The Year of Tragical Thinking

The 2016 Election: what we knew, what we missed and what we can learn.

BY RYAN BYRNES

hrc-nymag
Photo Credit: Andres Kudacki/NY Magazine.

It started, as it often does, at a bar.

I had met my friend Brian for his birthday in Brooklyn on a windy Saturday afternoon in mid-February. We received the news via push-notification on an iPhone: Antonin Scalia had died. As law nerds, we were dismayed – one of the nation’s transformative legal minds had left us. As political junkies, we were concerned – a primary season already littered with unappealing presidential contenders now added the wrinkle of a crucial Supreme Court vacancy. As humans, we were sad – after all, a person was dead, and no man is an island.

It soon became apparent not everyone around us shared this seemingly natural reaction. “Did you hear?” a well-layered hipster asked us as he summoned the bartender for a round of shots. “Scalia is dead!” He was happy – elated even – yet was taken aback upon noticing that we did not share his excitement and found it far from an event worth celebrating. He responded with a condescending comment about Brian and I being Federalist Society members before retreating to a snarky, flannelled blur in the corner of the bar.

The exchange baffled me, but it shouldn’t have. It was a small but telling example of a disturbing trend I had noticed for months and would only see more of as Election Day neared: too many of us have become too dismissive of those who think differently than we do. I did not initially realize how significant this issue would be during the process of choosing the 45th president of the United States, but as the months passed, it became more clear. Too many of us convinced ourselves that this election was a predetermined battle between right and wrong, intelligence and ignorance, the future and the past. We knew who would win because to believe otherwise would mean our country was somehow a more dark and evil place than we could conceive it to be. We did not learn and/or did not care about the shades of gray between these two “sides,” middle grounds that often prove critical when the broad swath of people that is the American electorate partakes in the quirky popularity contest that is the presidential election.

This meant that the generation of people least prepared for and most unable to cope with not getting what they want might ultimately have to come to grips with an outcome they did not desire and certainly did not expect. That is precisely what occurred when a once-in-a-lifetime series of events – two heavily flawed, severely distrusted candidates; a smug, assured media and a dumbed down electorate; an overestimation of uber-progressivism; an underestimation of economic anxiety; the departure of identity politics in favor of individual choice; the abandonment of political parties in support of a change agent; the inevitable clash of political correctness versus “telling it like it is”; the delicate balance of moving forward without leaving others behind; rising premiums and missing emails; hacked messages and leaked tapes; midnight tweets and deplorable baskets; letters from Comey and pics from Weiner; Pence, Priebus, Conway, Kaepernick and Harambe – all resulted in this week’s seemingly shocking outcome: Donald J. Trump as the president-elect of the United States.

I. Why We Missed It.

We should have been more prepared for the impossible. After all, 2016 has seen its fair share of unthinkable events. Brexit occurred. Prince died. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I got engaged. Yet the idea of a Trump presidency seemed beyond comprehension, a bridge too far in the realm of what we could fathom. There are several reasons for this. First, the media, or the channels through which we receive and process our news, generally presented us with imperfect information from which to develop a fully-formed perspective. Initially, Trump’s candidacy was presented as a form of entertainment; the head of CBS notoriously quipped that Trump’s presence “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” But after Trump won the GOP nomination, the press became more critical, rightly calling into question much of the rhetoric and methods he was using to appeal to some of his supporters.

It is no secret that most members of the mainstream press lean to the political left. By excoriating Trump, many surely sensed they were not only fulfilling their journalistic duty as government watchdogs, but also the important public service of boosting the chances of their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. The media’s views largely overlapped with those of Clinton, which meant many of those responsible for objectively covering the candidate tended to be blind to her flaws, ones that were more obvious to those who did not agree with or support her. Early signs like the real challenge posed by Bernie Sanders (and, by some measures, Sanders’ superior chances in a head-to-head battle with Trump) were too easily pushed aside; it would later be revealed the Democratic National Committee assisted in squashing Sanders’ candidacy in favor of Clinton. The media did not give enough credit to the middling enthusiasm minorities tended to have for Clinton and underestimated the role voter turnout could play when dealing with a nominee who lacked the charisma of a Barack Obama. They badly missed the mark on the actual effect Trump’s flawed but (to some) appealing personal image could have among a significant portion of the electorate that was desperate for anything other than more of the same.

At the same time, news coverage was too often incapable of or unwilling to give a real portrayal of what many between the coasts were thinking. Much of this coverage often carried a subtext of a media at a loss with this difference of opinion, flummoxed by those who somehow were not seeing the proverbial Hillary light. We were told which of Trump’s actions and words were offensive, even though the nation has a wider acceptance than the media of what views should and should not be tolerated. We were told that Trump was a racist and a fascist, even though just about every Republican nominee has been depicted as such during recent campaigns. The mistake too many made was not necessarily spending too much time conveying why not to vote for Trump, but too little time actually exploring why anyone would. There were token Trump supporters on the evening news, late night television or your social media feed, but how often were you really given the opportunity to listen to what they were saying, outside of a quick sound bite that was followed by a grin or a joke? You very likely saw Trump supporters mocked or made fun of – some perhaps deservedly so – but how often did you read a thorough report of their reasonings? What has become apparent in the days since the election is how out of touch the media – mostly liberal, mostly based in big cities – was with many of the issues that proved critical in the election: rural disenfranchisement, economic anxiety and the strong desire for change. Reporters filed their dispatches from Trump country, columnists and pundits took plenty of shots, and television hosts and celebrities made plenty of jokes, but ultimately, many of the people and perspectives the media missed ended up having the last laugh.

Ultimately, for those of us shocked by Tuesday’s outcome, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Too many of us made the mistake of being so confident in the rightness of our view, so dismissive of thinking about the election from any perspective other than our own, all the while not taking the time to ask a crucial question: what if we’re wrong? This is certainly not to suggest that voting for Trump was the right choice, but instead, that we should have at least considered that there may have been more people than we realized who might disagree with us and for reasons that maybe were not so unreasonable.

If you are reading this, you are probably a millennial, you are probably college-educated and you probably live in or around a big city. The data suggests you probably voted for Clinton, and your friends, neighbors and co-workers probably did too. I am by no means telling you that you voted for the wrong candidate. What I am telling you is that you very likely live in a Clinton-favoring bubble that is not entirely reflective of our nation as a whole. You are probably smart enough to know that, but if you are like me, you probably are not smart or aware enough to realize how true it really is. As Kanye West opined, “Some people graduate, but we still stupid.”

Many of the places where we tend to cluster – cities, campuses, younger-leaning workplaces – tend to be perceived as liberal and diverse havens. To a degree, this is true: these places are generally very accepting of diverse skin colors, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and religions. Unfortunately, these places have tended to become less accepting of and place less of an importance on the diversity of thought, and in doing so, have in effect become some of the least diverse places in our country. When we surround ourselves with only those who agree with us, we fail to achieve actual diversity. When we create environments where opposing views are immediately discredited or made to feel unwelcome, we miss the opportunity to learn something from those views, even if we do not subscribe to them. When the presumably liberal, educated, open-minded members of society reject these views from the marketplace of ideas, we perpetuate a dangerous groupthink and feel a false sense of certainty that is made worse by dissuading those who disagree with us from sharing their views. When so many of us receive our news from the same online sources, cable networks and late night satire, we feel sufficiently informed yet are only seeing part of the picture. 

There are at least two reasons to worry that this problem may very well get worse before it gets better, beginning with the central role social media plays in how we form and solidify our positions. Many use social media not only to feel connected, but also for affirmation and confirmation, to receive digital fist bumps and pats on the back, to know that – as Don Draper once said – “you are OK.” Most of your Facebook friends likely share your political alignments, and many of us tend to share “news” and “articles” that reinforce our preconceived beliefs. It creates a pleasant bubble where it is easy to engage with those we agree and easy to avoid engaging with those we don’t. This can become problematic when we mistake these feeds as being representative of more than what they are, as necessarily representative of a majority or correct opinion. This creates the risk that some of us can become uncomfortable with or startled by the eventual realization that there are other ways of thinking.

The perils of social media bias are particularly dangerous when coupled with the millennial generation’s growing inability to accept thoughts, actions or outcomes that we don’t tend to agree with. It has too often resulted in the use of social media as a platform of outrage over the latest comment or outburst deemed “offensive” or the place to assign blame for an unfortunate event, regardless of actual causation. College campuses have embraced a “safe space” culture that ironically makes them as dangerous a place as any to put forth a perspective not accepted by the progressive majority. Students face disciplinary action for using the wrong pronoun or wearing the wrong Halloween costume. Institutions have made punishable the acts of appropriating culture or failing to check privilege. This has created a system that is the antithesis of liberalism. It results in the restricting of speech, the demonizing of dissent and promotes the false idea that a free society is a place where everyone else will and should agree with you.

Though I was not a Trump supporter, I was also one who struggled to board the Clinton hype train. In most of my social circles, it almost went without saying that Trump was not a viable candidate for president. As a result, I tended to be more interested in challenging Clinton supporters regarding their candidate’s potential weaknesses. These were conversations with people whose intellect and opinion I respect, but sadly, the reactions and responses I most frequently heard were rather hollow. “She’s the lesser of two evils” or “It’s a binary choice” suggested that because Trump was so unfit, any and all of Clinton’s flaws were irrelevant and not really worth discussing. “You’re too smart for that” or “Wake up, sheeple!” tended to follow any attempt at giving validity to a Clinton-related controversy or credit to any component of Trump’s campaign. “What would you tell your daughter?” was a valid question, but ignored the idea that one might be willing to vote for Trump in spite – not because – of his treatment of women and rejected the possibility that the presidential choice could be made based on anything other than gender. Drawing a “false equivalency” was a cardinal sin; backing a third party was “a waste” of a vote; abstaining from voting was “un-American.” Clinton scandals – questionable practices by the DNC, messages divulged by Wikileaks, ongoing FBI investigations – were quickly shooed away with a nothing-to-see-here-folks smugness. Very well then.

And so election week arrived. Lines had been drawn, sides had been solidified and the result appeared predictable. After a late October surge, Trump was again falling behind in the polls. He was wasting precious time and resources in states the media and experts believed to be out of play. He was booed at his own voting precinct. It was not a matter of if he would lose, but only a question of by how much. Meanwhile, Clinton stood on the precipice of #herstory. On Election Eve, she gathered the masses in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. She was backed by Bill and Barack, Michelle and Gaga, Bruce and Bon Jovi. She had fanatics cheering in Philly and fireworks prepared to explode over the Hudson. Even more, she had destiny, and the backing of all of us. We were not only voting to shatter the “glass ceiling,” we were going to defeat evil and save the country: as one voter ahead of me boasted, “We’re voting against the Apocalypse!” We were Hashtag With Her and Hashtag Stronger Together. Love trumps hate, we were told, and we so proudly shared on social media not only our civic duty of voting but our sincerest belief that we were right.

Except we were wrong. The Apocalypse had happened.

II. What We Missed.

How could we have been so wrong? The signs were there, though it usually required us to leave our comfort zone and maybe squint a little to see them. Some were more obvious than others. First, the GOP entered the race with some very basic advantages, namely the inherent benefit of being the challenger to a party that had spent two terms in the Oval Office. It is very difficult for any political party to win a third consecutive presidential term and this was a very real obstacle for Clinton from the beginning. In fact, the 2016 presidential election was merely the latest (albeit loudest) contest in an era of frequent GOP success. Obama’s filibuster-proof majority following 2008 was followed by Republican backlash in both 2010 and 2014. Nationwide under Obama, Democratic governorships have dropped from 29 to 15; more than 900 Democratic state legislators have been defeated. In addition to the presidency, the GOP on Tuesday also maintained control of both chambers of Congress. Many believed that Trump – new to the Republican party and a major disruptor to the GOP – was such an outlier and Clinton such a candidate of destiny that these basic party trends could be overcome. Neither proved to be true.

It has also become evident that Clinton did herself few favors in overcoming these odds. Carrying with her the political baggage accumulated over 30 years in the public eye, Clinton called on Obama – who she had feuded with so fiercely just eight years earlier – to rally the Democratic base and help shake off the apathy that some felt toward another Clinton taking the White House. By doing so, she limited her ability to run as anything other than a third term of the Obama presidency, for better and for worse. This meant another four or eight years of big government and progressivism. To many of us, that seemed appealing. The post-Great Recession economy has been largely kind to those in the coastal cities, and hey, the Obamas are popular and cool people. Clinton bet – and bet big – that groups like minorities, environmentalists and urban elites would be enough to carry the day.

But to many Americans, a third term of Obama was the last thing they wanted. To vote for such would mean a vote for a Democratic party that many felt ignored by during recent years and especially so during election season. It meant another four or eight years of watching their families, neighbors and towns falling further behind, their lives continuing to be worse with their opportunities for advancement more fleeting. It meant helping pass the baton from a president who characterized them as ones who “cling to guns or religion” to one who placed at least a portion of them into what she called “the basket of deplorables.” It meant another era of not only no jobs, no value and no dignity, but – made more glaringly clear during the campaign – no attention. There was a segment of the country that wanted a smaller government, but regardless of that government’s size, it wanted one that made its people at least some sort of priority. Too often, Clinton ignored this part of the nation. And into that ignored America stepped Trump.

The voters who are largely believed to have been the deciding factors in this election have a few characteristics in common. Yes, many were white (Trump won the white vote, 58-37), but it is more complex than just race. Many of the pivotal states – Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin – are home to voters who live in areas of economic and drug-stricken decline, who lack a strict allegiance to either political party and who have demonstrated a growing detachment from big-money, big-government Washington, D.C. To many of these voters, Trump offered some appeal as a self-described outsider promising to change the political game. He promised to return their jobs, to shake up a “rigged” system and – not insignificant in an era of safe spaces and political correctness – to “tell it like it is.” He may not have shared their rural background, but he spoke directly to them in a voice that sounded like how they spoke and channeled a populist message they wanted to hear. While many of these voters were commonly depicted as racists and the like, their anger seemed less toward any particular ethnic group and more toward an economy that ignored them, a pop culture that laughed at them and an elitist culture that seemed to want to tell them how to think and what they could and could not say without offering them any type of help. As a result, many of these voters embraced Trump, warts and all. However flawed or hollow his offer was, it was something. Clinton and the Democrats – purposefully or not – ran a campaign that at least wrote off – even derided – half the country and still expected to win. That half of the country begged to differ.

It is easy for city-dwelling, non-Trump voters to cast aside his supporters as the caricatures our media often depicts them as, but many of their motives seem to have been driven less by evil, racist urges and more by basic self-interest. When one candidate promised to save their job or return their town’s factory while the other told them “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” they tended to choose the person who was more likely to help them keep food on their table and make sure their children could find work. When one candidate demonstrated to them at least the appearance of respect while the other appeared to cast them off as a lost cause, they tended to choose the person who gave them the time of day. Most simply, when presented with the imperfect choice between placing a high-risk bet on changing their lives for the better or doubling down on continuing what they believed to be the road to economic doom, they weighed their options and tended to vote for Trump. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

It became apparent that Trump supporters are a more diverse group than commonly given credit for. They included Rust Belt union workers who voted for Obama twice, but failed to see any change they could continue to believe in. They included suburban women who were willing to vote for Trump in spite of the “Access Hollywood” tape because they just could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton. They were Evangelicals and Latinos and Independents. They were a collection of individuals who made up their own minds, departing from the easy-to-classify boxes of identity politics to make a choice that they believed to be most in-line with how they wanted to live and how they wanted our government to operate. 

I don’t agree with some of the reasons offered for voting for Trump, but I respect each person’s ability and willingness to vote their own conscience and to choose the candidate they believe is the best for them. I am disappointed that I did not give more thought and credibility to the chances of Trump winning the election. I am as guilty as any of allowing the predominant perspectives within my privileged bubble to shape what I perceived to be within the range of possible outcomes. There are plenty of reasons to believe our country is on the right track, but there are plenty of indications that might explain why some people might think otherwise. Town after town of decimation while driving through upstate and Western New York. Heroin addiction treatment advertisements at train stations just outside urban hubs. I can also understand how some voters chose to ignore the personality flaws of the candidates that so many of us focused on and instead voted on a particular issue – a Supreme Court candidacy, rising Obamacare premiums – and decided that Trump was the superior candidate to Clinton. I was pretty shocked as the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, but I really wish I wouldn’t have been.

III. What We Can Learn.

In late October, “Saturday Night Live” staged the latest installment of its “Black Jeopardy” sketch, featuring Tom Hanks as the white, rural caricature that many believed Trump supporters to be, competing on an otherwise African-American game show. In addition to being sharply-written, well-executed and quite funny, the sketch also deftly identified just how many shared characteristics – a distrust of big government, a feeling of disenfranchisement – there are among people of different skin colors that were too often assumed to be diametrically opposed during a racially charged calendar year and presidential campaign. The sketch received critical praise and was heavily-shared on social media; I would not have blamed you for sharing the clip with a quick text or tweet and a simple endorsement along the lines of “Tom Hanks FTW!” But we then retreated all too easily back to our ardently held positions; after all, the election was just weeks away. In the days that followed, we’d have all been better off keeping that sketch in mind – not for its butt jokes or for Hanks’ hat, but for the message it really sent: our common ground.

I joked with friends that Election Day would be the worst day in the history of social media, and for a brief time, that proved to be the case. Then Tuesday night happened and the hours and days that followed revealed the worst in too many of us. We were “horrified” by the result. It was “Armageddon.” Comparisons were made to 9/11 and Hitler. Blame was, of course, assigned, but to mysterious places: third parties (“Dear Gary Johnson voters: F*** YOU!” read a status on my timeline. Classy.); social media; “whitelash”; sexism; voter suppression; even – again – Harambe. In cities, protests filled the streets and property was destroyed. On campuses, classes were canceled and support sessions were offered. At the Javits Center, Clinton never arrived, the champagne never left the ice and the “It’s a Girl!” balloons never released. Tragically, Lena Dunham had trouble breathing and broke out in hives. Anecdotes indicate many spent Wednesday crying at their desks, if they made it to work at all. Implausibly, we were wrong. Worse, our generation proved mentally and emotionally incapable of dealing with the reality that an imperfect process like a democratic election could produce any result other than the one we wanted.

This election was a contest between Trump and Clinton, but it was just as much an assessment of ourselves: how we speak, how we listen, how we think. It revealed some harsh realities that are more true than we would like to admit. We have never had so much information, yet so little knowledge. We have never been so worldly, yet had such poor grasp of our own country. We have never been so connected, yet so detached to what is going on around us. We seek affirmation and shy away from disagreement. We struggle to civilly disagree; maybe some of us never learned.

Some of our reactions to Trump’s victory have been more justifiable than others. Campaigns are projects of passion. Elections get emotional. Candidates use fiery rhetoric and divisive strategies to stir up their base and achieve power. But when the race is over, there really is no need for sides; after all, as “Black Jeopardy” suggested, there is much common ground between us. We want to feel safe. We want jobs, or the opportunity to get better ones. We want to leave this country in better shape for our children and grandchildren. We may differ on how we reach those goals, but we really just want to achieve them. So if your reaction to this election was a fear that the country is more racist than you realized, or more sexist than you realized, or that there are more of “them” than there are of “us,” you’re really missing the point. Take a break from your fourth protest march up 5th Avenue or your latest apoplectic Facebook status. Take a ferry to Staten Island (where Trump won 57% of the vote) or Breezy Point (58%) or the Jersey Shore (virtually entirely red on the electoral map) or visit a state you otherwise only fly over to attend weddings and bachelorette parties. Have an actual discussion about how and why a person there may have voted differently from you. You’d be shocked at just how much you have in common.

Or maybe just take a breath. The election has ended. Clinton has conceded. Markets have rebounded. The sun still rises and sets. Concern yourself with what you can control. Spend less time inside of your bubble and more time in critical thought. Subscribe to a newspaper or podcast that challenges your positions rather than reaffirms them. Devote time and resources to issues and causes you can impact. Vote in midterm and local elections. Rely less on your government and more on yourself. Respect your peers as well as their thoughts.

And then relax. The next time the world ends, you will be so much better prepared.

The Day The Music Died: You Can Go Home Again

BY RYAN BYRNES

Can people truly change? Pete suggests that they can. (Credit: AMC)
Can people truly change? Pete suggests that they can. (Credit: AMC)

The last voice you hear during the second-to-last episode of “Mad Men” is that of rock legend Buddy Holly, whose song “Everyday” plays as credits roll. Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, a tragedy that would later be memorialized by singer Don McLean as “the day the music died.” “Mad Men” too is nearing its final moments, and as Pete sits alone eating American Pie and Don sings with good old military boys drinking whiskey, the audience is left wondering – much like it has done with McLean’s song itself – how to interpret the many details this penultimate episode provides.

Fans have put forth many dark theories about the show’s possible conclusion, and for those looking for ominous signs, “The Milk and the Honey Route” provides plenty. The bell tolls for Betty as she ascends the staircase at Fairfield University, shortly before she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Pete takes a job at a company that had one of its luxury jets crash just months earlier, and convinces his wife to move to Wichita the same weekend that city was also connected to an airline crash. Don is set up by an aspiring con man, jumped by a group of angry veterans, and ends up at a bus stop left with nothing but a bag from Sears. At every turn, there is a feeling of finality. “I know when it’s over,” Betty tells Sally. “It’s been a gift to me – to know when to move on.”

Yet by the end of the episode, Don is smiling, the Campbells are embracing, and Betty is telling her daughter that she loves her. Even Holly’s lyrics are optimistic (“Love like yours will surely come my way.”). It is a testament to this excellent episode that it is not so simply categorized as happy or dark, as uplifting or depressing. It is one, like many in its rear-view, that moves the viewer in a multitude of ways, that looks at life from both sides now. It is an hour that suggests that, even as the end approaches, individuals can evolve, that lessons can be passed on, and that – perhaps – you can in fact go home again.

Betty’s response to her diagnosis is the centerpiece of the episode – a wrenching possible farewell for one of the series’ most polarizing figures – and it demonstrates how far she has come in a decade. She spends much of Season 1 struggling with the recent loss of her own mother, and when her father tries to review his will and funeral arrangements with her in Season 3, she dismisses it as morbid. “I’m your little girl,” she responds then. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?”

But after a doctor tells Henry she has less than a year to live, Betty responds better than most people could be expected to. “I’ve learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over,” she says. “They don’t want to say it, so it’s usually the truth.” Like Anna Draper and Rachel Menken before her, Betty will succumb to cancer, but not before passing to Sally – on letterhead bearing her initials – instructions on how to behave when things happen quickly after she dies. For the reluctant housewife who once scolded her plastic bag-wearing daughter for potentially ruining her clothes, and for an impulsive mother who once fired the maid on the eve of a trip to Disneyland, Betty’s mature and measured (perhaps) final performance is a triumphant moment for her character and a suggestion that people can be at their best even when all else is at its worst. Sally also demonstrates great maturity, and it is noteworthy that when she sits with her brothers at the kitchen table, she sits in Betty’s seat.

After a life of inherited privilege and (apparently) predetermined promiscuity, Pete temporarily fights off Duck’s professional advances before realizing he has arrived at the crossroads of midtown and the Midwest. “How do you know when something is truly an opportunity?” he asks his brother, before they discuss how their constant desire for more may have been something passed on to them by their father. Duck first proposed the Lear-Jet marketing job to Pete during Season 6, but Pete – ever the Manhattanite (he chose to be with the city rather than his family during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Season 2) – was dismissive at the time (“Anything back here on Earth?” he retorted.). Duck’s advice then to a professionally-spiraling Pete was to spend more time at home. “One day,” says the recovering alcoholic Duck, “I looked in the mirror and realized I had regrets because I didn’t understand the wellspring of my confidence: my family.”

Pete’s journey has been the most fascinating example of the different values family can have. It is his mother’s family name (Dyckman) that saves him from being fired in Season 1, and he uses his relationship with his father-in-law as a bargaining chip throughout the series. He and Trudy struggle to build their own family, and he never recovers from her kicking him out of their home in Cos Cob. “I hate even the word ‘family,’” he tells Peggy in a Burger Chef during Season 7. “It’s vague.” But after a life of using family as a means to an end, the stars align for Peter Dyckman Campbell (“You are charmed, my friend,” Duck says) to relocate, restart and ask Trudy and Tammy to be his family again. “Because its origins were supernatural, I realize that its benefits may be as well,” he tells Trudy. Is it possible that the Dartmouth alum will have learned his most important lesson from an alcoholic, that the Manhattan elitist will only find true happiness living in Kansas, and that the woman he wants to go everywhere with is the one he has been running from since he spent the night with Peggy in the pilot episode? As Pete asks Trudy, who says things can’t be undone?

As Pete finds happiness in going home, Don too reverts back to his roots, rambling through the heartland and living the life of a hobo (albeit one who has a million dollars in the bank). He has been adept at reading people since his family’s farmhouse was visited by a traveler in Season 1’s “The Hobo Code,” one who informed a young Dick Whitman that his father was “a dishonest man.” So when Don enters the fundraiser and is warned by Dell that he’s “been a little dishonest” in explaining the purpose of the event, Don is already aware. He knows why the Sharon Motel conspired to keep “Don From New York” around long enough for their fundraiser, and he tells Andy he has poor instincts for a con man. During a season where Don has often reflected on his life not lived, he is faced with many examples of what his life may have been like if Dick Whitman had simply stayed out west, a hobo on that milk and honey route.

For better or for worse, Dick Whitman became Don Draper, though Don conveniently leaves that detail out when admitting to the fellow veterans that he killed his commanding officer in Korea. Don knows that living a lie is not a recommended path; he tells Andy that becoming somebody else isn’t what you think it is. “You cannot get off on that foot in this life,” Don tells him, shortly after correcting his English (twice) and shortly before giving him a Cadillac and an opportunity (“Don’t waste this.”). But Dick Whitman’s decision was one made out of necessity; as one veteran summarized, “You just do what you have to do to come home.”

The central question remaining is whether Don does in fact go to wherever he believes to be home. Does he return to California, where he has always seemed to be at his truest self? Does he return to his children, upon presumably learning of Betty’s diagnosis? Much like Don McLean’s song and Matthew Weiner’s series, the question is open to interpretation, and one the audience hopes to learn the answer to during the series finale. Until then, we are left with Don in Oklahoma, thinking of a man he admired most – the recent visit of Bert Cooper’s ghost – hopping on the next bus (but toward which coast?) the day, the music, died.

Notes:

  • The airlines have played a pivotal role in the relationship of Pete and Duck. Pete’s father died in an airline crash in Season 2’s “Flight 1.” Duck uses the tragedy as an opportunity to convince Sterling Cooper to pursue American Airlines – and Pete joins him in that ultimately unsuccessful pursuit. Here, Duck – now a corporate recruiter (he helped SC&P hire Lou Avery when Don was put on leave) – sneakily convinces Pete to take an in-house job at a luxury jet company by, among other things, using a private jet as a perk and by telling Pete he is on a streak where the line “just goes up.”
  • Don and the other veterans sing the military song “Over There” during an episode where Betty instructs Sally how to plan for her funeral. “Over There” also played during the end credits in Season 3’s “The Arrangements,” the episode when Betty’s father – a World War I veteran – passes away and plans are made for his funeral. This is the third consecutive week where a song has been reused from a past episode (“Stranger on the Shore” and “Lipstick”).
  • Betty’s cancer diagnosis is preceded by the nurse calling her Mrs. Robinson, a joke and one presumably in reference to “The Graduate” film and the Simon & Garfunkel song. Interestingly, the episode that last featured a former-Mrs. Draper passing away from cancer (Anna Draper in Season 4’s “The Suitcase”) ended with the song “Bleecker Street” – by Simon & Garfunkel.
  • A number of paperback novels are seen during Don’s time at the motel. James A. Michener’s “Hawaii” is on his nightstand, and Alberto Moravia’s “The Woman of Rome” is on the lap of the woman by the pool. Don vacationed with Megan in Hawaii in the Season 6 premiere “The Doorway,” and Don and Betty spent the final romantic moments of their marriage in Rome in Season 3’s “Souvenir.” Don also reads Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” and his Season 4 date Dr. Faye Miller suggested to Don that her father had mafia ties. Additionally, “The Woman of Rome” – another example of existentialist literature – focuses on a main character who, like Don, is the child of a prostitute.
  • Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” plays on the radio during the opening Don dream sequence. Haggard’s band was called the Strangers. During the previous episode, the ghost of Bert Cooper tells Don “You like to play The Stranger.”
  • In Season 3’s “Seven Twenty Three,” Don is knocked out in a motel room by a hitchhiker who is heading to Niagara Falls to avoid having to serve in Vietnam. The hitchhiker and his girlfriend steal Don’s money, but leave his car. Here, Don is accosted in a motel room by a group that presumably fulfilled their military service. They smack him – twice – with a phonebook and steal his car until he returns to them money he didn’t steal.
  • When on the phone with Sally, Don encourages her to sell her field hockey equipment, telling her “You have no idea about money.” It is similar, though not identical, to what Betty said to Don when she learns about his true past in Season 3’s “The Gypsy and The Hobo.” “I knew you were poor,” she says then. “I see how you are with money, you don’t understand it.”
  • In his Kansas motel, Don makes sure to drink Coors beer rather than Miller, the brand discussed in the meeting he walked out of during the previous episode. “I was in the advertising business,” he says, with significance placed on the past tense. However, even half-way across the country, he can’t escape the machine of McCann. He carries a Sears bag (the agency has that account) and he is tasked with fixing a Coke machine. It is the fourth consecutive week where Coca-Cola has been referenced in some capacity.
  • Pete tells Trudy that he loves her and that he hasn’t loved anyone else. However, during the Season 2 finale “Meditations In An Emergency,” Pete tells Peggy that he loves her. That is, of course, just before she tells him that she could have had him in her life if she wanted to and that she had given birth to his child – and given it away.
  • Trudy tells Pete: “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I’m not able to do that. I remember things as they were.” The series has always placed importance on how characters choose to view their pasts. After Peggy gave birth to Pete’s child, Don famously told her to forget it and to move forward. “It will shock you how much this never happened,” he says. Just last week, Roger suggested to Peggy how great the times were in the SC&P office, and Peggy more realistically points out that the good old days weren’t always good. Don’s most legendary pitch (for Kodak, in the Series 1 finale “The Wheel) relies on this power of nostalgia. In perhaps a preview of the series finale, Don pitches that nostalgia is “a twinge in your heart far more powerful that memory alone…it takes us to a place where we ache to go again…around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

On The Road Again: Don Draper’s Back Pages

BY RYAN BYRNES

Don has gone west - and may not be coming back. (Credit: AMC)
Don has gone west – and may not be coming back. (Credit: AMC)

Two weeks ago, my uncle (an English teacher) and I exchanged emails about one possible final Don Draper theory that we have been discussing. He proposed the following:

“Does Don Draper, who overcame every challenge he ever faced, finally cast off the ‘drape’ he’s been wearing since Korea, leave Madison Avenue, and as Dick Whitman, write the Great American Novel?”

It would be uncharacteristic for Matt Weiner to provide us with such an answer – that is, to let us know definitively whether Don will actually end up writing his literary masterpiece. But this week’s episode “Lost Horizon” is as textually deep as any in recent memory, and in addition to drawing on references to the show’s own past, this third-to-final installment of the series features its most obvious use of literature as a source of where Don has been and where it is he is going.

One of the many, many appeals of “Mad Men” is the role literature has played throughout the series. Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations In An Emergency” provides direct dialogue during Season 2 as well as the title of that season’s finale. Season 6 commenced with Don reading Dante’s “The Inferno” on a hot Hawaiian beach, setting the tone for the dark hell that would unfold during that tumultuous year of 1968. While Betty reads Fitzgerald, Joy reads Faulkner, and both Lane and Henry take time with Mark Twain.

“Lost Horizon” presents the latest group of literary references in a series full of them. The episode draws its title from the 1933 novel of the same name, where the main character arrives in Shangri-La, but eventually leaves to return to his real life. (Don watches the 1937 film “Lost Horizon” in the Season 7 premiere “Time Zones.”) Jim Hobart channels his inner Ahab, with Don as his “Moby Dick.” “I’ve been trying to get you for 10 years,” he says. “You’re my white whale, Don.” The ghost of Bert Cooper tells Don “You like to play The Stranger,” perhaps in reference to Albert Camus’ novel of the same name, a classic piece of the existentialist philosophy that has always been at the show’s core. “You remember ‘On the Road’?” Don asks Bert, referring to Jack Kerouac’s epic work about the very Beat culture that Don got high with and spoke down to back when he was hanging in the Village with Midge in 1960. “I’m riding the rails.”

But the ghost of Bert tells Don “I‘ve never read that book, you know that,” and Don does. Despite the generational gap between them, Don always connected more with Bert’s traditional business philosophy than he did with the counterculture that displaced both of them as the sixties unfolded. This was clear in Season 1’s “The Hobo Code” when Bert recommends that Don read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” a 1957 novel that helps shape Don’s views on capitalism. Its focus on the importance of individualism only emphasizes how out of place Don would be serving as a cog in a machine like McCann.

So once Don realizes the cog he has become – entering the Miller meeting as just another creative director with a roast beef sandwich and a Coke, listening to a researcher dictate a strategy, sitting as just one of many white shirts asked to bring the company “up a notch” – Don Draper as we know him is gone. He looks up at a plane flying over the Empire State Building, takes his box and goes home, to the many places he has lived (Westchester County, Pennsylvania, Illinois, perhaps eventually California). Unlike Roger, Don finally knew better than to get attached to and confined by walls, and he traded in the ship of advertising (“This was a hell of a boat,” says Roger) for his Cadillac, for a long drive on the road again. For much of the series, there has been a reason for Don to turn back around. He had an account to land, a business to build, a child to raise, a woman to see, a wife to apologize to.

But Don was so much older then, he’s younger than that now. In fact, he told us he was going to do this way back when he was first courted by McCann in Season 1. In the episode “Shoot,” Don uses McCann’s offer as leverage to get a raise from Roger, who asks Don why he decided to stay with Sterling Cooper. “I like the way you do business,” Don says. “If I leave this place one day, it will not be for more advertising.” Roger, always confined by the walls with his last name on them, asks what else there could be outside of advertising. “Life being lived,” Don answers. “I’d like to stop talking about it and get back to it.

“I want to do something else.”

It appears that Don is finally doing that something else, whatever it is. An enraged Hobart asks a finally-arriving Roger whether Don and company have pulled off “the con of the century.” Perhaps they have. Perhaps Hobart spent a decade and a fortune chasing a phantom that was never really there. Perhaps the greatest trick Don Draper ever pulled was convincing McCann – and all of us – that Don Draper actually did exist.

Early in the episode, Hobart tells Don to drop McCann’s name into his, but by the end he’s referring to himself as a salesman named Bill. Don has left McCann, left New York, and perhaps – as my uncle had suggested – left behind his drape and his Draper. He will likely never get that lunch with Joan, never watch Bobby play baseball, or be at McCann to oversee Peggy’s climb up the creative ladder. “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie,” he tells Betty. It’s probably the last we will see him say to her, as he is the one who has flown west.

The preview for next week’s penultimate episode did not include a single shot of Don, and despite how notoriously misleading those previews can be, it is entirely possible that the show focuses only on other characters next week and leaves Don’s conclusion for the series finale. Whether he is Don, Dick or someone else entirely, it is clear we have made it to the back pages of our main character. And I can’t wait to see how this great American story ends.

Notes:

  • An episode that makes many subtle references to outer space ends with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” We see the ghost of Cooper, who passed away shortly after seeing the moon landing and who once eulogized the departed secretary Ida Blankenship as “an astronaut.” We hear of Conrad Hilton, who once expressed disappointment with Don’s Hilton pitch that failed to deliver “the moon.” We watch Don go AWOL in a manner we haven’t seen since he left Pete at an aeronautics convention in Season 2’s “The Jet Set.”
  • The song playing during Peggy’s epic entrance into McCann is David Carbonara’s “Lipstick,” which was also played during Season 1’s “Babylon,” the episode where Peggy first makes a name for herself on the Belle Jolie lipstick account.
  • Don checks the windows in his new office in a scene that seemed to be included by the writers just to troll those who have believed since the show’s inception that Don is destined to jump out of a window, just like the man falling out of the building in the show’s opening credits. Indeed, it seems as if he’s now escaped the skyscrapers such an act would require, so Roger’s two-story jump off a Navy ship in 1944 may be the closest fans get to a major character taking such a drop.
  • Joan’s storyline is the most prominent example in an episode that deals with women’s struggle for equality in the workplace specifically and women’s independence generally. She references a feminist liberation sit-in at “Ladies Home Journal”, and that the ACLU helped a group of women settle a class action lawsuit against “Newsweek.” Peggy delays her arrival at McCann, where all indications are that they perceive her as a glorified secretary. Shirley proactively leaves advertising to find a professional setting that will be more comfortable. Betty tells Don that they “can’t get mad at [Sally] for being independent,” as Betty herself studies to attain a Master’s degree in psychology.
  • In reference to Sally, Betty tells Don that “[s]he just comes and goes as she pleases.” This same phrase was said by copywriter Michael Ginsberg in Season 5’s “The Other Woman,” then in reference to Megan. The line is significant because it contributes to their eventual successful Jaguar pitch (“At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”). It is notable that the writers would repeat this phrase during the same episode where the topic of how Joan obtained her partnership was discussed (given the role the Jaguar account played in that development).
  • Hobart mentions Hilton as one of the clients Don will be able to work with now that he is at McCann. McCann was the reason Hilton severed his ties with Don in the first place. In the Season 3 finale “Shut The Door, Have A Seat,” Hilton moves his New York business elsewhere upon hearing the news that McCann was going to buy Putnam Powell and Lowe, which owned Sterling Cooper at that time.
  • In Season 1’s “Shoot,” where Jim Hobart first courts Don to join McCann, he tells him: “You’ve done your time in the farm leagues. Yankee Stadium is on the line.” It’s not a coincidence this week that we see Ed, the copywriter left stranded making long-distance calls after not being invited to the “Yankee Stadium” of McCann, eventually leave SC&P with nothing else but his bag and a New York Mets cap.
  • While Roger plays the organ, Peggy skates around the office in a manner that is reminiscent of how she circles a commercial shoot riding a Honda scooter in Season 4’s “The Chrysanthemum and The Sword.” Roger opposed the agency’s pursuit of the Honda account due to resentments he still harbors against the Japanese stemming from his military service in the Pacific, an experience he brings up to Peggy during this week’s episode. The painting of Bert’s that Roger gives to Peggy (“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”) is also of Japanese origin.
  • Though Peggy and Roger rarely spent time together onscreen (she even makes a comment about how he so rarely paid her any attention), he tends to bring out the best in her. The last time they shared similar time together, we saw Peggy leveraging $400 cash out of him for secret creative work on the Mohawk Airlines account. Here he throws her a smaller stack of cash and settles for Vermouth.
  • The hitchhiker Don picks up at the end of the episode is the latest in a long list of noteworthy passengers he’s given rides to over the years. In Season 2’s “The New Girl,” he and Bobbie Barrett end up in the drunk tank after a boozy ride to her beach house in Stony Brook. In Season 3’s “Seven Twenty Three,” Don is drugged and robbed by a pair of hitchhikers he drives to a roadside motel. Later that season, he offers to drive the epileptic brother of his then-mistress Suzanne, dropping him off with a wad of cash somewhere between Westchester County and Bedford, Massachusetts. In Season 5’s “Commissions and Fees,” he offers a lift to Glen Bishop from the Upper East Side to the Hotchkiss School, though Glen ends up being the one taking the wheel.
  • The Bauer home that Don visits in Racine shares some visual similarity with the former Draper residence in Ossining, and Don’s rouse of impersonating a salesman to get into the house reminds the viewer of the time Don scolded Betty during Season 1 for allowing a salesman into their home when he was not there.
  • The scene in Racine also shared similarities with another one of Dick Whitman’s former homes: the brothel he was raised in in Pennsylvania. In the Season 6 finale “In Care Of,” a man being removed from the bordello turns to a teenage Dick on the front stoop and tells him “The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you.” Here, a similarly religious ex-husband of Diana approaches Don on another lawn and tells him that Don cannot save Diana. “Only Jesus can,” he says. “He’ll help you too. Ask him.” He also mentions losing his daughter to God and his wife to the devil, during an episode where the Sterling Cooper folks learn that the self-described “advertising heaven” of McCann is actually their hell. St. Paul is mentioned as a destination. For good measure, during Don’s foreboding check of his new office window, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is featured in the background, suggesting Don may find Jesus after all.

What’s In A Name: The End of Sterling Cooper

BY RYAN BYRNES

Don and the other partners react to their "victory." (Credit: AMC)
Don and the other partners react to their “victory.” (Credit: AMC)

In the Season 3 finale “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” Sterling Cooper’s major players are saved from being acquired by McCann Erickson by Don’s idea to have Lane Pryce sever their contracts and to secretly start their own agency. In this week’s episode “Time & Life,” directed by the actor (Jared Harris) who played Lane Pryce himself, Don, Roger and company reach for one more trick up their sleeve, but come up as empty as their two floors of the Time-Life Building soon will be.

“What’s in a name?” Don asks toward the end of an episode. For Sterling Cooper, a lot. As the partners say goodbye to each other at the bar, they are not only saying goodbye to the name of of their agency, but to the company itself that has kept them together through the years, despite their personal feelings toward each other at the time. It’s an agency that has continued to find ways to survive, often against all odds (“We’ve done this before, you know we can,” says Don). It averted the sale by Putnam Powell and Lowe to McCann in 1963. It stuck it out through the loss of Lucky Strike in 1965. It mucked through a messy merger in 1968 in time to make itself attractive enough to be bought by McCann as an independent subsidiary in 1969. “Boldness is always rewarded,” Roger tells Ken, and for SC, it often has been. But Don and his colleagues long ago sold their souls to the company store, and this week they find themselves absorbed by the agency they for so long were determined to stay away from.

“Time & Life” is a “Mad Men” fanatic’s dream, with plenty of nods to classic episodes of the series’ past. We have Roger and Pete attempting to lure Ken’s account to their new agency, just as Roger and Don sought Pete and his accounts when they last broke off. We see Peggy and Pete having a confidential chat on a couch for the first time since they similarly sat when she told them that she had given birth to his child. And we close at a bar where we have seen Don and Roger so many times before, like when Don inadvertently encouraged Roger to leave Mona for Jane, or when Roger inadvertently informed Don that Betty was leaving him for Henry. Here, Roger leaves Don to go see Marie, but not before he turns and says three words to Don in a manner they were once said by Don himself: “You are okay.”

Roger’s words and tone provide perhaps the episode’s most thematic hat tip to the series’ past, as he echoes the same words in the same way as they are delivered by Don during a Lucky Strike pitch in the first episode of the series, suggesting the words have stuck with Roger through all these years:

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

When Don says those words in 1960, he is attempting to convince himself as much as he is trying to convince the tobacco executives. But a decade has passed, and our main character does not appear any closer to truly believing the words that Roger tells him. Each of the partners leave the bar to check on a child or meet a significant other for a date. Don finds himself seeking out a fling who is no longer there. Rather than listening to what Roger tells him, Don might be more hung up on his final words from Lou: “Enjoy the rest of your miserable life.”

I anticipated that these final seven episodes would be focused on the central characters’ respective searches for happiness outside of the workplace. I’m surprised that we had an episode this work-centric this late in the series, but it provides a definitive endpoint for all of the characters’ professional arcs. Jim Hobart emphasizes that point. “It’s done – you passed the test,” he says, before telling them they have died and gone to advertising heaven. “Stop struggling – you won.”

Even as they achieve the money and resources and accounts and receive five of the most coveted jobs in advertising, the partners reflect a feeling of defeat rather than victory. It is perhaps a suggestion that money can only buy so much – and that their late partner was on to something when he spoke to Don last year saying “the best things in life are free.”

Notes:

  • The song playing in the background while Peggy tells Stan she gave birth to a child is “Stranger On the Shore” by Acker Bilk. The song was also played during the Season 2 finale “Mediations In An Emergency,” which was the episode where Peggy informed Pete that she had given birth to their child.
  • The feud alluded to by the headmaster at the private school Pete and Trudy visit appears to be the Campbell-MacDonald feud of Scottish fame, specifically the massacre at Glencoe in 1692. The massacre took place in Glen Coe, in the Highlands of Scotland. Interestingly, “Coe” is the name by which Ken refers to Pete in this short story he wrote in Season 5.
  • Peggy instructs the children to “do what you would do if we weren’t watching.” It’s reminiscent of when she and the other secretaries were secretly monitored “playing” with lipstick during Season 1, when Peggy’s behavior lead to her being put on the Belle Joilie lipstick account and launched her copywriting career.
  • Jim Hobart looks at Don when he tells him they will now be servicing the account of Coca-Cola. During the Season 1 episode “Shoot,” Hobart uses Betty as a model in Coca-Cola ads in attempt to persuade Don to leave Sterling Cooper for McCann. It symbolizes that McCann has finally acquired Don after a 10-year pursuit.
  • As the partners drink at the bar, a Heinz ketchup bottle sits on the table – a symbol of much smaller battle they also fell short in pursuit of.
  • This episode confirmed two plot points that have been suspected this season. One, that Ted has divorced his wife; he makes reference to his ex-wife living in California. Two, that Jim Cutler was bought out when the firm was purchased by McCann at the end of last season. “Jim Cutler wins again,“ Roger says. “All of that cash and no McCann.”
  • It was Lane Pryce himself who punches out Pete during their conference room boxing match during Season 5’s “Signal 30”, so it was only right here to see an episode directed by the actor who played Lane include a scene where Pete settles a dispute with a punch to the face.
  • “Greenwich, Connecticut is built on divorce money!” – The latest in a litany of great one-liners from Peter Dyckman Campbell.

Dylan & Draper: Will Don Paint His Masterpiece?

BY RYAN BYRNES

During an episode initially focused on the past, Don thinks about how to shape his future. (Credit: AMC)

“Someday, everything is gonna be different,
When I paint my masterpiece.” – Bob Dylan, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (1971)

“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is a 1971 song written by Bob Dylan. It is a song about traveling to foreign places and seeing the wonders of the world, and ultimately one about an individual’s quest to achieve creative and personal satisfaction. It is a song about where a person and civilization has gone, and where one hopes to eventually arrive. It is a song performed by The Band, frequently covered by The Dead, and this week provided the thematic framework of one of the final five episodes of “Mad Men”, a show based during a decade where Dylan’s words were as powerful as any.

This week’s episode, titled “The Forecast,” initially appears to be one about conflict and war, both of the past and the present. Roger orders Don to write the agency’s version of the Gettysburg Address. Betty and Sally discuss colonial Williamsburg. Mathis thanks Don for fighting for him, Joan’s date asks her whose side she is on, Bobby and Gene play with guns, and Glenn decides to go to Vietnam. Characters blame each other for failed objectives, whether it’s the sale of an apartment or the correct creative approach for a peanut butter account. Adults express pride and optimism about the war while teenagers disagree over its purpose. But the episode eventually shifts to one about acknowledging the battles of our pasts to how we shape what is left of our futures. As Don paraphrases Lincoln’s words, he adds an optimistic twist, saying that we know where we’ve been and we know who we are, “let’s assume that it’s good, and that it’s going to be better – it’s supposed to be better.”

It’s not a surprise that when the agency needs someone to forecast the company’s goal for the future – to paint its masterpiece – the task falls to Don, the firm’s central artist for the last 15 years. He asks the Peter Pan team to give him “the broad strokes,” and is told by Ted that he is “so much better at painting a picture.” But the project takes on a larger meaning for introspective Don, and he seems disappointed that is colleagues do not be seem to be thinking the same way. Ted, less than a year removed from wanting out of advertising entirely, dreams of landing a pharmaceutical account. Peggy, having climbed from secretary to copy chief, dreams of titles and catchphrase fame. Neither is willing to admit to the out-of-office life objectives that Don knows each of them have. After letting work serve as distraction for so many years of his life, Don is frustrated that so many around him fail to provide an ambition that extends beyond the four walls and two floors of SC&P.

Dylan’s song mentions European cities (Rome, Brussels) and man-made structures (the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum) as stops on one’s quest for satisfaction, and this week’s episode similarly refers to such places as symbols of where one goes when professional success is achieved and something more important is sought. Don instructs the realtor to tell customers that the previous owner got rich and moved to a castle in France, and Joan’s date (after eating French cuisine) becomes frustrated that her son will keep her from going to see the pyramids with him. But the narrator’s contentment with those places is temporary, as he soon longs “to be back in the land of Coca-Cola.” (Ironically, this week we see Roger offer Don a Coke.) In effect, the figure realizes one can only learn so much by looking back, and that he must move things forward regardless of what has already happened. Similarly, several characters have to accept the reality of their current situations – that Joan is a twice-divorced mother of a four-year-old, that Sally is the daughter of Don and Betty, that Don’s apartment reeks of failure – and try to make the best of it.

Painting one’s masterpiece is not necessarily about traveling to a particular place or seeing a particular sight, nor is it necessarily the achievement of a particular accomplishment. The beauty of Dylan’s song is the level that it is open to interpretation, and Don realizes that so too is the idea of forecasting what the future will look like. His secretary thinks it will resemble the World’s Fair. Glenn thinks it will include him returning from the war to be with Betty. Sally’s friends want it to be one where they are senators and delegates; Sally just wants it to be one where she is away and different from her flirtation-oozing parents.

Though we don’t receive total closure in this episode on what Don envisions for the future, viewers can take solace in the fact that Don is at his best when he is looking forward. It is the mindset that allowed him to shed his tattered Dick Whitman past and to become the millionaire he is presently. It is the advice he gave to Peggy after she gave birth to Pete’s child (“Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”), and to Lane when he told him to resign (“Tell them the next thing will be better, because it always is.”). It has even inspired some of his best creative work: “The future,” he planned to pitch to Chevy, “is something you haven’t even thought of yet.”

This question is hardly novel for a series that has always grappled with the existential questions like the meaning of life and the reality of true happiness. But after recent episodes that, on the surface, appeared to be odd detours for viewers, “The Forecast” puts on a more direct road a series drawing closer to its final stop. It is a road on which Don demonstrates signs of optimism, telling his realtor he has a good feeling and encouraging her to share in having “a little glamour, a little hope.” It seems, for the moment, the question is not whether Don will paint his masterpiece, but when he will do it and what it will be.

Notes:

– Bob Dylan and “Mad Men” have a long history. The Season 1 finale, “The Wheel,” ends with Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Season’s 3’s “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” ends with Dylan’s “Song To Woody.” Additionally, during Season 2, Peggy plans to see a Dylan concert in the Village with then-creative worker Kurt.

– Don tells realtor that a lot of good things happened at his Upper East Side apartment, but I struggle to think of any. It is where he had a surprise 40th birthday party he didn’t want and didn’t enjoy; where he killed an ex-fling during a fever dream; where he was robbed by a thief who terrified his home-alone kids; where Megan would sleep while he cheated on her with his neighbor one floor below; where he had a door slammed on his face by Sally after Sally walked in on him with said neighbor; where he stayed in confinement rather than be in California with his wife when on exile from his company; and finally where he had all of his possessions (alarm clock included) moved out by his second ex-mother-in-law. But yes, other than that, the place was filled with wonderful memories.

– When Don uses the office vending machine, a Hershey bar is prominently featured in the middle of the row of candy, a powerful of a symbol as any of Don’s breakdown during the Season 6 finale. His past is also brought up later, when Sally makes sure to let her friends at dinner know that her father grew up poor.

– But as Sally’s friend points out, Don grew up poor and ended up in a penthouse. Don purchased his Upper East Side apartment for $75,000 sometime between late 1964 and early 1965. He sells it for $85,000 roughly six years later.

– It speaks to the quality of character development on the series that a scene with three characters – Betty, Sally and Glenn – who have been pushed to the show’s margins for several seasons can still carry so much weight. Glenn arrives at the Rye home for the first time and asks for Mrs. Draper, is reminded she’s now Mrs. Francis, and minutes later is calling her Betty. Their history started when she gave him a lock of her hair when babysitting him during Season 1 when he was 10 years younger. He has become one of Sally’s few true friends, and she is justifiably crushed to hear of his decision to enlist as well as the flirtation between the two that she is able to pick up on.

– In Season 4 finale (the last time Betty sees Glenn), Glenn is let into the Ossining house by then-maid Carla to see Sally, and their meeting is intended to be secret from Betty. This week, Glenn is let into the Rye home for his second visit by now-maid Loretta to see Betty, and their meeting is intended to be secret from Sally.

– Sally’s skepticism and fear of impersonation when signing traveler’s checks reminds the viewer of Lane forging Don’s signature on a check when he embezzled money from the agency.

– During the first half of Season 7, we learn of Lou Avery’s side project, a comic titled “Scout’s Honor.” It is about a monkey in the Army who struggles to follow orders, fitting into this week’s military theme. The L.A. office secretary mentions his recent meetings at Hanna Barbera animation studio, which was launching the “Josie and the Pussycats” cartoon in 1970 after the success of “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons” during the 1960s.

– Joan’s son Kevin watches Sesame Street, which was in its inaugural season during 1969-1970. Bobby tells Betty that they want to watch “The Brady Bunch,” which also had just launched in the fall of 1969.

Don Does Disney: It’s A Small World After All

BY RYAN BYRNES

From milkshakes to wedding rings, this week’s “Mad Men” presented many symbols of a happier time in Don’s past.  (Credit: AMC)

This week’s episode of “Mad Men” presented a taste of Disney, from the mentioning of Peter Pan Peanut Butter to the official (and expensive) conclusion of an always-doomed marriage born in Disneyland itself. Don proposed to Megan in the Season 4 finale titled “Tomorrowland,” though justifiably-skeptical viewers always deemed “Fantasyland” a more appropriate birthplace for the marriage. Ironically, it is in the Fantasyland section of the Disneyland theme park where the It’s A Small World ride is located, and in this week’s episode (titled “New Business”), our protagonist Don Draper is consistently reminded that life is indeed a small, small world.

As we move closer to the conclusion of series, things are coming full circle for Don. During “Tomorrowland,” it is Megan’s cool and calm reaction to a milkshake spilled by Bobby that causes Don to view Megan as the anti-Betty; he proposes to her later that night. Flash forward to 1970, and Don is again sharing milkshakes with his sons, but this time on good terms with Betty and instead preparing to finalize his divorce with Megan. On that same trip to Disneyland in Season 4, Don receives the wedding ring bequeathed to him by Anna Draper, which he later offers to Megan. Skip forward again, and Megan is returning that very ring in the divorce attorney’s office (after, of course, getting her $1 million check – things sure have changed since Megan told Don last summer that he didn’t owe her anything).

As Don says au revoir to the French Canadian chapter of his past, he is reminded just how small this world really is, both in terms of his relationships and his life choices. It’s a world that presents him with familiar faces, from elevator run-ins with mistresses of past affairs to attorneys retained for past divorces. But it’s also a world that brings him to similar life crossroads, opportunities to make a change for the better or to make the same mistakes that lead to his current situation. In the moment, it is difficult for him to realize which choice will lead to the better outcome, and which will just lead him back to where he started. As Pete asks Don during their car ride, “You think you’re going to live your life over and do it right, but what if you never get past the beginning again?”

That’s the best I can do to contextualize the odd storyline of Don and Diana the waitress. Don has his job back and has made millions of dollars through the acquisition by McCann. But his greatest life worries – that he never did anything, and that he doesn’t have anyone – are becoming closer to a reality for him. He stares jealously at Betty and Henry in the kitchen with the sons he only sees every other weekend. He doesn’t see his daughter, who is off at boarding school. His divorce from Megan has been long, exhausting and expensive. She later tells him that he is an aging, sloppy, selfish liar, and he does not fight back, because he knows that each one of those accusations is true. Nothing, she says, about Don is real – and he knows it.

So for whatever reason, he sees his chance at having something and someone truly real in a waitress that he finds in a diner and later finds himself with at her crappy apartment. They share their stories of divorce and of children and of grief and of pain. He told her last week that he believes that he knows her, and perhaps that it is because he is assuming that he knows what she needs and that he can provide her with whatever that is. Perhaps he confuses his feelings for Diana with his feelings for Rachel, and his attempt to have something with Diana is merely a way for him to achieve his “life not lived” with the former Ms. Menken.

But just when the episode teetered on the brink of cliché – of Don once again presenting a ring from a former Mrs. Draper to a dark-haired woman he barely knows, and of him naively pursuing a road that he believes will lead him to happily ever after – Diana stops him. “Can’t you see I don’t want anything?” she asks. He tells her he has done this before, and that he is ready to go with her, but she isn’t interested in going there with him, wherever “there” is. He offers her a guidebook of Manhattan and offer to move in and up with him, but she knows that’s an empty bargain. “You’re fooling yourself,” she tells him, “if you think this will make a difference.”

She is right. Who is Don to offer anyone any type of guidance? And as Don learns in the next scene, when he returns to his expensive but empty Upper East Side apartment, now missing examples of his wealth and Megan’s touch, his invitation was just as hollow as Diana perceived it to be. Diana also tells Don that she can’t be with him because she doesn’t want to feel anything other than the feeling she has of missing her daughter. Don makes her forget her daughter, and that’s something she won’t allow herself to do.

And hopefully, that is something Don won’t let himself do either. Rather than repeating the mistake of his past by always trying to find happiness in starting something new, Don needs to move forward by building on whatever it is that he has. Don’s daughter, Sally, has been the most glaring omission through the season’s first two episodes, and the show needs to correct that. With Megan flying back to L.A. a million dollars richer and Betty seemingly happy with her life with Henry, Sally is the one (young) woman in Don’s life that offers him the best chance at what he is looking for. With 87 episodes in the books and only five yet to come, viewers do not have the patience or emotional capital available to spend on Don looking for happiness between spread legs in dark alleys behind diners. They know his best chance at being happy is driving up to the boarding school to see Sally, taking his daughter to dinner and joking about skipping out on the check.

When Don and Betty inform their children during the Season 3 finale that they are divorcing, Don tells Sally “I will always come home.” Don has put his daughter through hell since then, but it’s finally time for Don to follow through on that promise. It is, perhaps, the show’s only chance to have a feel-good ending fit for a Disney story.

Notes:

– This week’s episode was directed by Michael Uppendahl, who has now directed 11 episodes of the series. He directed Season 5’s “The Codfish Ball”, in which Megan’s family visits New York and Roger and Marie first meet. There are many similarities between that episode and tonight’s, including copious French subtitles and mass boredom for the many viewers who have no interest in Megan and her family.

– In addition to milkshakes, wedding rings and Disneyland, there are many tips of the cap to the West Coast in this episode. Meredith and Harry discuss how tiring it is to travel to and from LA. Diana makes reference to possibly moving to San Francisco. Most noticeably, the dress Megan wears to her lunch with Harry is the same she wore when picking up Don at LAX last season – perhaps a symbol of how her life in Hollywood has not progressed much over the past year.

– The “Manson family” reference made by Don’s secretary could have been a nod to the popular internet theory that Megan was Sharon Tate or a similar victim of the killers in late 1960s Los Angeles.

– Roger makes reference to not being invited to golf with Derby Foods because Burt Peterson is head of the account at McCann. Roger has fired Bert twice – first in the Season 3 premiere, and then again after the SCDP merger with CGC in Season 6 – so it’s understandable why there is some bad blood there.

– Betty says she’s thinking of enrolling at Fairfield for a masters degree in psychology. She spent much of Season 1 seeing a psychiatrist and even spent a few sessions with Sally’s child psychiatrist in Season 4. For what it’s worth, she got her undergrad degree in anthropology at Bryn Mawr, but presumably didn’t use it much since she went into modeling after college.

– Don was likely not thrilled with the idea of golfing with clients, as the country club life has never been one he has been comfortable in. In Season 2, he leaves Betty and the kids at a Memorial Day luncheon at a Westchester County club. In Season 3, he is disgusted by Roger and Jane’s Derby Day party. Jim Cutler taunted Don last year by calling Don “a football player in a suit,” but the series has never given much indication that Don is any type of athlete.

– In sports news, it’s clear this week that Don has kept Lane Pryce’s Mets pennant, as it is hanging in Don’s corner office. By skipping from July 1969 to April 1970, the series skipped over the Mets’ 1969 World Series title of the Orioles. Don also makes reference to the New York Jets, when Megan tells him the cost of the movers. In 1970, the Jets were preparing for their first season in the NFL, which had just merged with the AFL.

– The show gave so much screen time to art director Stan Rizzo that I thought they were setting him up to be fired or leave the agency, much like how they portrayed Ken Cosgrove last week. Stan is a favorite character, but his departure would pave the clearest path for the one original character who hasn’t been seen since his Season 3 dismissal: Sal Romano.

From Russia (And The Future), With Love

BY EMILY VIVIANI

Clearly, Russian dystopian literature is providing the creative influence for Season 6.  (Credit: AMC)
Clearly, Russian dystopian literature is providing the creative influence for Season 6. (Credit: AMC)

“The future is something you haven’t even thought of yet.” – Don Draper

In Season 1 of “Mad Men,” Don’s then-Sylvia, Rachel Menken, tells him the word “utopia” has two meanings: “’Eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

We should have seen it coming, when the season began with Dante in paradise, but the last two episodes of the series have definitely taken a dystopian turn for the worst. Matthew Weiner’s use of biblical, formulaic and futuristic allusion throughout the season in several ways mirrors motifs introduced through dystopian literature, specifically in the early Russian science fiction novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

A brief synopsis of the novel:

The narrator of “We” is a young man who lives in the futuristic One State, a world overseen by the great Benefactor. Individuals do not exist in One State, only We exists and the narrator’s identity has been reduced to a letter and number D-503, which also signifies his apartment of residence. One State is founded on the principal that pure happiness can only be achieved in a world measured by formulaic reason.

The narrator works as an engineer, building the spaceship Integral, which will be launched to imprint One State’s method of oppressive societal purification on the less-advanced societies that live beyond the Green Wall. The narrator begins to question his existence when he falls in love with I-330, a young woman who challenges the authority of The Benefactor and is planning a revolution against One State. After meeting I-330, the narrator senses that he is not one, but two of himself. His former self is a being governed by the rules of reason, whereas his new self is controlled by instinctual impulse and plagued with a primal sickness marked by dreams and known in One State as Incurable Soul.

This may all sound light years away from 1968 Madison Avenue, but this week’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” inspired the comparison. When Don meets Sylvia in hotel room 503, it alludes to the identity of the narrator in “We,” whose his apartment number in OneState is D-503.

But the series’ dystopian shift actually began with last week’s episode, “For Immediate Release,” when Don dumped Jaguar, then merged SCDP with competitor CGC to win Chevy. Don’s initiation of the strategic merger came in the wake of Joan’s denouncement of his selfish firing of Jaguar, an account for which she had sacrificed much more than him.  “Don’t you feel 300 pounds lighter?” Don asks her. Joan responds: “Just once, I would like to hear you use the word we. Because we’re all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping that you’ll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.” This criticism from Joan appeared to impact him, and may have subconsciously inspired the merger. At the episode’s end, Don surprises Peggy in Ted’s office with the announcement: “We got it. We won Chevy. They wanted our ideas and a big agency, so we gave them both.”

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce & One State: Don and Ted’s compliance with Chevy’s formula for the perfect agency was appropriate considering that they would be working together to sell Chevy’s new “perfect car.” Unlike Jaguar, a brand reliant upon its frivolity and luxury, Chevy’s new model would capitalize on the ultramodern use of computer technology. The implication of the merger, along with the flavor of the new campaign, closely echoes the principles governing One State: perfection is achievable through technological advancement, formulaic reasoning and the sacrifice of individualistic freedom. For the first time, Don will be expected to partially surrender creative control to his professional equal, Ted Chaugh, for the betterment of the company.

Sylvia & I-330: “We” explores the notion that “those two in paradise were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no third alternative.” This season has similarly investigated the relationship between freedom and happiness, through religious allegory. As the world of SCDP becomes more “We”-like, Don personifies many of the psychological conflicts explored by the novel’s narrator. Don’s affair with Sylvia parallels D-503’s clandestine relationship with I-330. In the novel, the equivalent of marriage is prescribed through One State’s system of pink slips, which regulate sexual encounters and has matched D-503 with a woman called O-90 (basically, the novel’s version of Megan). However, D-503 meets I-330 in secret and is overcome by his carnal attraction to her. At the same time, he is troubled by the dichotomy this creates within his psyche, which until that point had always been controlled by reason and “ethics based on subtraction, addition, division and multiplication.”

In the same way that Sylvia’s character is charged with biblical allegory (giving Don her copy of “Dante,” wearing her cross necklace, praying for his peace, dressing up in a red dress then ending the affair with the mention of “shame”), I-330 seems to embody a divine corruption that implores D-503 to consider the greater implications of his existence. I was reminded of the bizarre scene in which Don asks Sylvia to remove her cross necklace after D-503 describes I-330 as having “a face marked with a cross.”

Disorientation & Sickness: Everyone needed medical help this week. Sylvia’s husband, Dr. Rosen was away on business (or as Don suggested last week, “playing God”). Joan is waiting in the emergency room with an ovarian cyst. CGC’s artistic director Frank Gleason is dying from cancer. Pete’s mother is wandering around his apartment, deteriorating from Alzheimer’s and sucking down gin and tonics. Sickness is thematically prevalent in “We,” since D-503 reasons that the only justification for his sudden awareness of self is illness. He writes: “Only an eye with a speck of dust in it, an abscessed finger, an infected tooth feel themselves; a healthy eye, finger tooth are not felt—they seem nonexistent. Is it not clear that individual consciousness is merely a sickness?”

There were several references to disorientation in this week’s episode. When Don commands Sylvia to be ready for him when he returns from his business trip upstate, Sylvia responds, “I can do that standing on my head.” While piloting the flight upstate, Ted tells Don, “Sometimes when you’re flying, you think you’re right side up, but you’re really upside down.” Similarly this idea of inverted perspective is addressed in “We,” notably as D-503 walks to the Medical Offices for treatment of his “illness” in this passage: “I remember: what I resented most of all was that for the last time in my life, I was seeing everything in this absurdly upside-down, unreal state.”

If Weiner was at all deliberate in associating Don with D-503 and is in fact thematically channeling Yevgeny Zamyatin, it will be interesting to see how he incorporates “We” into the second half of this season. Several characters in the novel evoke an emblematic resemblance to this season’s auxiliary cast. Unfortunately, Zamyatin provides no hypothesis for the fate of Bob Benson.