[This is a review of Mad Men season 7, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
It's not unusual for an episode of Mad Men to have an implicit theme running throughout each and every interaction between characters like Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and so on. But it generally isn't like the show to actually make the theme a question that's asked explicitly by Don to nearly everyone he runs into. As such, 'The Forecast' turns into a strange but powerful episode where the question of what comes next isn't just on the minds of everyone because it fits the thematic arc of the episode; it's there because Don Draper unambiguously inquires as to what everyone wants from the future.
Tasked by Roger with writing a speech about the state of SC&P and what lies in store for the company, Don finds himself at odds with contemplating the future – he draws a blank, gets stuck on Roger's comparison between this speech and the Gettysburg Address, and at one point is saying "Four score and seven years ago" into his Dictaphone. Without much to go on, Don starts sending out feelers, asking Ted and Peggy what they want from the future, and ends up with some patent business talk about what's left to achieve, how the company can grow, or how one person can make a lasting impact.
Ted wants to land a pharmaceutical, a massive payday for a firm like SC&P, while Peggy wants to create a catch phrase and essentially achieve fame. There's nothing wrong with either of these pursuits in terms of talking about the company and where it's headed. But Don's looking for something more; he wants something more abstract and philosophical, something that might help him not only get his head around what's left for him to achieve, but what's next for him and his empty apartment, his empty life.
As Mad Men often beautifully does, there's recurring imagery laced throughout the episode that speaks to what Don is going through. Last week, the image of Don standing alone in the apartment that had been cleaned out by Marie Calvet, as he said goodbye to Megan, was the kind of image the series could easily have ended on. Here, however, 'The Forecast' equates Don not knowing what lies ahead with a kind of bored hunger that borders on existential.
We're only three episodes in this season, but the overt message the series has been delivering is how horrible the complacency that accompanies astronomical success can be. Don, Roger, Ted, Pete, and Joan are all filthy rich after being bought out by McCann Erickson, and with that came the complications of having less to do, less to strive for, less to want. Don and Pete spend their time playing golf with potential clients, while Joan busies herself with shopping to ease a bad day spent in the company of some sexist pigs. Even Roger makes things more complicated than they need to be because excess allows him to have two secretaries doing a one-person job. He even delegates the speech he's supposed to deliver in the Bahamas to Don.
Everyone's overstuffed and underworked, and for a guy like Don who is used to perpetual motion in one way or another, that's a difficult position to be in. But it's not like he's not hungry for more; he is. Everyone is. Ted and Peggy are hungry for bigger better accounts and the renown that comes with them. Joan is hungry for a romantic partner that she deserves (and may have found in Bruce Greenwood's Richard, a proxy for Roger Sterling, if there ever was one). Mathis is hungry for respect. Even Glen and Betty are hungry for a deeper connection that might make his decision to enlist in the war seem a little less meaningless, a little less based on his flunking out of school.
Don is hungry, too. Hungry for something more, something that's not just going to carry him over until his next meal, but something that's going to nourish him deep down. But right now, the only thing he can find is empty calories. Take a look at the episode and you'll find several references to Don eating what amounts to junk food. Early on, Don tries his luck at getting some inspiration from Ted, he walks in with two donuts – it's too much food, he tells Ted, and offers him one. Later on in the episode, Don is standing in front of a vending machine, pondering his choice of candy bar like it's his future he's being asked to decide on. And near the hour's end, while he's out to dinner with Sally and three of her friends, he reaches for a fried something or other, telling the girls not to let him fill up on what amounts to a complimentary appetizer. Don can't help himself from eating, and it's clear he wants some sort of satisfaction; he just doesn't know what he's hungry for.
In another way of looking at it, it's as though, after the debacle with Diana the Damaged Waitress from the season's first two episodes, Don's sublimating his sexual desire with whatever food is on hand. Reaching to feed himself with whatever's closest, easiest, and instantly gratifying is an apt comparison with Don's sexual history. And in a way, Diana was the equivalent of a vending machine candy bar or whatever it was in that bowl at the Chinese restaurant. She might hold him over for a few minutes, but Diana's not going to satiate him in the way that he needs or wants.
It's also a sign of how far Don Draper has fallen in the year 1970. This is a man who can afford to have fine meals prepared for him daily, and yet he's snacking out of a vending machine. This is a man who could attract almost any woman he wants, and yet he pursues a waitress who was so grief stricken, she abandoned her husband and child. Don could have anything he wants, but he's like his apartment: empty.
Don chooses to fill his apartment like he does his body, with something that will help him get by in the moment. Patio furniture is the equivalent of a candy bar or a donut in this instance. Don's inability to nourish his body and his soul, or to furnish the apartment to make it easier for his realtor to sell is indicative of the very thing Mathis accuses him of: a lack of character. And that's something Sally accuses him of while waiting to head off on her teen tour for the summer.
But Don grabs Sally and reminds her, "You are like your mother and me. You're gonna find that out. And you're a very beautiful girl. It's up to you to be more than that." Those words may still have come from Don a few years ago, but the way he scavenges for more suggests he knows deep down that he too can be something more.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with 'Time & Life' @10pm on AMC.
Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC