Though it's a much better episode than last week's wretched "New Business," "The Forecast" perpetuates the feeling that the final seven episodes of Mad Men are not so much the concluding chapter of the series as they are an afterword, one that reiterates and summarizes—in occasionally heavy-handed fashion—the themes of that have been present all along. Mad Men has never been the most subtle show, and it feels like Matthew Weiner is particularly determined, in these final hours, to make sure that we can't possibly misunderstand what it all means.

Is that a problem? I honestly can't decide. Perhaps subtlety is an overrated quality, one too admired by busybodies like me who enjoy teasing out the deep and hidden messages. Mad Men is ending its run more or less wearing its heart on its sleeve, but I think that might be okay. Who says everything has to be subtle, or surprising, or oblique?

Weiner is also not breaking a lot of new ground—so far—in these final episodes, but maybe that's okay too. If characters we have followed for seven years suddenly started behaving in new ways, and heading off in exciting and unpredictable new directions in the eleventh hour, that would be a problem. It would belie and cheapen all the slow, exquisite work Mad Men has done to make these characters so believably and tragically themselves.

Don Draper, for example, is Don Draper: he doesn't really change, even as the whole world changes around him. That's a fundamental truth about Don. It's a fundamental truth about Betty. It may, in fact, be a fundamental truth about Americans, and about human beings in general. It's certainly a core theme of Mad Men: that, though we may be obsessed with transformation and reinvention, we mostly stay predictably, maddeningly the same.

So if these final episodes are feeling a little familiar, a little unsubtle, a little too much in line with everything that has come before, maybe that's the way it should be. Weiner has structured this long-form story very carefully, and with remarkable thematic consistency: I don't think we're all going to be terribly surprised about what it ends up saying when it's over.

"It's supposed to get better." – Don Draper

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in The Forecast

From the beginning, Mad Men has been concerned with the so-called "American Dream," which is characterized in our national consciousness by its fundamental unattainability. It's not in our character to be satisfied, ever, with anything, and we tend flatter ourselves that this is our greatest strength as a people. We romanticize the never-ending quest for the new: new beginnings, new adventures, new challenges, new opportunities, new horizons, new frontiers, new worlds. The story we tell ourselves about America is that we have always dreamed bigger and better: whatever we've had, and whatever we've achieved, we've always wanted more. To paraphrase Don Draper, our national happiness has always been nothing more than the moment before we wanted more happiness.

Obviously, this self-aggrandizing mythology has been the rationalization for any number of unimaginable and unforgivable sins, but we tend not to dwell on that. Even the most cynical and self-aware of us find the notion of the American Dream seductive, and it permeates every aspect of how we live our lives. We want to be better, we want to be bigger, we want to be richer, we want to be happier. No matter what we have, it's never enough: we always have a plan for becoming something more.

This, I think, is what Mad Men has been about from the beginning. So the question becomes, how does a story about always traveling and never arriving reach an ending?

For Matthew Weiner, it seems to mean showing us, in no uncertain terms, the psychic toll such an approach to life can take. "The emptiness is a problem," Don's realtor, Melanie (Rachel Cannon) says. She's talking about his apartment, but she may as well be talking about his life. Emptiness has always been important to Don: he's built his career, and his life, on the place where something isn't. Emptiness is the blank piece of paper on which great ideas emerge. It's the "itch" from his famous Kodak speech: the one you insert your product into "like a kind of calamine lotion." It's focusing on the 50 percent of the market Dow Chemicals doesn't have, not the 50 percent they do have.  ("You don’t want most of it, you want all of it, and I won’t stop until you get it.”) It's the advertisement for ketchup that doesn't show the ketchup, because then the picture is "tantalizingly incomplete." Advertising is the perfect setting for Mad Men because it's not about having, it's about wanting.

But this, of course, is exhausting. Don tries now to teach Melanie how to sell the virtues of emptiness. "That's the best opportunity in the world," he tells her, and urges her to let the prospective buyers fill his sad apartment with their own imaginations. But Don's heart really isn't in it—his "pitch" about the millionaire inventor of the Frisbee is uninspired—and Melanie isn't buying it. She sees what is, not what isn't. "It looks like a sad person lived here," she says. "And what happened to him? He got divorced, spilled wine on the carpet, and didn't care enough to replace it, even for himself." Unlike Don's story, hers has the ring of absolute truth: "This place reeks of failure."

Because if getting something means always wanting something more, and happiness is just the moment before you need more happiness, then what does success look like? How is it supposed to feel? Don has—or has had—nearly everything (and everyone) he ever wanted. He had the perfect suburban life with the perfect blonde hostess of a wife. He had the hot young secretary to usher him through his mid-life crisis years. He has had the fame, and the money, and the respect, and the awards. He is the quintessential American success story, the Horatio Alger myth made flesh, a poor boy from nothing who made it all the way to the top, to a penthouse in Manhattan.

And it all still, somehow, reeks of failure.

"This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life." — Peggy

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in The Forecast

Because what else is there, when happiness is viewed in those terms? "The Forecast" takes its title from the presentation Roger has to give to the partners at McCann-Erickson, about the future of the company. He passes the assignment on to Don—who usually, as Ted says, is "so much better at painting a picture." But painting this particular picture means seeing the next thing that would make him happy, and he can't imagine what that thing would be. He has so much, and he has achieved so much, and he has tried on so many different lives, and there's nothing left that has any appeal to him.

The problem isn't that he has everything he ever wanted: it's that he has had everything he thought he ever wanted, and none of it made him happy. The only thing that would make him happy is something else, and he no longer knows what that would be. "We know where we've been, we know where we are," he says, thinking out loud. "Let's assume that it's good. But it's got to get better. It's supposed to get better."

So he goes fishing for inspiration, first from Ted, then from Peggy. Their answers are the kinds of dreams he used to have. Ted would like to land an oil company, or Goodyear tires, or maybe even—dare he dream?—a pharmaceutical company. "That's your greatest desire?" Don scoffs. "Bigger accounts?" Once, these things would once have looked like happiness to him as well, but they seem so empty. "Now it could be anything," Ted says, but that's exactly the problem: there are infinite choices, and none of them are appealing.

Peggy is no more help, because Peggy has almost, but not quite, succeeded in her ambitions. She is tantalizingly close to being what Don was, at the height of his powers, but that means the picture for her is still tantalizingly incomplete: she's still hungry. "I want to be the first female creative director of this agency," she says, and Don laughs—not because it's a silly dream, but because he's had that, and he knows it didn't make him happy. "Say you get that," he says. "What's next?" But her answers are like Teddy's: land a huge account, have a big idea, create a catch phrase, achieve fame. With everything she says, Don scoffs, because he's had all that, and it all seems small and meaningless now. Peggy—perceptive as always—recognizes that the conversation they're having (which is supposed to be about her) is really all about Don's existential crisis. "This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life," she says. "Why don't you just write down all your dreams, so I can shit on them."

But these are his dreams—or they were. He has always seen himself in Peggy, but now it's like he's interrogating—and disparaging—his past self: he can't remember why he thought those things were so important, and he can't go back and explain to himself—to her—how empty it will all turn out to be. She thinks he's making fun of her, but really he's begging for help: What the fuck am I supposed to do now? Who am I supposed to want to be?

The end of the episode finds a similar parallel between present and past. Despite the obvious emptiness, a new couple does decide to take Don's apartment. They are young, they are obviously successful, the wife is pregnant. They will move into the vacuum, and temporarily fill it with their own dreams, and maybe they'll be happy there, for a while. But as they stand there at what is, for them, the beginning, they are standing in the depressingly empty end of a chapter in Don's life, and he can see how the endless cycle just keeps playing out. Peggy will become Don at work; these people will become Don and Megan at home; and none of them, we suspect, will end up being terribly happy. Meanwhile Don doesn't know what the next phase is supposed to look like for him. Things are supposed to get better, but what does that mean? "Now we have to find a place for you," Melanie tells him, before pushing him out the door into an empty corridor.

"This is not how I saw things. I have a plan, which is no plans." — Richard

Joan (Christina Hendricks) in The Forecast

And these themes are picked up, in slightly different keys, elsewhere in the episode. Joan, too, has everything she thought she wanted—or, at least, she has "the job I always wanted." She has fought to make it in a man's world, and succeeded to the point where her date jokingly accuses her of being just another executive on a trip out-of-town. ("I'll send you flowers," Joan says, remembering how she was once just the woman who got flowers, and the secretary who sent flowers to the women her executive bosses slept with.)

But Don—who is crushed under the weight of freedom and infinite choices—is a man. Joan, as a woman and a mother, has much less freedom, and fewer choices. Don could leave and get another job; Don could move away from his children; Don could have casual relationships with any number of people who would never ask him to give anything up. Joan has none of these choices. Joan doesn't even have Peggy's freedom: if Peggy is the woman who has chosen work over a home life, Joan is the woman who has struggled to have both—and that's harder.

Meanwhile, the man she meets, Richard (Bruce Greenwood), is one possible—if unlikely—answer to Don's question: "What's next?" For Richard is the next evolution: he, too, has achieved all his success, and he's had his family (albeit a more stable one than Don himself had). Now, he's aggressively embracing the emptiness of infinite choices. He plans to travel, to see the pyramids, to do whatever he feels like doing with no agenda and no commitments. "I have a plan, which is no plans," he tells Joan, when he finds out she has a four-year-old son. "You can't go to the pyramids. You can't go anywhere."

It's no wonder Joan—tempted by the possibility of love, and the greater possibility of freedom—ends up screaming at her son. "You're ruining my life!" She directs this at the babysitter, but it's obvious this is really an expression of frustration with the existence of Kevin, with the choices she's made that have locked her into certain realities. Kevin represents her original dream, the one she had before she knew there were other options: she was going to marry a doctor, and have a baby. That's what happiness looked like, back then: that's what she thought she wanted, and she got it. But none of it quite worked out the way she planned.

But would she really give up Kevin to have her freedom? She makes it clear she wouldn't, by sarcastically offering to do exactly that for Richard. ("If I have to choose between you and my son, I choose you," she says.) And I'm not sure Mad Men poses any simplistic answer to the existential dilemma: it doesn't necessarily prioritize one kind of life over another. (Another, more depressing way to say this is that no one way of life necessarily offers more happiness than any other.)

The ghost of Rachel Menken haunts these final episodes. As we learned in "Severance," she was the woman who rejected Don's cult of infinite freedom, of constant reinvention, because she wanted a real life. "She had everything," her sister said of Rachel, and it is tempting to read Rachel's commitment to one solid, settled life as the key to happiness. But did she have everything? Or does her life only look perfect in comparison, another example of how what we don't have always looks better than what we do? No one in Mad Men has a perfect life: everyone has sacrificed something for something else, and everyone still dreams hopelessly that another way of life might somehow be better. Would Joan be happier if she had never married, and didn't have a child? Would Peggy be happier if she had married, and did have a child? Even Betty—the quintessential housewife who embraced perfect domesticity with both fists—now wants to go back to school and get her Master's degree.

If Rachel was happy, it wasn't because she had everything: it was because she somehow learned to be happy with what she had. It's trying to have everything—and preserve the freedom of infinite choices—that seems to be the problem.

"I'm so tired of people asking me what I want to do." — Sally Draper

Betty, Sally, and Glen in The Forecast

Finally, the title of this episode, and Don's question of "what's next," can be seen as referring to the next generation.

It's worth remembering that Matthew Weiner is not of Don and Betty's generation: he is of the generation that called these people Mom and Dad. (Though, born in 1965, he's closer in age to Eugene than to Sally.) That's why, for a lot of us, Sally Draper has often seemed like the real central character of Mad Men, the one who would ultimately be shaped and changed by all of these events, and by all of these people who, themselves, never seem to change at all. Mad Men may ultimately be about how America changed to become the nation that Sally Draper inherits.

So it's no wonder that the fate of the next generation is a subject in "The Forecast": while their parents are grappling with who they have been, Sally and Glen are just beginning to figure out who they want to be.

For Glen—as for about 58,000 young men of his generation—the future may be short. Glen has flunked out of college, and—in an effort to please his parents (and Betty?)—has enrolled in the Army. He's off to Vietnam, and I have a feeling we won't be seeing him again.

Theoretically, Glen is an interesting character. His mother, remember, was one of the first divorced women in the world of Mad Men: we can see her as a pioneer for women's liberation in this world, or else as a canary in the mine who warned of the widespread domestic dysfunction to come. When Glen first met Betty she represented the perfect domestic goddess, the 1950s style housewife who would soon become a thing of the past. So it's no surprise (and thematically on-point) that he was drawn to her—again, we always want what we don't have—even if the nature of that attraction was, and remains, super creepy. She is America's idealized past, which he still longs for, and from which he still seeks approval. ("I feel safe because I know that you're mine," Glen the Future Corpse says to Betty the All-American Girl.)

But the character—and, frankly, the performance from Matthew Weiner's son Marten—has never completely worked for me, and watching him interact with other human beings gives me the serious heebie-jeebies. So let's talk about Sally instead.

Sally Draper has gotten a lot from her parents. She has inherited their beauty, which Don reminds her this episode. (Echoing Mathis's accusation that Don is "just handsome," Don tells Sally: "You're a very beautiful girl. It's up to you to be more than that.") She has learned to imitate Betty's cool charm and propriety when she wants it, and she has learned to use Don's slier charm, and his quickness with a lie, when she needs it. She is, like Don, a keen observer of human nature, able to read people and—when necessary—manipulate them. She, too, can probably do just about anything she wants: as they have for Don, things will come far too easily to her.

But she has also learned from watching her parents, and she hasn't seen much that she wants to emulate. Since her parents' divorce—and especially since she discovered Don's affair in Season Six—she has been disgusted with them and their lives. It's more than just normal teen-age rejection of her parental-units: she's smart enough to see the emptiness in all the things they think are important, and she's observant enough to be repulsed by their need for external reinforcement and their constant longing for something "new." ("Anyone pays attention to either of you—and they always do—and you just ooze everywhere," she says, accurately, after watching them both flirt with teenagers.) Right now, Sally's only plan for the future—for "what's next"—is to run from everything her parents represent as fast as possible. "You know what I'm going to write down for my dream?" she asks Don. "I want to get on a bus, and get away from you and mom, and hopefully be a different person than you two."

But Don knows the sad truth: she is like them. She will be like him, just like that young couple who bought his penthouse will be like him. She won't remember what she wanted, or why she wanted it, when she's Don's age. She's a true child of the '60s, the decade that destroyed America's old illusions about itself and failed to replace them with a vision of anything better. Even her dream puts her in parallel with her father: like Don himself, she only knows what she doesn't want. Her definition of happiness is based on what's missing, not what's present.

She knows there has to be something better than always wanting something better: she just has no idea what it might be.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • Forgive the lateness of this post. Ideally these reviews will post by Tuesday—Wednesday at the latest—but this is my busiest time of year, and some deadlines will be missed. I'm doing the best I can.
  • I skipped over the subplot about Mathis, though it was terribly entertaining. What I like most about it is Don's complete disconnection from reality, and his inability to recognize his own uniqueness and privilege. Just like he can't understand that Peggy's dream is to have everything that came to him so easily, he also can't understand that little Johnny Mathis can not get away with the same shit as Don Draper. It's also a reminder that, though Don hasn't changed, the world—and the business—has. Mathis's first instinct was to apologize, he says. "But you don't understand that, because guys like you don't have to do it." Guys like Don, for better or worse, are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, for which the world no longer has a place.
  • Speaking of dinosaurs, Lou—remember Lou?—is not only still with us, he's still dreaming of his better life, in the form of his wretched cartoon creation, "Scout's Honor." (Though, from what I remember of Hanna Barbara cartoons in the '70s, Lou's crap would be right at home there.)
  • From the Department of Jesus, Weiner, We Get It Already: after Glen goes off to Vietnam, Betty takes Bobby's toy machine gun away from him, and throws it in the trash, where it lands with a literal and thematic thud.
  • "Well, I'm sorry mother, but this conversation is a little late…and so am I." Sally cracks me up.
  • After all the existential hand-wringing about who people want to be, and what they want to do, and what will make them happy and fulfilled, Sally stumbles upon what may be the perfect answer: she just wants to eat dinner. "Nothing like having realistic goals," Don says.

NEXT: Episode 7×11 – "Time & Life"

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