Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mad Men Season 8: The Forecast

What does the future hold for you if you can't figure out what you truly want?

I’ve put off a lot of things; but now I’m free as a bird.

“I just got the job I’ve always wanted.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want—about what I’ve always wanted. Two weeks ago, a girl asked me where I’d live if I had all the money in the world and could live anywhere. This sounds like a generic question one might ask on a first or second date, but I took it to heart; I took it to heart because I didn’t know how to answer it.

Even more recently, I was riding a train upstate with two friends of mine. One of them was talking about how he wanted to change his career; he wanted to get out of New York, he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life working in an office. He was bent out of shape: he didn’t know where he wanted to live or what, exactly, he wanted to do. And I sat there and told him that it is important to stop and ask yourself, “What do you really want?” I felt like an idiot, even though it was just a simple word of encouragement, a piece of small-talk advice.

The thing is, I believe in that dumb piece of advice I gave me friend. Without calibrating yourself from time to time, it’s easy to get lost. It’s easy to forget who you were, who you are; what you wanted and what you currently want. For instance, if I told the seventeen year old version of myself that I would be nearing thirty, working at a book review in New York, writing regularly, getting paid a small amount for some of it, and working on a second unpublished novel, he might say that seems about right. But, very often, when I look at my current position in life, I can see nothing but ruin. I get caught up in what I should be doing or wanting and forget to ask myself what I really want.

At the end of “The Strategy,” Don sits around a table with Sally and her friends at a Chinese restaurant. He goes around the table and asks all the girls what they want to do. Sally says she is tired of being asked that question. Don tells her that when she figures it out that she should write it down on a piece of paper, because she’ll forget what it was when she gets older. Sally breaks out a tiny, begrudging grin. And, of course, Don ruins that small moment with his daughter by then entertaining the flirtations tossed at him by Sally’s friend.

As Don is putting Sally on the bus with her friends, she tears into Don. She tells him that she does know what she wants when she grows up: she wants to get on a bus and get away from Don and Betty and hopefully end up nothing like them. Don is upset and he tells Sally that she is like Don and Betty—she is beautiful. But then, composing himself, he tells her that she can be more than that if she chooses to be.

Throughout the episode, Don is told at various points, and very directly, the following things: that his apartment oozes failure, that he shits on other people’s dreams, and that he has no character, just his good looks. No matter where Don turns, there is evidence to show that all of the attributes he once used to get ahead are no longer relevant or useful. His time is coming to an end.

Joan’s storyline provides a mirror to Don’s. When she is in Los Angeles, Joan meets and falls in love with a stranger—Richard Berghoff. Upon spending the night together, Richard tells Joan that he’s made a lot of money building things, but that by doing so he put off a lot of other things in his life. Now, however, he’s now free to do whatever he wants. Joan tells Richard that she has to work because she finally got the job she always wanted. Joan and her guy eventually fight when she tells him that she has a son. Richard doesn’t want to be fettered by children, his have already grown and he made a plan to have no plans—he truly wants to be unfettered, to travel the world, to see the pyramids. The two eventually reconcile when Richard admits he is a “heel” (still one of my favorite terms—my love of wrestling aside) and says that he doesn’t want to be rigid because being rigid makes you old.

Meanwhile, the mirroring continues when Peggy enters Don’s office and asks him to give her a progress report. Don asks Peggy what she sees for the future and Peggy lays out a very clear plan: become the first female creative director, land a big account, craft a famous catchphrase, and then create something of lasting value. Don scoffs at the idea that she would be able to do that in advertising. Don, like Richard, is free in many ways to do what he wants. Earlier, he lamented to Ted Chaogh that he had less actual work to do, but more to worry about. There are endless possibilities for Don, but he doesn’t even have a plan. So, in his existential pondering, he inadvertently (and selfishly) “shits all over” Peggy’s dreams (just like Richard did to Joan)—a fact that he instantly recognizes in a bit of amazing, subtle acting by Jon Hamm. That classic Draper “gentle twitch of the forehead combined with a remorseful bulging of the eyes” is what I will perhaps miss the most when this show is over.

In Peggy’s case, having a plan is good—it gives her life meaning and purpose. Though, it may be what also causes her to seem older than she is. In Richard’s case, having a plan makes him seem rigid. Without a plan, Don doesn’t seem flexible or open-minded (he shoots down the more creative Peter Pan pitch for the more traditional one); he just seems lost.

At the end of the episode, he has entered an agreement of sale for his apartment, but instead of being excited to start again, he seems bewildered.  “New Business” covered how difficult it is to start again. Does Don have the imagination to start over? Did he ever? What does his future look like and what does he want? These are the questions Don needs to ask himself. And they are the questions we have to constantly ask ourselves. We are afraid of being trapped in a life we don’t want, but very often we’re even more afraid of being given the complete freedom to go after what it is we truly desire.

Without periodically checking in with what do desire, it’s easy to become lost and miserable. And from there, it’s even easier to become rigid and old.

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