“Let’s assume that it’s good and it’s going to get better. It’s supposed to get better.”
It’s a frequent trait of Mad Men episodes that sometimes they’ll be structured around a Big Theme. Sometimes this is subtly done, and at others the script keeps clubbing you round the head with it shouting, “See, that’s what this one’s about!”
With four more eps to go after this one, this week’s ep was one of the latter. That’s not to say it was bad of course – this is Mad Men, and even at its least subtle it’s still inscrutable compared to most TV drama. This week’s Big Theme was The Future, and that was the direction in which all the characters were looking. Some, like Peggy, were looking to it with cautious optimism; some, like Joan, with an increasing sense of hope; and some, like Sally, with a sense of adolescent despair. And of course Don Draper only saw a yawning existential chasm, and in his uncertainty spent about half the ep asking everyone else what they thought the future should be.
The catalyst for all of this, at least for Don, was lazy old Roger palming off some speechwriting to him for a McCann Erickson conference in the Bahamas (nice work if you can get it). The speech was to be about what the future held for Sterling Cooper & Partners – and Don, usually a master at coming up with snappy copy, plainly had no idea what that was.
Even more than usual for Don, his life was in a state of flux, his swanky apartment on the market again after his mother in law unexpectedly swiped all his furniture last week. The real estate agent was, somewhat unbelievably, having trouble selling the place. I mean really, a penthouse apartment in Manhattan with that view, and people were put off by the lack of furniture? Mind you, the estate agent nailed it perfectly when she pointed out to Don, “it looks like a sad person lived here”. Spot on. And Don’s hasty riposte that “great things happened here” rang as hollow as the man himself.
Don has always been trying to find the substance of himself, the real person inside the hollow shell that used to be Dick Whitman – if there’s even a real person left there any more. This week saw him confronting some harsh criticism that clearly hit a nerve, piling on the angst atop his apparent dread of The Future. Having rather unwisely taken Don’s advice about repairing a broken relationship with a client, copywriter (but not singer) Johnny Mathis burst into his office with the furious accusation that, “You don’t have any character! You’re just handsome! Stop kidding yourself!” Ouch – many a true thing said in the heat of anger.
To be fair though, even though he’s totally self-centred and utterly loathsome to people around him, Don is more than just a handsome face. The trouble is, he hasn’t figured out in what way exactly. At least he has the decency to loathe himself as well, which can’t have been helped by the angry Peggy telling him, “why don’t you just write down all of your dreams, so I can shit all over them?” and the contemptuous Sally, stung by her schoolmate’s obvious crush on him, incisively summing up both her parents: “Anyone pays attention to either of you – and they always do – and you just ooze everywhere”.
None of this was strictly inaccurate, though Sally, sick of being asked what she wanted to do with her future, had to face the fact pointed out by Don that she’s just like both her parents – however much she doesn’t want to be. It was great to see Kiernan Shipka again, in Sally’s first appearance since the show’s return; together with Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and Walking Dead’s Chandler Riggs, she’s one of my favourite child actors at the moment.
I don’t know if this is the absolute last we’ll see of her before the show’s end, but if so at least she got some meaty plotlines to go out on. Most notable was the return of Glen Bishop, another callback to the show’s convoluted past. Played by showrunner’s son Marten Weiner, Glen has been a recurring presence ever since season one, and has built up a sort of When Harry Met Sally relationship with… er, Sally. They clearly have one of those great friendships where you try and take it to the level of romance, then decide that isn’t really going to work out and friendship is better.
Weiner and Shipka have always had a terrific chemistry together that makes you truly believe in the close relationship between these two misfits. And it’s always been far from certain that they weren’t destined to be soulmates. This being Mad Men, though, that sort of happy ending seemed off the cards this week with Glen’s revelation that he’d signed up to the army and was off to Vietnam the following day.
Kiernan Shipka convincingly sold Sally’s horror and sadness at the thought, hidden behind a mask of anger. “How could you be so fucking stupid?” she seethed, making good use of the show’s infrequently deployed F-bombs. And yet later, we had the touching scene where she poured her heart out to Glen’s mother on the phone, clearly barely holding back tears. I’ve grown attached to both of them, and it’s genuinely upsetting that, this being Mad Men, it’s very unlikely that Glen’s coming back.
If he does though, it’s liable to be awkward for Betty. January Jones got her first proper crack of the whip plotwise this week, and she too was looking to The Future, with her impending attendance at university. First though, she had to deal with the amorous attentions of Glen, who, lest we forget, was originally introduced as a chubby, slightly creepy 9 year old with an unfortunate crush on her. It’s fair to say he’s grown up pretty nicely, and Betty certainly seemed to notice that when he called round (much to Sally’s annoyance).
But however unsatisfying her marriage to Henry may currently be, Betty still embodies the prim suburban housewife concerned above all else with appearances. Hence, she wasn’t prepared to return Glen’s affections, in a scene nicely played by both. It’s more than a little creepy that Glen is still clinging on to a childhood crush, and horrifying that he might be using it to justify a near certain death in one of America’s most unjustified wars.
Joan, meanwhile, got an entirely separate subplot of her own where she hooked up with a man rather more age-appropriate, in the shape of Christopher Pike out of Star Trek… er, Richard Burghoff, played by Star Trek’s Bruce Greenwood. Joan, who seemed to spend about half her plotline on the phone to arrange her personal life, was also looking to The Future, and Richard was seemingly a kindred spirit in that regard.
Trouble was, Joan’s ideal of The Future – like Peggy’s and Ted’s – was entirely centred around her work. Richard, like Don, thought that there had to be Something More. Their dalliance played out throughout the ep, as he (rather stalkerishly) followed her to New York to woo her, only to be put off by the knowledge that she had a four year old son. Plainly intended as a mirror of Don, the wealthy, retired Richard wasn’t too keen on that, having already brought up a family – “I have a plan. Which is no plans”.
It was interesting that Joan should choose to dally with a man who almost could be Don – or more likely Roger. Is she getting a little desperate, with two failed marriages behind her and no romantic prospects even though she’s now a highly successfully businesswoman? Christina Hendricks, excellent as ever, kept that ambiguous; though it seemed very out of character for her to comment, “if I have to choose between my son and you, I choose you”. As of the ep’s close, it seemed that there might still be a chance for her with the newly penitent Richard – but I’d still really prefer to see her end up with Roger.
Not much of any great significance this week, though Sally did bring up the events at Kent State to which I alluded a couple of weeks ago. Evidently we’re now past May 4 1970, though I’d guess no further ahead than the summer of that year. Certainly Don’s browsing of current magazines, complete with a famous 1970 Volkswagen ad, seems to bear that out:
Pop culture-wise though, there was plenty to chew on. Glen and his disposable new girlfriend were off for a day at Playland, one of New York State’s oldest amusement parks; while Betty disparagingly compared Sally to famed anti-Vietnam activist Jane Fonda.
Lying on Don’s desk was a copy of Time Magazine’s 06 April 1970 issue, featuring a drawing of the then young Jesse Jackson:
Joan’s dinner with Richard showed that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Responding to his comment about protesting hippies, she tartly came back with, “must be real radicals, to prefer low income housing to a golf course”. There’s hope for her yet.
Outside of politics, we saw the increasing dominance of television as a cultural force for the coming generation. Joan’s little son Kevin was pacified by harassed babysitter Maureen with then new children’s show Sesame Street:
While Bobby Draper (who still, lamentably, has no character of his own) protested at being sent to bed before The Brady Bunch. Both of these legendary shows (Sesame Street is still a going concern) started late the previous year, 1969; and both are American cultural milestones, for better or worse. Their inclusion here served to add to the show’s deconstruction of the country’s culture and the American Dream.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
For a wonder, this week saw the men committing the greatest crimes against fashion. Joan, as ever, looked resplendent in a succession of glamorous outfits that still didn’t undercut her status as Serious Businesswoman:
Her new beau Richard, however, lacked any such restraint. Early on, he displayed a fondness for safari jackets and shirts with unfeasibly gigantic collars:
While later, he seemed to think that a silk cravat would look good with this outfit:
Glen, meanwhile, was embracing youth trends as befits an 18 year old, with these flower emblazoned jeans and this truly hideous shirt:
At least we got to see that he’s acquired a nicely hairy chest.
Despite the rather unsubtle handling of this week’s Big Theme, this was still a hugely enjoyable ep of Mad Men with the usual attention to character detail. It was great to see Sally again; while she may not always be the most likeable of characters, she’s definitely one of the most intriguing. This may well be the end of her relationship (whatever its nature) with Glen; I’d be surprised if he survives Vietnam. But that uncertain Future hanging over all the characters’ heads was what dominated the ep, and I’m betting it won’t be a happy one for Don Draper. It’s worth mentioning that this is the third ep in a row to end with a shot of him isolated and alone (even among people) doing that trademark forlorn stare into the middle distance: