‘Mad Men’ Recap: “The Forecast” – it’s all about beauty

Proving that last week’s mediocrity was just a fluke, this week’s episode “The Forecast” was on par with some of Mad Men‘s most solid outings. Part of the reason that “The Forecast” worked is because there was no Diane – a draining character that didn’t push the show forward in any way. Another reason why this episode worked is because Kiernan Shipka and January Jones were heavily featured and Christina Hendricks was given a juicy plot for herself. As a move toward the end of the series, “The Forecast” performed several duties: one being jettisoning a peripheral character (poor Mathis, more on him later) and also bringing some nice foreshadowing on another (Sally), as well as bringing back a recurring character from years ago (it’s Glen!).

Beauty is a recurring theme in “The Forecast” – particularly how beauty affords privilege, but that privilege is often destructive if there’s little-to-no substance behind it; Don, Joan, Betty, and Sally have all used their respective beauty to advance forward, and in “The Forecast” each character has to confront just how tricky it is to put so much stock in something that’s merely an accident of birth.

Don, in particular, is put through the ringer because he just can’t seem to turn off his charm, no matter how smarmy it’s become – his looks, while still there, have ossified into a greasy cartoon. When Mathis asks Don for help after a notably disastrous pitch meeting that ended in Mathis cursing up a storm, Don gives him some really bad advice: open the meeting with some outrageous joke, which lands like a dud. Mathis angrily confronts Don, who defensively insists that Mathis should’ve thought up a joke of his own, and that’s when Mathis delivers the cutting truth: Don’s joke only worked because of Don’s flash and style. And honestly, even that is eroding as I’m not so sure that a 1970 Don would be able to pull off a joke like the one he spoon fed to Mathis. Don’s prodigious talent obviously is the most important ingredient to his success, but we cannot pretend that if Don Draper didn’t look like Jon Hamm, he would still have managed to pull off the fabulous double life with two gorgeous ex-wives, a successful career, and a string of gorgeous women that he bedded.

And Betty isn’t that much different. Because of the constricted times and her life choices, Betty’s beauty doesn’t give her as much financial or professional success as Don (though one could argue that her beauty did land her two wealthy husbands as well as a lucrative, if aborted modeling career), but it does give her a measure of power and, when she needs it, an ego-boost. Like Don, Betty isn’t above using her beauty to get that hit of self-confidence. When Glen comes back, the two characters’ shared history practically crackles, much to the annoyed chagrin of Sally. Betty isn’t above flirting with her daughter’s pal, but there are unintended consequences, when Glen reveals that he still harbors deep feelings for Betty.

And while Don, Betty, and to a lesser extent, Sally, seem almost toxic because of their looks, Joan manages to do something pretty daring and marvelous: she manages to balance both looks and substance. We can never forget that Joan used her beauty to get a high position at the agency, as well as, her pots of dough. But unlike Don, Joan doesn’t necessarily take her beauty for granted, nor does she feel like it’s her most potent weapon in her arsenal. That she took to being an ad executive and partner so easily and quickly is not surprising: Joan was always the sharpest at the office. Her beauty, in fact, was an albatross, because it’s often so distracting to the sexist idiots who drag their knuckles through the office, unable to reconcile beauty and brains.

So Joan’s life as a single working mother seems neatly arranged, until a chance meeting with a handsome(ish) guy named Richard, who stumbles into the L.A. office. Immediately there’s chemistry (though because this is Mad Men I was always waiting for something sinister and gross to happen), but Joan’s understandably cagey, ‘cuz she’s a mom, so Richard assumes she’s married. When he learns the truth, he gets scared off, which in turn devastates Joan because she’s becoming a cliche: the single working mom who can’t get a man. When she angrily shouts, “you’re ruining my life!” we don’t know if she’s yelling at her hippie babysitter or her baby Kevin. When Richard does pop up, unannounced, at the office, with flowers, Joan immediately lays out his deal: he wanted her to choose between him and her son. Chastised, he asks for another chance.

One thing I noticed about Joan – and again, this goes back to the theme of beauty – is that her beauty is a bit old-fashioned. She looks like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, when by the 70s, Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen were the role models of beauty. Curves and va-va-va-voom were replaced by boyishly flat bodies and California tans. It’s interesting that Richard – who is well preserved, though looks a little too Mr. Furley in his 70’s drag – is older than Joan. I’d be curious if Joan would be able to snag a younger guy. All of this reminded me of an episode in an earlier season, in which Betty decides to go back to modeling, and was hopelessly out-of-date with her Grace Kelly drag.

If it feels like I’m harping on beauty, it’s because it’s unavoidable in this episode. But other issues come up, including anti-war sentiment and the Vietnam War. When Glen returns, it isn’t just to catch up, but also to let Sally and Betty know that  he’s enlisted to go to Vietnam. It’s a disturbing scene because Sally reacts with a violent rage, while Betty falls back on her Pat Nixon resting face. Glen’s reasons for enlisting, though, are a little more complicated than “I love my country.” He genuinely feels that there’s something wrong with a disproportionate number of black men going to war, while he stays safely on the side. None of this placates Sally who unfairly reminds him that the kids he sees at the amusement park are the same age as the kids he’ll be killing in Vietnam; obviously, Sally’s reductive and cruel taunt comes out of concern and fear – she doesn’t want to see her friend die. She later calls to apologize, and is seen crying with Helen Bishop on the other line (I would’ve loved to see Helen Bishop – if we’re bringing back minor characters, why not the controversial Kennedy-loving divorcee?)

Betty’s views of war are caught up in her superficial patriotism. While Betty’s a great character, she’s not particularly deep, so she doesn’t really examine her feelings or motivations. So it’s easy for her to murmur some platitudes about Glen being brave and protecting his country, when it’s obvious that none of this sits well with her – but she doesn’t explore any of it, which is a shame (and kind of interesting in light of her interest in psychiatry). And so because Betty’s being a patriotic cliche, it’s understandable that Glenn also becomes a bit of a cliche: the brave soldier about to go to war, who wants just one last night with his girl. Except his girl in this case is Betty. It’s a disturbing moment when Glen proposes sex to Betty because he has thought about it for a long time, and was hoping that his enlistment would at least guarantee one night with Betty. Interestingly enough, it’s not his age, but her marriage that keeps them apart. Glen has always been a bit disturbing and sad, never more so when as a child, he offers a mittened hand in comfort to Betty, after she breaks down in tears in a parking lot. And like Sally, Betty’s unnerved by Glenn’s enlistment. It would be too much for Betty to become an anti-war protester herself, but in a telling moment, she confiscates a toy gun from Bobby and tosses it in the trash can.

Through all of this back and forth between Glenn and Betty, Sally has to watch in disgust. She’s then presented with a similar scenario in a Chinese restaurant right before she leaves on a cross country trip. Don’s being charming, oily Don, and is flirting with one of Sally’s more presumptuous girlfriends. Frankly, it’s disgusting, and I completely understood Sally’s revulsion at her parents – both are propping up their middle-aged egos by flirting with her friends. When she’s about to leave Sally spitefully tells Don that she hopes that once she grows up, she hopes she’ll never be like her parents. Again, an interesting wish because I always believed that Sally is Don and Betty – she took on some of their worst traits, including Betty’s petulance and pettiness as well as Don’s myopia and cruelty. She also inherited their looks, as Don points out, “You’re a very beautiful girl. It’s up to you to be more than that.” Don’s lecture had me saying, “Physician heal thyself.

With Don, though, his insecurity manifests itself in two ways: he either lays on the charm, thick and goo, or he strikes. He fires Mathis, and shits all over Peggy’s dreams, when confronted with his shortcomings. His exchange with Peggy is also all the more poignant because of the history the two share: she is Don Draper, but she isn’t nearly as destructive or riddled with self-loathing. In last week’s episode, Peggy lashed out at Joan, slut-shaming her, possibly masking hurt that men don’t ogle her the way they do the former Mrs. Harris. But what protects her from dissolving into a noxious mess like Don is that there is no question anymore that she is relevant and talented. She has charm, looks, intelligence, but because her charm and looks were overlooked, she was defined by a pluckiness and a brilliance. Earlier in the recap, I wrote Don wouldn’t have gone as far as he had without his looks and charm – the thing is, Peggy would have because her beauty was never going to be her defining asset. It sounds like I’m damning with faint praise and I’m not: Peggy (and Elisabeth Moss) is beautiful, gorgeous. But her character doesn’t have the kind of confidence, nor the personality to be Joan. So few notice just how beautiful she is. So even though Peggy is very beautiful, she always had to make sure she was more than that.

It feels like I wrote a lot more than usual because this episode had me thinking a lot. In the end, the image that I was left with is Don and Betty being like aged show horses – not ready for pasture, but definitely past their peak. For too long, Don relied on being the charming, handsome guy and for too long Betty relied on being the gorgeous lady. And though, the two are no where near losing their looks, they’re discovering that there’s a heavy price to pay for relying on charm and beauty.

Some random notes:

  • This was probably Kiernan Shipka’s final turn as Sally Draper – and she was predictably brilliant. Her way with one liners are perfection. I’m hoping this one performance will be enough to convince Emmy voters to give her at least a nomination.
  • So, John Slattery – is he drawing a full salary for his contribution to the show? If so, then he’s the president of the Fucking Lucky Club, because he does nothing.
  • A great quip: “I’m sorry, mother, this conversation is a little late—and so am I.” Ah, I’ll miss you most of all, Sally Draper.
  • Didn’t get to this in my recap, but Don is selling his gorgeous Manhattan apartment – and is having trouble because in last week’s episode, Megan left with all the furniture. I’ve been watching a lot of HGTV lately, so immediately I’m thinking he needs to stage the hell out of that place. And no, Mister Draper, dragging patio furniture into the living room does not count as staging.
  • I had hopes for Bobby Draper – last year, the writers gifted him with his own episode, but it doesn’t look like it’s meant to be.
  • I can’t believe there are only three episodes left…

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