Characters on Mad Men are always making the subtext into text, taking a moment to make sure the audience gets whatever is the theme of that week's episode. We talked about this back when the midseason premiere aired. But the episode that aired April 19, "The Forecast," was particularly heavy-handed in this regard. Every other line, seemingly, was filled with portent and doom — both for what awaits the characters and for what awaits the show with just four episodes left in its run.
But where this could have been a weakness on other series, "The Forecast" turned it into a strength. These characters are living through times when saying exactly what they're thinking is the most appropriate response to what's happening. People are heading to Vietnam. Sterling Cooper & Partners is trying to come up with a vision for the future. And Don finds himself cast adrift yet again, without much of a plan for what comes next.
That's why "The Forecast" is the strongest episode of this half-season so far and the first episode of this batch to feel like vintage Mad Men. It makes me much more certain that Matthew Weiner and company know exactly where they're headed, even if Don and his friends don't.
Let's look at five times the characters of Mad Men said exactly what they were thinking, to terrific effect.
1) "I'd really love to land a pharmaceutical": Ted Chaough, on his hopes for the future
The explicit theme of "The Forecast" is what's coming, the world the Mad Men characters anxiously anticipate, even as we know exactly what it holds. In one of the most telling moments of the episode, Joan's young son, Kevin, watches an early episode of Sesame Street, which launched in late 1969. The world of Mad Men looks ever more like our world. We might know more than the characters about what's coming — but not as much as we once did.
Don, assigned to write a speech Roger can deliver to the heads of fellow McCann subsidiaries, asks essentially everybody he comes into contact with what they want from the future in this episode, but most of the answers he gets aren't what he's looking for.
Levelheaded Ted, for instance, simply sees the future as one where business just keeps getting better and better. His biggest dream, in his heart of hearts, is to make ads for a pharmaceutical company, because that's one of the biggest paydays in all of advertising.
Don, however, is after something larger, something more metaphysical, even if he doesn't know how to explain that to anyone, perhaps even himself. Business might keep getting better and better, but Don's soul feels more and more like his apartment — utterly empty and up for sale.
2) "I have a plan, which is no plans. You can't go to the pyramids. You can't go anywhere": Richard Burghoff, to Joan, on their divergent futures
The one significant new introduction this episode is an older man named Richard, played by the great Bruce Greenwood. He romances Joan, then finds their relationship fraying over the fact that Joan has a four-year-old son and he thought he had put the child-rearing portion of his life behind him. (And if that sounds a little bit like Roger — the biological father of Joan's child, even if nobody knows it — that's probably intentional.)
Richard thinks happiness equals being able to do whatever you want. But, like just about every other Mad Men character, he's learning that absolute freedom is very different from being happy. Sometimes you meet somebody you want to be more than just an acquaintance, and that inevitably complicates things.
To a real degree, Mad Men is about the careful navigation of letting other people into your life, the way that you have to make room for them if you're ever going to accommodate both their needs and your own. Don is the main character because he still hasn't quite figured this out, not even with his own children. He tries, and he tries, and he tries again, but he almost always fails.
Contrast that with Richard, who ultimately decides to let both Joan and her son into his life (after she's said she'll send the kid away so that she can spend more time with Richard!). "I don't wanna be rigid," Richard says. "It makes you old." And yet what he's talking about — settling down so that he can be with a woman he's infatuated with — is something Don, who runs away from everything he encounters, might blanch at. This final set of episodes keeps using characters — like Ken and Diana — to look at Don in relief. Richard is just the latest example of this.
3) "What else is there?" Peggy Olson asks Don. "That's what I'm asking," he answers.
The longer the series goes on, the more Don turns to Peggy in his hours of need. He's asked her so many times for wisdom, though rarely as directly as he does when he asks what the future holds. And she usually points him toward something resembling an answer.
Not here, though. For Peggy, the best the future could hold is further professional advancement and fame. She wants to be the creative director of the agency. She wants to land a big account. She wants to invent a catchphrase everybody knows. She's not content to simply break ground; she wants to build the Peggy Olson Memorial Advertising Center atop that ground.
But for Peggy, professional advancement can be the goal because it's never come easily. She's been underestimated by so many people at every turn, and even now in her position of power, she has to confront those who snicker at her, like the juvenile sexists in the midseason premiere.
For Don, to whom most everything comes easily and for whom the rise has been stratospheric, the questions are more existential. And there, Peggy can't help him. Her professional hunger has become her meaning, in a way it never quite could for Don. And so he remains without answers.
4) "You don't have any character. You're just handsome! Stop kidding yourself!" Mathis, to Don, as Don fires him
The irony here, of course, is that Don has come through so much. He grew up in extreme poverty. He went to war. He's lost friends and lovers and colleagues. He may be rich, but that hasn't made him happy. He still has so much in his past that remains unresolved, has to remain unresolved.
So it's not entirely accurate for Mathis, one of those characters who's been on the extreme edges of the show for a while now, to lash out at Don like this. But it's also not entirely inaccurate. Don is helped immeasurably by the cool figure of mystery he cuts in a suit. His past might have shaped and defined him, but it's also made him someone capable of gliding through just about any situation, seemingly unperturbed.
What ruffles him is the sense, deep down, that he's still that scared kid who went to war and stole another man's identity. And if you look at the first section of that clause, you'll note it also refers to Glen Bishop, who arrives in this episode's clumsiest storyline to tell Betty and Sally that he's shipping off to Vietnam.
Mad Men has often used Glen, the Drapers' former neighbor, as a weird, little-kid foil for Don and occasional comic rival for Betty's affections. But now he's grown up, and that means he'll be thrown into the midst of so much death. Betty's certain Glen will survive. Sally is apoplectic. But Don, who owes so much of his life to the death of a wartime comrade, might tell the kid that little is assured and it's all random. Something tells me Glen might find that the most comforting wisdom he could receive.
5) "I wanna get on a bus and get away from you and Mom and hopefully be a different person than you two," says Sally to Don. "You ARE like your mother and me. You're gonna find that out," he replies.
There's been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about whether Don can actually change as the series reaches its endpoint. But I think that talk is mostly wrongheaded, and "The Forecast" proves it. Don, see, has already changed because he's come to realize that there's no demarcating line in his life between Dick Whitman, the man he was, and Don Draper, the man he became. He is both. He will always be both.
The realization, slowly but surely, has been aided by two women in his life — Peggy, whom he took on as a mentee and learned so much from, and Sally, who has questioned everything he knew to be true about himself, because she's his daughter and that's what children do.
As "The Forecast" concludes, Sally throws at Don a version of the life he actually led — the one where he took a train far, far away from the people who raised him and the brother who missed him. But he answers with the cold realization that it didn't matter. He is Dick Whitman. He will always be Dick Whitman. But that might be just what he needs to be in order to be the father his daughter needs.
You can't escape your past. You can't escape your parents. You can't escape yourself. You are a series of shards or fragments, and you will never reassemble yourself if you try to leave too many of them out. Don, thank goodness, is finally realizing this. It could make all the difference.
Thank you for reading. Here is Sally looking disgusted as Don flirts with her friend.
Comments are open, once again, and I'll be dropping in for an hour and a half, starting at noon Eastern time, to chat about this episode or anything else you might be curious about in the world of culture.
New episodes of Mad Men air Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on AMC. Previous seasons are available on Netflix. Come back later today for Todd's conversation with other Vox writers about the latest episode.
Read our complete coverage of the final season.