MAD MEN 7X10 Debriefing: The future is now, but nobody knows it

Courtesy AMC

What’s old is new again. Some familiar faces return to Mad Men for some goodbyes, while everyone wonders what’s in store ahead. (Including yours truly.)

Joan takes the lead in this episode, and finally gets a moment to shine, this time out in La-La Land. She’s there to meet with a client, but when she is duped by a visitor, she accepts his dinner date instead of admonishing him for lying about his identity. He’s charming and rich, and Joan convinces them both this is just a fling. She’s surprised when he shows up in New York after she returns home, and again, rather than be put off by his dogged pursuit, she is flattered by the attention and meets for another elegant evening out — and in. Only, their night is cut short when Joan reveals she’s got a young son at home; her mystery man has grown children, and while he likes kids, he’s done parenting. (Never mind that they’ve only known each other three days; hardly time to be picking out china patterns.) It’s the last straw, and Joan leaves, disheartened that despite having her dream job and the prestige that comes with it, she’s still “damaged goods” because she’s a single mom who will never be able to put a man first. Her suitor turns up at Sterling Cooper the next day though to apologize, claiming that he was just thrown by her revelation (and blaming her for not disclosing the fact on their first date — nice), and begs for a second chance, which Joan concedes. Only if they take it slow, this time. Joan did once say she wanted love over security, but is this it?

Meanwhile, Peggy’s got some dreams of her own. Not satisfied with Ted’s punting her own performance review on her, she goes to Don to get hers filled out; she’s had “quite the year” in her own words, and she wants to have her performance reviewed, dammit. (Can you say teacher’s pet? Oh, Peggy.) Unaware that Don is using their existential debate as a crib sheet for his own assignment, she starts mulling over her future: she wants to be the first female creative director of Sterling Cooper & Partners. She wants to create a memorable catchphrase. She wants to be remembered. As Don puts it: she wants fame — and she’s not shy about admitting it. He seems proud, like she’s all grown up. Then Peggy brings it home: she wants to create something of lasting value. Don patronizes her about finding that in advertising, but she takes offense. He’s cynical about their work, but Peggy’s genius is her passion. She’s never half-assed anything, from that first fateful focus group to her current Peter Pan cookie account. What difference does it make if her contribution to the world comes in 60-second blocks? She still wants to be remembered, even if people don’t know it. She thinks Don is mocking her, but really — haven’t Don’s greatest pitches come from what he wants to be remembered for? He just doesn’t realize that Peggy’s right.

Speaking of pride, Sally and Betty are back this week, and on surprisingly good terms. They seem to have reached an understanding of sorts, and joke with each other (!) as Sally prepares for a “teen tour” of the east coast with her friends. (Loved how she deadpanned about being pregnant when Betty warned her about running off with boys — and how Betty didn’t fall for it for one second. This droll sense of humor must be commonplace in the Francis household.) Just before she leaves, Glenn Bishop shows up, to her delight, and wants to take her out to an amusement park for the day. She’s thrilled to hang out with her old friend, but Betty interrupts the reunion. She doesn’t even recognize her former neighbor, and is shocked when he reintroduces himself. It’s obvious his grown-up stature is impressive to her, to say the least, especially when he drops the bombshell (har) that he’s enlisted in the army and is shipping out to Vietnam. Sally is horrified that the boy who protested Kent State is now going to be shooting at Vietnamese children the same way, and leaves him, while Betty tries to defuse the situation by telling him she’s proud of him for serving their country.  Sally quickly regrets her terse words and calls his home to apologize, but he’s out for the evening, and the call ends tearfully. Oh, teenage angst!

The next day, Glen returns to the house, aware that Sally has already left, because he wants to speak to Betty alone. (He’s a man now. He can drink beer.) He very predictably puts the moves on her (proving that he hasn’t changed much since he was a kid), but Betty awkwardly stops him in his tracks. He makes it seem like he joined the army to impress her, after all these years, which is about ten shades of crazy, but he confesses that he didn’t really enlist out of his own free will either. The truth is he’s flunked out of college, and it’s the only way he can save his skin, since his stepfather was about to kick him out of the house. He’s just a scared kid, and Betty is very sweetly sympathetic. She assures him that Sally’s outburst was only because she was scared for him, as is she. (She just knows how to express it better.) Glenn leaves as Betty promises he’ll come back home safe, but this is Mad Men, and one can never be too sure. If she can’t keep Glenn safe, though, she can at least make sure Bobby and Gene are, trading in their toy machine guns for family-friendly Brady Bunch viewings.

Sally and her friends have a lunch date with Don, as he sends them off on their trip. Don does one of the things he does best, works the room to feel the pulse of the young folk. It’s more talk of the future: one girl wants to be a senator, one wants to be a UN translator, and Sally just wants to know how she’ll know what she wants. (Don’t we all?) Don’s amused at this, and tells her that whenever she figures it out, she better write it down, or else she’ll grow up and forget. She considers this seriously, while I wonder if there’s more to this beyond Don’s current project frustration. As usual when Don is around, though, one of Sally’s “fast” friends very blatantly puts the moves on Don, and he can’t help but flirt back, even if it’s innocent on his end. (Is it ever, though, with Don?) Sally, as usual, sees right through everyone’s facade. She’s snippy with Don at the bus station, and doesn’t even want to say goodbye to him.

She spits at him that she knows what he’s like, and what Betty’s like, and that her dream is that she wants to be completely different from either of them. (It’s what I’ve hoped for all along!) Don fumes at this, because he’s still her father, after all. He then shoots back at her that she’s going to find out that she’s just like her parents, whether she likes it or not, and that she’s beautiful, and that he wants her to be more than that (or either of them). It’s a touching moment in a charged scene: Don, too, can see the truth in others, even when he can’t in himself. His relationship with Sally has always brought out the best version of himself, who we’d all wish he could be (but never will) and she’s his human connection. He might be a selfish pig, but when he’s with Sally, you can almost believe he wants to change, to be worthy of her. That he knows that somehow, Sally is what he’s created of lasting value. (Who knows; maybe he hopes she aims high like Peggy, too.) Sally still storms off onto her bus, and Don doesn’t even stay to wave her off through the window — knowing she won’t be waiting for him, either. It seems like she’s 0 for 2 at lasting impressions this episode.

Courtesy AMC

Courtesy AMC

In contrast, Don’s problems seem a little more pedestrian. He’s finally selling his empty bachelor pad, which is currently filled with patio furniture in lieu of expensive home furnishings. His realtor is irritated he won’t even consider renting furniture for staging purposes, but he thinks the blank palette (minus the wine stain) is the perfect canvas for people to use their imaginations and make it their own. (Hey, it’s what he does, after all!) She’s not buying it. “A lot of wonderful things happened here!” He claims, though I’d find that hard to believe these days. “Well you wouldn’t know it,” she snarks back. Ah, isn’t that the story of Don’s life? It’s all window dressing, but no one’s ever truly happy where he’s concerned. Instead, the realtor thinks the penthouse looks like someone lonely lives there, and we all know that’s pretty much the nail on the head.

At work, Roger pawns off a prospectus assignment on Don; he’s got a vacation to go on, so he’s leaving the task in his former protégé’s hands. It’s no big deal: just envision the future of the company and what they hope to accomplish as a company in 2,500 words. Don, of course, tries to pawn it off in turn on Ted, who sees through him only because Roger asked him first. Yet, their conversation turns to what they want for themselves. Don lacks the self-awareness to really understand himself (because he’s spent a lifetime not being himself), but Ted’s goals are about landing bigger clients; this world truly is his life. Though Don claims this is just a job to him, we do see glimpses of just how skilled he is at it, as we always have throughout the series: two of Peggy’s underlings struggle with a pitch, Don hears it once and figures out where the problems are. Mathis screws up at the pitch, Don counsels him on how to resolve the issue with the client. When Pete and Peggy come running to him to solve the problem, he mediates them like any experienced dad would. Just like how he revisited his past with his date in the premiere, he recounts his greatest hits with Lucky Strike as a cautionary tale to Mathis.

He’s almost become a mentor to this younger generation, which goes swimmingly until Mathis misinterprets Don’s advice (mainly because he tries to tell the same joke verbatim instead of, you know, taking the larger picture out of that story), and ends up getting himself thrown off the account for offending the client. He blames Don for bad advice, and further accuses Don of only being celebrated around the office for being the pretty face Lee Gartner was attracted to, instead of the talented creative director he actually was. This gets him fired on the spot, and it rattles Don to boot. Maybe he is really wondering what this all means? After all, earlier on, while he mulls over his, er, essay topic, he muses that what drives them is that “it’s gonna get better… It’s supposed to get better.” It seems like Don might be questioning why he never feels better, no matter how many houses he buys or wives he marries or products he sells. He’s as empty as that apartment, and just as lonely.

Just when all hope seems lost, Don gets home only to be shoved out; his realtor has finally sold the Pit of Loneliness, to a young couple with a growing family. He’s the old guard, they’re the new hope. The symbolism couldn’t be more perfect if they’d tried. It’s like his despair is not allowed in there to taint the new owners as they sign the papers and take ownership of the home. (Because everything Don touches crumbles eventually.) It seems Don might not have been as ready to give up the place as he thought, but it’s too late now. As “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” plays us out, Don’s left all alone at his doorstep, with nowhere to hang his hat or call his name. What really is next for the man with everything who has nothing?

Honestly, for a while tonight, I wondered if the theme of this episode was “men act like babies when they can’t have what they want.” Joan’s newest paramour flies off the handle when she deigns to put her son first, and then has the gall to accuse her of false intentions the next day. Pete gets mad when Don won’t take his side in the Mathis affair, and fumes as a result. Mathis blames Don for ruining his life, when it’s clearly his own ineptitude that got him into this mess. And hell, that’s Don’s ethos for the entire show: once he realizes something won’t fit into his vision, he moves on to the next shiny object in his reach. Perhaps the house is symbolic of that, and that’s why it stands bare right now. (Is that the overarching theme of the show as we head to its finale?)

Courtesy AMC

Courtesy AMC

What I am loving is how, as the men fade into oblivion or unimportance, whether it’s due to age (Roger), complacency (Ted) or self-destruction (Don), the women are steadily rising and affirming their worth, even if there are setbacks. Yes, Joan is hooking up with a man who sets off about a dozen warning bells right now, but if her past with Bob is any indication, she might resist the temptation of a Malibu mansion because she’s got bigger fish to fry. She’s embracing the fruits of her work at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles — still a devoted mother, but enjoying the time off on the West Coast when she can nab it. She’s not shy about asserting her role as account executive to her counterparts, or to the stranger, and when he asks her if she works to support her family, she tells him no, she simply has the job she’s always wanted. Sure, there’s a bit of misdirection on her part to deflect the family question, but it’s obvious from her face that this is her truth, too. Then there’s Peggy, who’s never been shy about her ambition, and she refuses to hide her light, even when it may bring derision. She’s aiming high, and she’s not afraid to say it. They are the future, and the men of Sterling Cooper & Partners are too blinded to see they have their prospectus right in front of them.

Betty and Sally are different versions of the changing tide, too. Where once Betty was the epitome of the MRS degree, she’s now proud of going back to school, at a time when it probably would have been quite radical for a mother of three pushing middle-age to do so. We still don’t know if Betty truly realizes what she wants (since she never did in the whole time she was married to Don), but she seems the most content, and the most empathetic, that we’ve seen her in seven seasons. Oddly, it appears that she’s finally found her peace, with her family and herself. On the other hand, Sally is full of rage and hormones, and her short-lived truce with her mother is broken with Glenn’s arrival. Her friendship with Glenn really was her first rebellion, and it’s remained so throughout the near-decade this show has spanned. He always seems to show up just when she’s itching for a change, and this seems to be no different. She’s on the cusp of adulthood, and takes in her world in a way few people in her life do right now. She dropped some major truth bombs on her dad at that bus station, but in turn, he laid some on her, too, and just like when he showed her his childhood home at the end of season 6, I think this is going to give her food for thought as we near the end. Sally’s determined not to be her parents, but she’s got to figure out who she is, too.

I must say that I am so intrigued for the last three episodes. (I definitely noticed the realtor hanging by the balcony.) Like Don, I’m as curious as ever about what it all means, but are we really going to like what we find out? There’s the rub.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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