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This is the one episode you need to see to understand Mad Men

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) looking sad? That's Mad Men in one image!
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) looking sad? That's Mad Men in one image!
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and foreign policy reporter Amanda Taub. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Libby Nelson: Here at Vox, we believe the parts can explain the whole. Buried in every lengthy medical journal article or New Yorker story is one sentence that reduces the argument down to its essence, and that one sentence is all you need to understand the whole thing. One chart that explains Obama's economic plan. One sentence that explains what went wrong in Rolling Stone's UVA story.

And so I'm dubbing "The Forecast" The One Episode You Need to See to Understand Mad Men, the single episode that distills the show's seven seasons down to their purest essence.

As you said in your review, Todd, "The Forecast" was all about making the subtext text. The characters all but stood up and yelled the themes at the top of their lungs. (Sally literally did.) Through its weirdest plot twists — mysterious drug injections and foot-eating lawnmowers and song-and-dance routines with ghosts — Mad Men has always been very clear on what it's about. It's about changing times, about identity and reinvention, about how the past becomes the future.

Like Don Draper's sunken living room, the future is a vast empty space. Advertising is one way to fill it: it points out a void within you that you didn't even know was there, and it shows you how to fill that void. Don and Peggy's most powerful, climactic pitches target those barren spaces and fill them with something hopeful. It's not a wheel; it's a time machine. It's not a Popsicle; it's a sacrament. It's not a sad apartment emptied out by a failed marriage; it's the launching pad for a millionaire who moved on to a castle. Advertising plays on your optimism and your belief that you can become someone else, if only you buy the right tools.

But in the end, as you say, Todd, you're still you. We all buy into advertising when we have a void within, and we eventually learn that it can't fill it. Applying for jobs right after college in the depths of the Great Recession, I developed a Sephora habit. Just the white glow from the display lights became a mild narcotic. I spent too much of my limited funds on makeup, buying not just eye shadow and blush but confidence, certainty, and direction. I was buying a version of myself I desperately wanted to create, purchasing a future I needed to believe would be better than the present. But I was still myself, just with more expensive lipstick.

And that's Don's dilemma. He knows the future that advertising promises is a sham. What you call love was invented by ad men to sell nylons. Happiness is only a moment before you need more happiness. And when you imagine the future, it's inevitably going to look like the past, only more so.

It has to have been deliberate that the two most confident visions for the future came from young women, extrapolating forward from a decade of change into even higher professional ambition. There was Peggy, of course, but also Sally's serious friend, whose matter-of-fact declaration that she wanted to be a senator was one of the episode's most powerful moments to me. In 1970, there was just one woman in the Senate; only two female senators had ever been elected in their own right.

Gail Collins, a New York Times columnist and the author of two books on women's history, often says she walked through doors beaten down by women about five minutes older than her, generationally speaking. Sally's friend is growing up in the world Peggy helped make. But she knows the world is changing, and her dream is a powerful reminder of how quickly some barriers fell. To Don Draper, the future might be a puzzling void. But to many of the people in Mad Men's world — not just women, but LGBT people and people of color and those who care about them — the future is unambiguously better than the past.

While we're talking about the women of Mad Men: with the departure of Mathis, I've accepted that I might never know if anything became of Stevie, Peggy's first-episode date. And I don't yet know what to think of Joan's new paramour, who could be described as Roger without their baggage.

I'm a hopeless romantic, and so I love that the series seems to be hinting at prospects for both Peggy and Joan. But there are so few good marriages on Mad Men (Ken Cosgrove's, and ...?) that I'm a little leery of the show letting their final season become a marriage plot.

What do you guys think is in their future — and in Sally's?

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for Amanda's thoughts.

Previous entry

Next: Amanda looks at the show's take on marriage.

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