Mad Men’s Generational War Doesn’t End the Way You’d Think

By  · Published on April 20th, 2015


Does the name E. K. Pond Peanut Butter do anything for you?

Yeah, me neither.

It also failed to capture anyone’s attention in 1920, so manufacturer Swift & Company revamped their PB with a much more inspiring name: Peter Pan (they were also attempting to coast on the character’s popularity after a hit Peter Pan silent film in 1924). The attempt worked, and Peter Pan peanut butter was as grand a hit as peanut butter could ever be.

At that point, Peter Pan history becomes pretty uneventful. Peter Pan was the first peanut butter sold in plastic jars. It was, at one point, packaged with a recipe book that included pages on peanut buttery oyster stew and “hot ham dainties” (not only do those sound revolting, but Arrested Development has conditioned me to assume food starting with the words “hot” and “ham” is hilarious joke food and not actually meant to be eaten). Either way, Peter Pan still sits on supermarket shelves today.

As far as Peter Pan’s history as a cookie is concerned, we hit a slight grey area. I was born in 1990 and have no memory of a Peter Pan cookie ever existing; especially not one that might have originated in 1970. After scouring the depths of Google… no luck. A quick text to my parents (both very much alive in 1970) and neither could recall ever seeing a Peter Pan cookie of any kind. So let’s just assume that Mathis bungled those two pitch meetings so spectacularly in last night’s “The Forecast” that the Peter Pan execs nixed their cookie idea altogether.

Mathis being horrible at all facets of his job and Don being the coasting king of cool is nothing new on Mad Men. It’s a generation clash, between the Don Drapers in the high offices and the younger set working below. Again, nothing new (see also: Don and Ginsberg battling it out over Sno Ball; Roger’s daughter joining a hippie commune; the entirety of Don and Megan’s marriage). So while “The Forecast” makes the obvious arguments- Don’s generation is tired, and maybe crumbling just a bit as we creep into the mustachioed ‘70s- it also makes the one you wouldn’t expect: the old folks are winning.

And yeah, we could start with Don and Mathis and Peter Pan hysteria, but let’s change things up and start in the Francis household. Last week we had a brief Don’s-eye-view of how things were with Betty, Henry and the kids. Things were great! Full of warmth, frosty chocolate milkshakes and none of the venom seen in seasons past. In “The Forecast,” it’s proven: casa de Francis is now a wonderful place to be.

Has Betty ever been shown in an entirely positive light? Ever? I hate to scream NEVER without re-watching the entire series, but even at her most sympathetic Betty’s always been ruthlessly unpleasant. The Betty we know, when on the receiving end of a barb like “weren’t they still colonies?” (nice one, Sally) would have coolly crushed Sally’s young dreams and then puffed a cigarette in pouting silence. Instead, Betty giggled and kept up the conversation. She even threw out a little far-too-late advice about boys and nights out (is there anything more stereotypically “doting mom?).

One half of “The Forecast’s” overarching idea is established: the older generation is fresh, reasonable, adaptable. The other half (“the younger generation? Totally blows”) comes via Glen Bishop. And for the record: back in the premiere I guessed Glen might show up with a bountiful 1970s ‘stache. I was wrong. But he does have some sweet sideburns.

Glen Bishop is young, and Glen Bishop is farcically bad at everything he does. There is very real (strange, but real) chemistry between him and Betty. Where once was stood a tiny little creeper now stands a man; a man with glorious face-shrubbery. He once asked for a lock of her hair, yet there’s a spark of curiosity in her eyes that we (and Sally) can clearly see. But Glen blows it, mistaking that spark for a full-on invitation to play Mrs. Robinson. He invites himself over. He asks for a beer, oozing that yes, I AM of legal drinking age, and enjoy a drink now and again swagger of the freshly-legal. He makes his move and gets an awkward, motherly hug and cheek-touch.

But “The Forecast” continually peels off the layers and makes this even more depressing. Glen’s only there to make the best of a terrible situation. He’s enlisted for and looking for some mix of pity/admiration sex. He only enlisted because he flunked out of college and his dad would be proud of an enlisted man. Also, historical context- while “war hero” status was once so desperately sought that Dick Whitman would steal a dead man’s identity to receive it, all Glen gets here is a mix of derision and sadness. Us in the 21st century know that’s probably all he’ll get for a long time. If he even survives.

(Also: “Severance,” this half-season’s premiere, was dedicated to Mike Nichols, who was friends with both Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm. Last season did a full-on The Graduate homage with Don on a moving walkway; I’d venture that the Betty/Glen thing was the same, even if January Jones doesn’t bare any leg for the camera).

Don does his own Mrs. Robinson thing this week (although again, no bare leg). One of Sally’s friends makes an obvious pass over dinner, once again Sally spots it, and once again I don’t think Don’s boorish enough to actually bed one of his daughter’s 17-year-old friends (although it’s probably more likely than Betty sleeping with Glen). Don comes off like an asshole- he doesn’t want to embarrass Sally’s friend, but he’s perfectly fine embarrassing his daughter- but something tells me he’s going to end up on the winning side here. Sleaze or not, his daughter will probably always love him (and despite copious sleaze, he still got an unexpected “I love you” last year), and Sally will probably end up like her parents. Somehow, anyway.

Meanwhile Joan meets a new beau, Richard (Bruce Greenwood), who’s more Roger’s generation than Don’s, but a) still “old” as far as “The Forecast” is concerned, and b) we’ve seen Roger so we know where Joan’s tastes lie. They begin a star-crossed love affair. As most star-crossed love affairs do, it blows up spectacularly. Richard is the ultimate in old guard, a guy who derides those damn hippies protesting their newfangled “causes” on his golf course, a guy who throws out “yes, dear” (genuine, not sarcastic) to a woman he just met and a guy who makes a point of assuming Joan’s married and he’s the other man (is that the standard for horny older dudes who date younger women?).

“I don’t want to be rigid,” Richard pleads. “It makes you old.” Thus, he isn’t. He owns up to his mistakes and genuinely wants to be a better guy. When we call older folks “dinosaurs,” it’s not just haha what are you, like a billion years old?, but calling someone out of date. Dinosaurs had hundreds of millions of years on Earth, but when their time came, they were hopelessly behind. Unevolved. Yet here’s Richard, very much a dinosaur in the ’70s and very much building his own little asteroid-proof fallout shelter. Peggy had the same option in the premiere with her blind date and her Paris trip; instead, she put the phone down and let the asteroid do its thing.

Young people are just terrible, says “The Forecast.” Were they always this way? Young Don didn’t flounder, he made the best of a horrifying war tragedy, married himself a model and got a younger Roger drunk enough to con himself into an ad job. But Don might be a special case. All episode long, people tell him straight to his face that he’s obsolete. Useless. Human garbage, in barely-nicer terms. You’d think, by the ’70s (and given what we’ve seen on Mad Men before) that they might be right. Incredibly, they’re not.

Says his realtor: “This place reeks of failure.”

Totally does. And yet it sells anyway, to a perfect couple with a baby on the way. Don’s sales ideas are insane (can you just lie and say the guy who invented the Frisbee lived there? Is that legal?) and despite being a 1970s millionaire (every million Don has would be worth six million today) he won’t buy himself a living room set to make this easier. If being rigid makes you old, Don’s a fossil. Doesn’t matter, he still wins.

Says Mathis: “You don’t have any character!”

I’m not so sure. Yes, Don is handsome and yes, he probably coasted across more than his share of mishaps due to said handsomeness (point for Mathis). However, we’ve all seen enough Mad Men to know Don’s a gifted ad man, if just from “The Wheel” and “The Suitcase” alone (point against). At worst, Don was a fascinating, layered character in the show’s first season and he’s set been on repeat for years.

Says his daughter: “I’m going to get on a bus, get away from you and Mom, and hopefully be a different person than you two.”

This might just be me, but again- I seriously doubt it. Few among us don’t grow up to be our parents somehow.

“The Forecast” is the third Mad Men in a row to end with Don staring off into space, a mix of confusion and existential agony (although that slow dolly away from Hamm makes this the the best-looking ending of the three- kudos to director Jennifer Getzinger). I’d like to think he’s wondering how he can be so creaky and outdated and still have everything fall into his lap. Or maybe it’s the realization that now, he really has to buy some furniture.

“The Forecast” is far and away the strongest episode “The End of an Era” has given us so far. Not “The Wheel” or “The Suitcase”-level great, but cleverly plotted and sharply executed. It has something to say. And it’s comforting to know eight years on the air haven’t crushed Mad Men’s love for bizarre little idiosyncrasies or period flair. Lou Avery pops in just long enough to convey that yes, he still hasn’t been fired, and yes, he still spends all his time pimping his cartoon monkey get-rich-quick scheme, Scout’s Honor. And how long do you think it took the props department to track down that gorgeous, well-maintained candy machine (plus a full stock of vintage wrappers) for that one-second shot?

More than anything, ‘The Forecast” is the first Mad Men of “The End of an Era” to really feel like the end of an era. And in typical Mad Men form, I have no earthly idea what it means. According to “The Forecast,” every old dog in advertising (first Roger, then Ted, then Don) are future-clueless. They’re asked to look to the future, they draw a complete blank, they pass the question along. Peggy’s the only one with an answer. Her future sounds pretty good- becoming first female creative director at SC&P, landing a major account, creating something of lasting value (Don scoffs, but it could happen). If Mad Men goes for a Six Feet Under flash-forward ending, I’d love to see that.

A question to ponder in our last four Mad Mens: where does that leave everyone else?