This week, there are three women in Don’s life – and they all think he’s full of shit.
“This place REEKS of failure” says Melanie the real estate agent, exhibiting the kind of on-the-nose personal assessment that becomes second-nature to accomplished salespeople. “Why don’t you tell me all your dreams,” Peggy says acidly, upon realizing that Don’s in another of his tiresome nihilistic moods, “So that I can shit on them?” “I want to get on a bus,” says Sally, who’s had it up to here with both of her inappropriately attention-seeking parents, “And get away from you and Mom, and hopefully be a different person than you two.” But despite our only semi-serious attempts to shove these character assessments into some over-riding theme, it wasn’t just the women in Don’s life who were shining a light on the sadness of his life. Mathis got in such a good burn that it pretty much stands as one of the most honest and direct assessments of Don in the history of the show:
“You don’t have any character. You’re just handsome. Stop kidding yourself.”
There it is. Possibly the worst thing Don could have ever heard from another person; the purest confirmation of his deepest fears about himself, laid bare by an underling who hasn’t even known him all that long. It would be one thing if Peggy or Roger said something like this to him, but the fact that someone like Mathis, for whom he’s had little regard in the relatively short time he’s known him, can so effectively sum up who Don is and just how flawed he is means that the product Don’s been selling all this time has finally expired on the shelf – and everyone can smell the rot. Even worse, people he barely knows at all can take one look at him and sum up his entire life in a few sentences. “It looks like a sad person lived here,” Melanie the realtor says, “And what happened to him? He got divorced, spilled wine on the carpet and didn’t care enough to replace it, not even for himself.” Notice how exasperated but unsurprised she was to find a naked, passed-out Don. In the short time he’s known him, she’s gotten used to this kind of behavior. We tweeted last night that it took Betty ten years to figure out what that realtor did in just a few meetings, but our point wasn’t that Betty was clueless; it’s that Dick Whitman simply can’t keep up the Don Draper facade anymore. The Dick-ishness is seeping through. Don Draper created dreams; Dick Whitman shits on them. Don Draper was a legendary Manhattan sex god; Dick Whitman hits on teenage girls. Don Draper had everything – and deserved it; Dick Whitman has nothing – and it’s all his fault. It truly feels like we’re at the end of Don’s story and he knows it. It’s why, when faced with the kind of assignment the average high-schooler could complete in a weekend (2500 words on the future), he’s completely stumped. Don Draper has no future. “It’s supposed to get better,” he says to his dictaphone, but the fear in his voice tells you he doesn’t really believe that.
What’s interesting about this is not just that he sees no future, but that he’s making a desperate attempt to recast his past as something other than it was. “A lot of wonderful things happened here,” he says defensively to the realtor, to which we immediately replied “Name three, Don.” That apartment was nothing but a series of painfully awkward or emotionally devastating scenes, one after another. “Let’s assume that it’s good, but it’s going to get better,” he says to his dictaphone delusionally. He’s even in denial about his current state of affairs. “I mean, it’s good as it is, but is there a scenario in which it’s better?” he asks Ted. According to Don, the past was “wonderful” and the present is “good as it is,” but it couldn’t possibly be more obvious that he doesn’t believe either of these things. If he did, he could imagine a future for himself. Don knows this; knows that his life has been an utter failure. If there’s any hope at all for this man (and we admit, we don’t have much anymore, like seemingly all the people in his life), it’s that he will end Don Draper’s life and let Dick Whitman stand up from the ashes.
Normally, a storyline like that would leave us feeling pretty down, but this episode was, first, a lot of fun. When Mad Men has clear narrative and thematic goals, it’s a far more entertaining and, we’d argue, aesthetically pure and emotionally satisfying show than when it gets a bit up its own ass, as it did last week with Diana and the Calvet family. Additionally, it felt like we were seeing a lot of inevitable payoffs, which tends to be satisfying as a series winds down. Of course Don’s life is in ruins. Of course Peggy would announce her intention to become the first female creative director at Sterling Cooper. Of course Glen would show up to take Betty in his arms all these years later. If this were a different kind of show, we’d suggest a lot of this stuff was pure fan service; giving the audience what it’s been waiting to see all this time. But in the case of Don and Peggy, these things are culminations of a decade-long storyline and in the case of Glen, no one really wanted to see that.
Matthew Weiner is a visionary and possibly even a genius in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t occasionally have massive blind spots about his own work. The obsession with Megan was one of the most notable, but it’s his need to cast his own untrained and untalented son in a decade-long storyline of sexual ickiness that really stands out as one of the great Mad Men headscratchers of all time. Not that we minded his scenes this episode, because they were fairly hilarious – although come to think of it, we’re not sure in retrospect if they were supposed to be. All we know is we groaned and snorted through his entire cringe-worthy “seduction” of Betty, which seemed to us to be veering awfully close to John Waters levels of campiness. Notice how much Betty kept touching her hair during that scene, calling back to the lock of hair she gave him as a child. Notice how Betty puts a stop to it not because it’s inappropriate, but because “I’m married,” she says, as if her marriage license was the only thing making this scenario wrong.
But we get it; like Don and his endless rot, Betty is always going to be child-like and affection-seeking, even if it gets inappropriate. What’s kind of wonderful to see is just how fed up Sally is with both her parents – and how well she can see them for who they are. In fact, our eyebrows shot up in surprise when she tore into Don – and by extension, Betty – for being so wrapped up in their own good looks that they don’t see how self-centered it makes them. This is a take on Don and Betty that’s both devastatingly on point, while at the same time a bit unique; a take on them we’d never considered before because – Thank GOD – they’re not our parents. But with that amazingly on-the-nose line (“Anyone pays attention to either of you – and they always do – you just … ooze everywhere.”) Sally didn’t sound like a petulant teenager to us, even if she was acting like one. She sounded like an adult, giving an adult’s assessment. It’s a high-water mark of the process of going from child to adult when you begin to see your own parents as fully formed people, flaws and all. This wasn’t a hormonal “I HATE THIS FAMILY” tantrum. This was a surgically precise dissection of just what’s wrong with the two people who created her. We thought it was kind of a fist-pump of a moment for her.
And finally there’s Joan, who is, like everyone else in this episode, facing the future and assessing how it’s going to go for her. With Richard, she briefly allowed herself to consider a future at all – and it looked pretty bright, judging by her actions and reactions. Joan doesn’t fall for men quickly – and she never has sex with them within hours of meeting them, but she did both with Richard. Believe it or not, Peggy has had roughly twice the sexual partners Joan has had in the last ten years, and yet Joan is the one seen as the sexual goddess figure and treated either like a whore or like a fantasy come to life by so many men. You can see, in retrospect, how looking like Joan has actually made it hard for Joan to find a man to share her life with. And you can also see why Richard would be the man to turn her head. He’s a silver-haired millionaire who clearly wants to dote on her forever – the kind of man Roger couldn’t bring himself to be. But, like Roger, he freaks out at the notion of Joan having a child, which sends Joan into a momentary spiral where she considers a future where no man will ever want her again; a future consisting solely of living with her mother and haggling with babysitters for some scraps of freedom. “YOU’RE RUINING MY LIFE!” she yells at the babysitter, but it’s fairly obvious she’s talking about Kevin in that moment. But Richard shows up again with roses – the enduring symbol of Joan’s romantic life and series of failures on that front – and a very un-Roger-like declaration that he wants all of her life as part of his life. He wants the total Joan package because he’s clearly in love with her as a person and not in love solely with her body, which is what her relationship with Roger turned out to be.
Having said that, we have to point out that, while it’s too early to predict where either of their storylines are going, it should be noted that, aside from getting slammed in the face with sexual harrassment and then taking it out on each other, both Peggy and Joan’s storylines this half-season are about how they met nice guys and had great first dates. As happy as we are to see the two people most deserving of a happy and satisfying personal life make some forward movement on that front, we hope very much that there’s more to the end of their stories than this. Then again, aren’t we supposed to think that about all the characters at this point? That’s the central question that opened this half-season: Is that all there is? And Don’s feverish quest for answers on a future he can no longer imagine (a quest so desperate he actually hit up Meredith at one point for ideas), is really just a series of the most basic questions of all. It says everything that Don can’t answer these questions and tends to be disappointed with or condescending toward people who do.
What do you want to do? Where do you want to go? How do you want to be?
And then what?
And then what?
And then what?
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[Photo Credit: AMC]
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Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon at the 2015 ACM Awards