Monday, April 20, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 88: "The Forecast"

In which we know where we’ve been. We know where we are—let’s assume that it’s good—but it’s gotta get better. It’s supposed to get better.

“You don’t have any character.  You’re just handsome.  Stop kidding yourself”  -John Mathis

So this is what happens when Diana the waitress/muse/psychological projection disappears for a week.  Following two episodes that often dealt in dreamy, post-midnight plot progressions and logic (specifically in relation to Don’s growing infatuation with Diana), “The Forecast” finds the show returning to a more straightforward storytelling approach.  And even though the focal point of the plot is the often dreamy matter of predicting the future, the result of these characters attempting such predictions is a sometimes stinging assessment of where they are.

The impetus for much of this prognostication (as Meredith puts it) is Roger’s need for a Gettysburg Address-style speech for the swanky McCann-Erickson conference in the Bahamas.  “Reasonable hopes and dreams” he tells Don, “Doesn’t have to be science fiction.”  But even with these limited parameters, Don is still disappointed by what passes for dreams of the future in the SC&P offices.  Meredith’s notes of his own brainstorms are limited to “more money, bigger accounts, more awards.”  Ted, who in the past two seasons seemed to be in a constant struggle against his job life, seems to have become complacent in the cushiness of the post-McCann buyout atmosphere, dreaming only about landing a pharmaceutical client, and other bigger accounts.  Even when Peggy muses about being the first female Creative Director at the firm, and of creating something of lasting value (a sentiment that Don has expressed many times in the past), he can only question the reality of such visions in the advertising world.

Because, of course, Don isn’t really looking for a vision of the future of SC&P.  He’s searching for one of his own.     

The mythology of Don Draper: Master of the Universe has been one of the most potent aspects of Mad Men during its seven season run.  His uncanny ability to save pitches at the last second, to devise the perfect tagline for a campaign (often derived from his personal turmoil) has endowed him with a legendary status.  This acumen is the focus of the pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, in which he revives the Lucky Strike pitch right as the Lee Garners are about to walk out the door.  And ever since, he’s managed to save the day again and again.  When Ted confesses that Roger approached him first to write the McCann speech, he notes that his demurral is because Don is “so much better at painting a picture.” 

Even in his darkest personal and professional moments, he’s always figured out a way to rebound, his ascendance back to the Creative Director chair after living in exile for much of 1969 only the latest example.  When, in the first half of the season, he relinquishes the Burger Chef pitch to Peggy, it seems like a huge subjugation of his ego, a moment where’s he’s finally willing to let go of the myth.  This is where so much of our identification with him comes from: he’s the archetypical American protagonist, both epically talented and flawed, but ultimately willing to learn his lessons.

But his self-mythologizing is a powerful thing.  Those famed solutions he conjured up by subconsciously analyzing his own travails (happiness is saying whatever you’re doing in okay, what do women want, the wheel) have also served as a buffer against the encroaching collateral damage of his actions.  So when he attempts to use this tactic once again in “The Forecast”, he’s met with unexpected rejection.  As his real estate agent Melanie bemoans the difficulties of selling his swanky penthouse apartment, he tries to reassure her about the merits of its blankness (following Marie Calvet’s absconding with all the furniture) by falling back on the ad philosophy that “imagination is the best opportunity in the world”.  Her admonishment that “it looks like a sad person lives here” and that “it reeks of failure” leaves him only to say “a lot of wonderful things happened here.”  Much like Don himself, the charming veneer can no longer hide the inherent rot. 

And nowhere is this rot more apparent than in the aftermath of John Mathis’s epic flameout with the Peter Pan account.  Don’s advice to him on how to salvage his disastrous first pitch is based on a classic moment in Draper mythology: a long ago meeting with Lucky Strike where he reconciled with Lee Garner by brashly telling him “I can’t believe you have the balls to come back after you embarrassed yourself like that.”  It’s a classic Don prediction: use your natural charisma and wit to seduce the reluctant client, woman, friend, family member, and everything will be fine.  But Mathis isn’t a studly charisma machine, and when he lambasts Don after taking his advice literally (by noting that Roger’s telling of the Lucky Strike story is that Don always saved those pitches because Lee Garner Jr. was in love with him and wanted to jerk off to his image) it’s a quietly devastating moment.  Don tries to tell him that his failure is due to his own lack of character (he makes a similar accusation against Melanie), but he’ll have none of this standard pitch.  And then this small, somewhat insignificant man levels one of the most cutting blows against the edifice of Don Draper: Master of the Universe.  Because he above all people has the guts to tell the blunt truth: that “You don’t have any character.  You’re just handsome.  Stop kidding yourself.”

And there it is: quite possibly one of the simplest, yet most trenchant analyses of Don that there is.  It’s always been there; Season 1’s Don/Pete rivalry draws much of its complexity from how easy it is for the audience to identify with handsome Don over scrawny Pete, even though they’re much closer in temperament and ethics than that.  And it’s always been there in the idolization among many viewers of Don’s swinging lifestyle, a predilection that Matt Weiner has brilliantly played off of for years (see also Soprano, Tony.)

It’s fitting that so much of this episode’s drama revolves around the Peter Pan account, because Don’s self-mythologizing has always had the whiff of eternal youth about it.  And it’s here that both he and Betty are explicitly saddled with the seeming vampiric curse of having never grown old.  When Betty meets Glen Bishop for the first time since he was a boy, he comments how she hasn’t changed at all, much to Sally’s chagrin.  The bond that Betty and Glen forged in Season 1 was that of two complete outsiders with no other options, so their kitchen meeting before he ships off to Vietnam is very bittersweet.  But even though she rejects his advances, her only excuse is “because I’m married”, the implication being that single Betty might give this a whirl (as evidenced by her flirting with him in front of Sally).  And when Don has dinner with Sally and her friends before they embark on a 12 day bus trip, he can’t help but entertain the advances of 17 year-old Sarah (who, like him, claims to have always dreamed about living in New York.)

Leave it to Sally to follow in Mathis’s footsteps by excoriating Don after his dinnertime flirtations.  Mad Men has made great hay out of the tight bond between Don and her, so it only makes sense that she’s the one who’ll be honest with him, saying “You can’t control yourself, can you?...It doesn’t stop you and mom….anytime someone pays attention to you--and they always do--you just ooze everywhere.”  Personality goes a long way, but in these final seasons of Mad Men, Don has been increasingly forced to deal with what happens when charm reaches its limits, when what lies beneath is all that’s left.     

In my essay on last week’s “New Business”, I noted that both it and the previous week’s “Severance” ended with shots of Don in isolation, the camera slowly dollying back to reveal the empty space around him.  “The Forecast” follows suit once again, with its final image of a mildly dumbstruck Don standing outside of the apartment that’s no longer his (its successful sale is one of the only of his predictions from this episode that comes true.)  In an episode (and a season) that focuses so heavily on stripping away parts of his persona, it’s another lost signifier of his success.  And another step toward...what?  So far in this season, we’ve seen the characters of Mad Men struggle with overcoming their past habits, while trying to envision a better future.  But what if the future is merely more of the same?  Corporate culture judges its success by constant incremental improvement on a year by year basis, so it’s natural that Don tries to convince himself that his personal and professional future can only be brighter.  And in many ways we judge works of drama (especially of the long form televised variety) on the same basis.  Millennia of classic dramatic structure will do that to you.  But the great artistic depictions of humanity embrace the fact that chaos and stagnation are sometime the only reasonable outcomes.  I keep going back to The Sopranos, but the Tony Soprano/Don Draper connection is strong, and that final season of David Chase’s masterwork showed that repetition and stagnation form the death spiral upon which so many lives are based.  Like Tony, Don has shown flashes of self-revelation throughout the run of Mad Men.  But whether they all lead to genuine betterment is still a great unknown.

Some odds and ends to wrap things up:

*Bruce Greenwood (who, somehow, I’ll always associate with John From Cincinnati’s Mitch Yost), costars as Joan’s new paramour Richard Burghoff, who makes his own failed prediction when he states “This is not how I saw things.  I had a plan, which is no plans.”  If Joan’s ultimate character resolution is to have a guy like this in her life, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

*Am I the only one who’s disappointed in the relative lack of character time given to Roger and Pete in this final stretch?  Yeah, I know, David Simon is probably giving me a stern look for analyzing the story before it’s all done.

*Now that Marten Weiner is an adult, his slightly flat affect as Glen matches up even more with January Jones’s mannered portrayal of Betty (who makes her own, possibly failed attempt at a prediction when she repeatedly reassures him that he’ll return from Vietnam.) 


PlanetThoughts said...

Don is not like Pete -- Pete is far more confused and nasty. And Don is not "just handsome", he has a lot of character, along with a deep fault line that derives from his childhood. Mathis is far less mature and aware, and that more than his looks causes his aggressive use of Don's line to fail. Don sensed an audience that could absorb an abrasive greeting, while Mathis did not have the intuition to know that the soap joke would have been far more appreciated.

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