Do not read on unless you've seen "The Forecast," the tenth episode of "Mad Men's" final season.
You come to me for analysis of “Mad Men” that is, ideally, cogent, entertaining and thoughtful, so I feel the need to inform you that the show may have broken my brain tonight. “The Forecast” may have contained the weirdest scene in “Mad Men” history, and this is a show that cut a guy’s foot off just for grins.
Glen Bishop. Glen Bishop, my friends. I am shaking my head and laughing as I write this. That final Glen-Betty scene was so odd and so surreal on so many levels that I know I won’t do it justice. But like Mathis, I have to try to go down swinging.
So here’s the main problem. I think the scene was meant to be awkward in many ways. Any time you have an 18-year-old hitting on a much older married woman, who is the mother of one of his good friends, there is no doubt that the moment is going to be transgressive and strange. That act of rule-breaking can contain within it a host of uncomfortable feelings -- discomfort at crossing a line, guilt about putting the moves on someone who is taken, an odd feeling about how society might perceive the difference in ages. (And to be clear, I’m not saying any "rules" to which I refer are inviolate or even valid. I'm just saying, those were society’s rules according to the understanding of these 1970-era, upper-middle class characters.)
So on one level, the Glen-Betty scene was meant to be weird. It intentionally prodded the audience to get a reaction. But the strangeness and discomfort of the moment was overwhelmed by many other layers of weirdness, most of which were unintentional. It wasn’t necessarily distracting for the right reasons.
The main problem is, the two actors on screen not only had no chemistry together, they were intensely wooden and awkward together. The whole thing felt like a marionette show performed by a beginning puppeteer. I think we were supposed to feel epic emotions about the tragedy of Glen’s love of Betty and the yearning of her strange love for him. Mainly it felt forced and vaguely creepy. I felt no deep emotion, only surprised bemusement that it was happening at all.
“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner simply has a blind spot where these two actors are concerned. I’m not saying January Jones can’t act, but she has a very small range and unless she’s in a scene that plays to her strengths, she falls back on playing Betty in a very one-dimensional ways. She has grown as an actress -- witness her performances early in Season 1, when some of her scenes were actively painful to watch. Then recall how good she was when she confronted Don over the contents of his Dick Whitman box in when that couple was breaking up. When given the right tools and the right scene partner, Jones can give as good as she gets.
When given Marten Holden Weiner as her scene partner, she flounders, because he is … not adept. I have seen high school plays in which the male lead had more presence, technical mastery and natural fluidity. This was Matt Weiner going for some kind of “Splendor in the Grass” or Douglas Sirk-ian high-class melodrama and coming up with something that was comically stilted and unintentionally strange. That storyline did tie into the episode’s theme of children as both impediments and necessary anchors, but it was also just odd and strangely superficial. As James Poniewozik tweeted, “That was like the darkest Greg Brady storyline ever.” Pretty much.
I didn’t hate the episode; the non-Glen parts were pretty good, and anything would have been better than the repetitive glumness of last week’s outing. But I found the final Glen scene both painful and faintly amusing because it was such a misfire. Yes, Betty is an immature woman who likes flirting with a young man with whom she had a strange relationship years ago. Yes, Glen is a lost young man with a misguided crush on a pretty but empty shell. Only Weiner cares about any of this.
The show’s creator continues to be fascinated with Betty, even though she ceased to matter to the core stories of "Mad Men" a long time ago. He has kept Glen Bishop in the story long past the time when he served much of a purpose even in Sally’s life. I guess I was supposed to feel bad for the poor kid that he was going to Vietnam carrying a torch for Betty, she of the unmoving hair helmet. Instead, I just found myself laughing a little bit at the whole scenario, marveling at Glen’s impressive sideburns and thanking Dieu that I didn’t have to put up with any outbursts from the Calvet women tonight.
The World’s Strangest Sub-Plot aside, this half-season started to kick into gear, maybe, sort of (while proving that, as I've written, AMC should not have split this show into half seasons -- every week, we get more proof that that was not a good call). Characters had to face up and confront all sorts of realities, and the mission statement Don was trying to formulate gave us an indication that we really are near the end. Don's trying to figure out what it all means and what the future might hold -- and yet we never actually got to hear the finished speech (if Don actually finished it, that is).
What was amusing in this hour -- in the right ways -- was the fact that nobody has time for Don’s bullsh-t anymore. His real estate agent, Mathis, Peggy, Ted Chaough -- nobody buys into the Don Draper mystique. They either don't have time for it or they simply don't care. When it came to the apartment, he told the real estate agent to just tell a good story about an empty vessel, which is basically the Don Draper story in a nutshell. She wasn't having it, because she lives in the real world. “You don’t have any character. You’re just handsome. Stop kidding yourself.” Mathis’ angry rant was pretty spot-on, as was the Realtor’s assessment of Don’s faded apartment. “This place reeks of failure.” Lady, you don’t know the half of it.
The forecast of the title -- the speech -- represents Don trying to answer the question the song asked a few weeks ago -- “Is that all there is?” He looked down on all of Peggy’s ambitions because those are all the things he’s accomplished already -- he’s established a name for himself, he’s famous within the advertising industry, he’s created some famous campaigns and he has money and power. He’s signed big clients. Now what?
It's typical of Don that he wants Peggy to answer that question for him, but he doesn’t even do her the courtesy of telling her he's grilling her for his speech. He vaguely pretends he cares about her annual review (and he doesn’t, of course, because he’s Don Draper). That scene, however, felt like vintage “Mad Men”: Without giving Peggy much in the way of context, he drew her into his thought process and she helped him brainstorm and toss around ideas. However skilled they are on their own, together, they are greater than the sum of their parts, and I'm so glad when the show remembers to show us that.
Peggy left feeling frustrated, but Don probably got something useful out of their conversation -- not that you’d know. Women tend to leave Don’s presence not having fully gotten what they wanted and feeling vaguely irritated these days. He doesn’t lack for companionship, but he lacks much in the way of actual intimacy with anyone he can count on. Does anyone truly like hanging out with Don these days? Even Don himself?
That said, Don's bond with Peggy is still strong. I love that those two can trade barbs with each other and it doesn’t really mean anything. (And how great was the confrontation in the hallway in which Don played the harried dad to his two “children,” Peggy and Pete? Those actors have such a great spark together -- I will miss that core trio a lot.)
Is Don a failure because he hasn’t created real value in the world? Has he done what he counseled his daughter to do -- has he himself become more than just a pretty face? Or, does he have too much in common with his apartment (i.e., it looks good at first glance, but on closer inspection, it’s hollow and a little sordid)? Peggy and Ted can’t find meaning for him; he’s going to have to find it for himself.
At least Peggy and Joan, unlike Don, know exactly what they want. Peggy wants to be the agency’s creative director, and Joan wants to just do her job, which she loves and is good at. And my goodness, I really want both of them to be happy when the series ends. It’s not about whether they’re with a man, it’s about whether they have a real shot at finding personal fulfillment in the ways that they define that. That said, it was a brilliant stroke to cast Bruce Greenwood as Joan’s handsome stranger. Christina Hendricks had real chemistry with him, and I am so glad that Joan didn’t get saddled with yet another disappointing guy who didn’t treat her right. She's had enough disappointment for five lifetimes.
I'm glad Richard came back and made it right with her; I'm glad he saw her point and he decided not to be “rigid.” The framing of the final image of those two -- both in full-body silhouettes -- felt absolutely right. They looked well matched in that scene, which was Sirk-ian and symbolic in all the right ways.
Of course, Glen and Betty were filmed in the kitchen in the exact same way, which only shows you that certain framings only work with the right characters in the right moment. Not to flog a dead horse here, but I bring up Glen again in order to talk about Kieran Shipka, who was phenomenal, as usual, in this episode. Here’s the thing: In a television show with actors as great and subtle as Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and Kiernan Shipka (among others), every other actor on the screen will be held to the very, very high standard they set.
An example: Think about the scene in which Sally called Glen’s house and presumably spoke to his mother, Helen. Shipka got no help in that scene. We didn’t hear the other voice on the line. There was no music. There were no cuts -- just a slow, steady push of the camera right into her face. During that short phone call, she had to go from polite to panicked and sad to weepy, and make all of it work by herself. She nailed it, of course. All of which makes the Glen scenes look that much more ridiculous. Marten Holden Weiner, at best, comes off as if he’s the eighth lead on a derivative genre show that’s about to be canceled. Shipka comes off as a future Oscar winner. Le sigh.
Anyway, Sally provided the episode’s high points by giving Don an intentionally hilarious series of side-eye glances that made it clear that she was disgusted with her dad. You could hardly miss any of the discomfort with kids in this episode: Sally thought it was gross that her mother flirted with Glen and that her father tolerated her friend’s aggressive come-ons at dinner. Joan’s son was seen, at first, as an impediment to a man getting what he wanted. And that’s aside from the fact that Weiner cast his own son in the role of a young man who is obsessed with a woman he barely knows. Lots of weirdness, folks, lots.
In any event, whatever Don's other faults, he would not actually get physical, even slightly, with one of his daughter's friends, I think (and I fully realize that this is not exactly an endorsement of Don Draper's character, which is, as others pointed out, fairly suspect overall).
Is it wrong that I think Don comes of slightly better in the comparison between Sally’s two narcissistic parents? Don never would have put the moves on any of Sally’s friends, while Betty came very close to kissing Glen, who, presumably has been in love with her since the Ossining days. Betty doesn’t even know how much she’s reveling in Glen’s attention -- witness the way she smoothed down her hair in his presence, and her own wicked side-eye when she wanted Sally to leave them alone. Of course, Betty would deny to the death that she was flirting with Glen, because she's still in denial about most things (and what Glen doesn't realize is that, despite her immaturity, she's so status-obsessed that an 18-year-old dropout would never even remotely land on her radar).
Weirdly enough, I think both Sally’s parents are about as functional as they’re ever going to be. Don at least has the self-awareness to know that Sally’s upset and to try to get her to understand that part of her cynicism will wear off as she realizes she’s not all that different from the people who raised her. And even if Betty is still immature and clueless, she and Sally had a decent rapport in their earlier kitchen scene.
But who knows how much more Sally and Joan we’ll get? To be clear, I want lots more from them, and from Peggy and Pete and all the usual suspects. Weiner has different ideas for his farewell tour, I guess. Last week, we got the Calvet women. This week, lots of quality (hahaha) time with Glen Bishop.
Next up: Maybe we'll go in depth with Chauncey the dog?
This week's list of bullet points:
- Everyone looks at the show’s opening credits and sees a man falling, which is part of that imagery, of course. But what about the moments before that, when walls fall away? That’s the situation Don is in now, I think -- women and commitments and his apartment have all fallen away from him. Who will he be when he’s “free as a bird”?