'Mad Men' Recap: Free as a Bird

An old face returns and several characters get second chances as the long wind-down continues

Jon Hamm in 'Mad Men.' Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

With Mad Men's end fast approaching, longtime viewers are naturally desperate for closure. As the minutes tick away — wait, AMC, how many episodes until the finale now? — every scene that's not pushing the show's characters towards some kind of comforting finality feels like a moment wasted. Matthew Weiner left The Sopranos before that show's still-controversial smash cut to black, but he seems to have picked up some of David Chase's thoughts about endings.

This is still a series that seems exquisitely aware of our desire for a satisfying ending, and just as determined to mess with it. Peggy found a cute guy who's not put off by her ambition and professional accomplishments, but she couldn't find her passport and the moment is lost. Don connected with the latest in a long line of enigmatic brunettes, but that one won't be caught for long. Every new character who comes onto the scene seems like they might be The One, but sometimes they're just passing through. Joan's whirlwind romance with Richard Burghoff, a California-browned real-estate developer played by Bruce Greenwood, takes us through that arc and then some: They meet cute, he comes on strong, backs off when he finds out his lady love has a four-year-old at home — he's had kids and raised them; that part of his life is done. Then guess who shows up at the office with a dozen roses and a change of heart?

In tonight's episode — "The Forecast," written by Weiner and Jonathan Igla — Don is expressly charged with looking into the future. McCann and subsidiaries are gathering at a Bahamian retreat, and Roger needs a "Gettysburg Address" to impress SC&P's new owners, apparently forgetting that Lincoln's indelible speech was mainly concerned with memorializing the dead. As the ad man dictates his own "Four score and seven years ago," director Jennifer Getzinger frames him prone on his office couch, an overhead crane shot that pivots off a Time cover of Jesse Jackson. That comes right after the scene in which Glen Bishop says he's enlisting in the military so that the war in Vietnam won't only be "Negro kids." The Civil War is over, but the battle rages on.

In the performance review Peggy insists on having, Don asks what she sees for own future. He's impressed by the clarity with which she identifies the goal of being the firm's first female creative director, but the more he asks "What's next?", the more vague her answers become. Create a catch phrase, she says. Be famous. And then? "Create something of lasting value." "In advertising?" he scoffs. Don chides Ted Chaough for the smallness of his vision — land bigger accounts, basically — then ribs his female protégé for the grandiosity of hers. It's meant to be playful, but Peggy's all nerve endings where he's concerned. She knows him well enough to hear the contempt in his voice.

The first half of Mad Men's seventh season ended with humanity gazing up at the stars, but this time out, our hero apparently prefers flying low. He's stunned that prospective buyers don't see his apartment, having been emptied out by his now officially ex-wife Megan, as a blank canvas rather than an evacuated void. ("You're so much better at painting a picture," Ted tells him.) His real estate agent, a Betty clone who opens the episode by hauling her client out of bed, informs him that most people want a place they can picture themselves in.

Don's imagination, however, seems to have abandoned him. He's blocked on Roger's speech; he can barely decide which candy bar to buy from the office vending machine. "You don't have character," Mathis tells him, right after he blows his second attempts at the Tinkerbell pitch and just before Don fires him. "You're just handsome." Sally later echoes the critique after watching her father bask in the glow of her high-school classmate's sexual attention. "Anyone pays attention to you, and they always do, and you just ooze all over them." Don doesn't deny it, but he strikes back at Sally's denial: "You are like us," he tells her, as if being fantastic-looking were some curse passed down through generations. "You're a beautiful girl. The rest is up to you."

At the end of "The Forecast," when his apartment's sold to a young couple — she's pregnant, the seed of possibility already growing with her — Don is well and truly free, and the moment hits him, hard. No home, no wife, a daughter who's just told him her life's ambition is to get away from him: What does he have left? One more romance that won't last. "Jesus, love again?" Don says when John Mathis reads him the tagline for the Tinkerbell cookies spot. "We use it all the time," says Pete Campbell.

A postscript: The episode does provide closure of a kind for one of Mad Men's key relationships, albeit one that the show hasn't paid much attention to for years: the childlike bond between Glen and Betty. The former creepy kid down the street, now tall and handsome, shows up on the Francis' doorstep on his way to Rye Playland, where you can both ride rollercoasters and score weed. It's been so long Betty introduces herself without recognizing him, but he knows her, and it's more clear than ever that his ongoing correspondence with Sally was a proxy for keeping in touch with her mom.

That two-part farewell — a noble goodbye in semi-public, and a touching, somewhat awkward last encounter in their kitchen — was a moment we didn't know we needed, tapping long-dormant but still powerful emotions from years past in the way that only television shows and life can do. Glen's clumsy pass was too painful to watch, but the image of their faces, mirroring each other but not quite touching, is more powerful than words can convey. They've both grown, and at roughly the same pace — as Betty points out, he's at college and she's starting again in the fall. Fate and circumstance and sometimes just dumb luck has taken them apart: Glen's initial reasons for signing up turn out to be BS; he actually joined the Army to escape his stepdad's wrath over his failing grades. But they have those final moments, and when Mad Men's over, we'll have them, too.

Previously: Business as Usual