Seeing Mad Men through its ads: Every week, WIRED takes a look at the latest episode of Mad Men through the lens of the latest media campaign by advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners.
Don Draper has landed the Don Draper account, and he’s working on it round the clock. During his off hours, his apartment, an expensive shell looted by the vengeful Calvets, is on the market, and he’s finding that his spartan, slapdash bachelor lifestyle makes for a tough sell. “The emptiness is a problem,” his real estate agent tells him. “This requires too much imagination.” “That’s the best opportunity in the world!” he replies, which in his experience has certainly been true. Don’s first big coup of the series was the Lucky Strike campaign—referenced repeatedly throughout this episode—and it was written on a slate wiped blank by the government’s shutdown of Big Tobacco’s health claims. If they were starting from nothing, Don argued, they could do absolutely anything. And he ought to know: His version of “Don Draper” only came into existence when the original was literally blown up.
The problem is that where Don sees limitless possibility, buyers see a big nothing. Without anything to serve as a signpost for the kind of life that could be lived in this place, they’re left to reflect on what the current resident must have lost to lead him to this empty existence: his marriage, for starters, and if the untreated wine stain on his bedroom carpet is any indication, his self-respect as well. “I’ve sold a lot uglier things than this,” Don tells the real estate agent. Buddy, you’re soaking in it.
At work, Don discovers for himself that total freedom can be a creative prison of its own. Roger has been ordered by SC&P’s parent company McCann to deliver a speech about the future of the firm—“The Forecast” that gives the episode its title. When Don agrees to write this prognostication for him, he realizes he has no idea what that future ought to be. “Before McCann,” he tells Ted, “all I ever thought of was: will we be in business next year?” “Or Will I be here at all?” Ted says. “Now it could be anything.” That’s the problem. The firm’s success gives them free winds and fair skies to sail to any destination they choose. With the future that wide open, don’t better campaigns for bigger clients in more lucrative industries (the goals Ted and Peggy suggest) seem a little parochial?
Not to them it doesn’t. Peggy, in particular, is justly proud of knowing exactly what she wants: to be the company’s first female creative director, to knock a huge campaign out of the park and into the pop-culture lexicon, to “create something of lasting value.” But, like a child who keeps asking an increasingly exasperated parent “why?”, Don snarkily asks for more at every stage of Peggy’s plan. “This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life,” she says. “So you think those things are unrelated?” he replies. Maybe they ought to be, Don! Ambition is a fine thing, but limitless ambition consumes as much as it fuels. Limits are what stop you from getting lost.
Total freedom is a personal and professional peril, as it turns out. Ask Richard, Joan’s new love interest. His unhappy marriage of 22 years is over; his children have all left the nest; “and now I’m free as a bird.” So when Joan reveals she still has a “mouth to feed,” he flips at the prospect of having his wings clipped. “I have a plan, which is no plan!” he shouts, berating her for her inability to fly off to the pyramids at the drop of a hat. But if your freedom forces you to give up on a good thing like Joan (Joan!!!) just to avoid the encumbrance of her kid, what good is it to you? “I don’t want to be rigid,” he eventually tells her, changing his tune. “It makes you old.” In the end Richard decides he’d rather be a part of Joan’s life than leave her behind to visit history’s most famous tombs.
The grown-ups aren’t the only ones struggling with having the world at their feet. Former weird neighbor kid/current 18-year-old stone fox Glen Bishop triumphantly returns to make a pass at a relatively receptive Betty before going off to Vietnam, a prospect he saw as preferable to enduring his stepdad’s disapproval for flunking out of college. Rather than wander after his path forward in life came to an untimely end, he picked an even more rigid road. His friend Sally is headed out on a literal road trip of her own, but she has no particular terminus in mind. She hates being asked what she wants to “do” (“I just wanna eat dinner”) and her sole stated ambition is to avoid being an attention whore like her parents, both of whom graciously bat away sexual advances from teenagers this episode. (So much for Don’s earlier contention that kids won’t get a campaign in which children fall in adult-like love with Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell peanut butter cookies.)
There’s a bit of inexplicable optimism to be had at the end of the episode, however: Don’s apartment sells to a young pregnant couple who buy it at the asking price. But this only leaves Don with still more “freedom.” He’s now no longer pinned down even to a place to live. Where, and what, does that leave him? “You don’t have any character,” his angry underling Mathis barks at him after screwing up a meeting by misunderstanding Don’s advice. “You’re just handsome! Stop kidding yourself!” An empty suit kicked out of his empty apartment into an empty hallway leading to an empty future.
Subtle it isn’t, but that’s the point. This lack of subtlety is not some embarrassing secret we’re discovering behind Matthew Weiner’s back. Mad Men isn’t obvious; it’s direct. It’s pointing to the emptiness and demanding that, like Don, we stand right there in the middle of it all, the door that leads home shut in our face, wondering where to go next.