You thought Mad Men was about Don Draper? About his perennial identity crisis and the varied ways in which he tries to distract himself from it? You thought it was about an advertising agency struggling to rise above the competition; about the creative team struggling to keep art in advertising; about ’60s people with ’60s problems?
Mad Men is and has always been about one thing and one thing only: the unrequited love between Betty Hofstadt-Draper-Francis and the kid who used to live down the block–the kid they call Glen Bishop.
We know Glen pretty well by now–shit, back when we met the progeny of maligned divorcee Helen Bishop, he didn’t even know how long twenty minutes was. We’ve seen him evolve from a chubby creepster transferring misplaced affection onto the first non-relation to be nice to him, to a still-chubby rebel who hold sacred his friendship with Sally. Only now we come to learn that he was just marking time with Sally, keeping her close by so that he could swoop in and steal more than a lock of hair from his old flame. Carrying a torch for ten years is weird enough in adult life let alone spanning the whole childhood-adolescence bridge, and Glen is now old enough to realize how ridiculous it is to think that he could still have his Betty. Sure, Mrs. Francis was kinda sorta maybe thinking about giving Glen a better-than-average sendoff, and to be sure he’s grown into quite the strapping young lad, absent his baby fat and sporting some sick mutton chops. But just as in their first encounters in season one, Betty registers Glen’s overtures partly as sadorably amusing, partly as a reassuring reminder that her roles as mother and as object of desire need not conflict with each other. She doesn’t want to sleep with an eighteen year old boy; Betty only cheats when she’s got the moral high ground, and in her tenure as Mrs. Francis she’s only ever flirted with other men when Henry was being a real pill. Still, she digs the fact that eighteen year old boys still want to sleep with her. It must feel even better when they prefer you over your daughter.
Glen’s always been a straight-talking, easygoing cat, so we knew right away that he didn’t enlist in the armed forces for the principled reasons he rattled off to Sally. He’s too cool for that kind of dunderheaded patriotism, especially at a time when it was wildly unfashionable. (Did I mention those boss chops?!) And while it’s not exactly surprising that he flunked out of school (did I mention he’s too cool?) it’s a little saddening that he couldn’t be upfront about this with Sally the way he was with Betty. It’s hard to believe Glen would feel the need to posture in front of his longtime pen pal; maybe he was just trying to impress his new girlfriend, but why? He’s deploying in, what, a week? Who gives a shit? At no point in this entire storyline was Glen Bishop thinking about the future. His impending deployment is representative of just how young the soldiers getting killed in Vietnam really were. It was different with Mitchell Rosen; he was barely older then than Glen is now, but we didn’t know him well enough to be invested in his fate (beyond what it meant for Don re: Sylvia). But we’ve watched Glen Bishop grow up. Though he’s taller and thinner and rocking a Mungo Jerry look, we still think of him as the little boy who wanted to rescue Betty Draper from the toil of her pre-divorce life. He still thinks that way too, apparently, which drive the point home even further. Glen’s still a little boy, except now he’s going to war.
At least Glen had the decency to plea for a formal goodbye. We know enough about Mad Men to know that we never really say goodbye to anybody (that is, alas, until the rapidly approaching end of the series) but Sally’s inability to reach Glen by phone before his deployment may be a bad omen. The other goodbye in this episode was less ceremonious: Johnny “Not That Johnny Mathis” Mathis blew it in front of the Peter Pan Peanut Butter People by getting into an f-word contest with Ed (who is indeed growing his hair long!). Mathis did the right thing by asking Don for advice, then did the complete wrong thing by thinking that he could do Don Draper anywhere near as good as Don Draper can. Of course, Mathis still got his parting shot: “You don’t have any character,” he said to Don. “You’re just handsome.” Indeed, one of the subterranean themes of the show is whether or not Don is actually any good at his job. He’s great when he’s on, but that only comes once in a Carousel. More often he’s taking unannounced sabbaticals and skipping work to screw waitresses and insulting clients who don’t like the work. He’s great at client dinners because he looks like a high school football player turned US Senator and because he speaks with confidence, so that everything he says sounds profound if you’ve had a few. Now, Don can’t even come up with a fluffy speech about the future of SC&P, a subject so vague, so abstract that the old Don would’ve knocked it out over a few cigarettes and half a bottle of Canadian Club. But today’s Don is out of ideas, so much so that he tries to trick Peggy into giving him something to write about. He’s not a creative director. He’s just handsome.
“The Forecast” is Don at his patio furniture laziest. He barely even tries to barf ideas into his dictophone; he solves the Ed-Mathis debacle without even leaving the candy machine; he doesn’t even bother to clean up the wine stain on his carpet before trying to sell his apartment. While taking the long way ’round to his speech assignment, he visits with Ted Chaough (carrying two donuts when he only needs one–hats off to (Bob) Benson!) and asks him, “Do you ever feel like there’s less to do but more to think about?” Of course Ted has no fucking idea what Don’s talking about. There’s always plenty to do where Ted comes from; that guy loves his memos. Don’s problem is that he’s forgotten how to tap into his instincts. The instincts are still there–his encounters with Pete and Peggy and Mathis show that he still knows how to think quickly and solve problems–but he seems unable to use them to his own benefit. His very instinct for survival seems absent. When was the last time you saw Don drink beer? Or eat donuts? He hasn’t even bothered to track down his furniture. The old Don didn’t care, but in a cool way, sort of like Brando in The Wild One. Now he doesn’t even care about himself. Without Megan, without his awesome apartment, and without the cocktail of admiration and intimidation that his presence used to inspire at SC&P, Don has nothing.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Don still has his kids, which in the context of the show means that he has Sally. (Bobby is too young to have an opinion about his dad, and Gene has yet to become anything but a leftover season three plot complication.) Unfortunately, the love-hate relationship between Don and his oldest child is in the midst of a “hate” swing at present. We know Don; he’s a liar and a cheater and a backstabber and a casual alcoholic, but he’s not a total pervert. He wasn’t flirting with Sally’s “fast” friend Sarah (herself a conniving little schemer) but what would you think if you were Sally Draper and you were forced to witness the creepy display that went on at dinner? It feels like longer ago (thanks, AMC, for your half-season BS) but it was only last season that Sally caught Don in the throes of extramarital coitus. Sally knows Sarah is boy-crazy to boot, but how can she not blame her father for encouraging (or at least not discouraging) the advance? Don is cursed with the kavorka, and Sally’s problem with him is that he treats it like a blessing. (As always, every small choice on Mad Men has meaning packed into it; how fitting that the cause of Don and Sally’s argument was Sarah, who planted the note that led Sally to discover The Fateful Comforting of Mrs. Rosen.) While Don wasn’t aroused by the overt come-ons of Sally’s seventeen year old friend, I’m sure he was amused and delighted in much the same way Betty was flattered by Glen’s more imperative advance. The difference with Don is that he doesn’t need that sort of validation. He’s Don Effing Draper. He gets it every night.
It’s hard to reckon with the daring of Mad Men to keep introducing new characters this late in the game. Out of the blue comes Richard Berghoff, a millionaire real estate developer played by that insufferably handsome character actor Bruce Greenwood. He’s looking for his dentist’s office? Yeah right. Like Don, Joan has her own gravitational pull with the opposite sex, only she’s so used to attracting disgusting perverts like the bros from McCann that she counts it—rightly—as a burden. And what sort of a place is the SC&P L.A. headquarters for meeting attractive strangers, anyway? Could a one-person office populated by a demoted, Sanka-sipping Lou Avery possibly inspire anything in the human body other than fatal boredom? That Avery might actually make some money off his Scout’s Honor cartoon seals the deal on Mad Men’s opinion of Los Angeles: it’s a place where dreams come true, and as Žižek (or somebody) said, a dream come true is a nightmare. Thank goodness the too-handsome-to-be-true Berghoff is buying some property in New York, thus lifting the L.A. smog off of what could be the beginning of a beautiful more-than-friendship. Joan deserves to finally be happy with a non-rapist husband; the only hurdle here is how Berghoff and Roger will react to each other’s presence. Berghoff wants to be in Joan’s life as well as in Kevin’s; it remains to be seen how he’ll feel that the boy was begat with the help of a rival silver fox. We know how Roger will feel, but it’s hard to really give a shit about him right now. He just fired Kenny! He’s going to the Bahamas while Don writes a speech! He’s halfway to being Chester Alan Arthur with that ‘stache! Bring on the comeuppance for Roger Sterling in this final half-season. We love him dearly, but it’s so much fun when he gets kicked in the ass by life.
“It looks like a sad person lives here,” says Don’s observant realtor. “This place reeks of failure.” Are we getting a little on the nose here? Who cares? Even this close to the finish line Mad Men is what it has always been: a series of chance encounters and clipped conversations that go off-course and crash into unintended wisdom, hitting morality, philosophy, family, mortality and identity on the way. Why stop now? The double-entendres that stand in for deep truths will linger over Don Draper’s head until he figures out what the hell to do with himself. There are four episodes left. The man who once had not a care in the world is running out of time.