knows is it has to get better. It’s supposed to get better. Somewhere out there, the abstraction solidifies. Somewhere out there, the dream becomes reality. Somewhere out there is paradise, a perfect destination where the grass is never greener, where there is no further rung to climb, where we can find peace, happiness, and self-actualization. It’s out there somewhere, just past the horizon, always a few steps out of reach.
- “I’d do it myself, but one of us is very busy.” “You’re going to the Bahamas.”
- “Is this love again?” “We use it all the time.”
- “A woman like you wants to talk to me? I’m a little near-sighted, not blind.”
- “Little glamour, little hope.” “I’m not a magician. I have to show this to people with their eyes open. And you know what it looks like? It looks like someone sad lives here.”
- “Do you ever feel like there’s less to actually do, and more to think about?”
- “Obviously I’d like to one day…I don’t know…”
- “He can’t fire my men!” “I can fire you!”
- “You look so different!” “You look exactly the same.”
- “You’re gonna die! For what?”
- “This is not how I saw this. I had a plan, which is ‘no plans!’ You can’t go to the pyramids. You can’t go anywhere!”
- “What else is there?” “That’s what I’m asking.”
- “This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life.” “And you think those things are unrelated?”
- “You don’t have any character! You’re just handsome! Stop kidding yourself!”
- “So what do you want to do?” “I just want to eat dinner.”
Mad Men has always been a show about people who were predisposed to have everything and yet constantly feel like they have nothing.