Sally Draper sits alone on her bed, on a phone call we only hear from her end. As the camera pushes in, she apologizes twice: once to Glen’s mother as proxy for Glen–tell him I’m sorry–and again, for not meaning to make her cry. Sally herself is choke-crying, the kind that’s uncontrollable and ugly and as contagious as watching someone else throw up. She’s too young to sweep into Glen’s office with flowers and real estate, and too good to pretend to be someone above regret. She does her best, even as the remote and now technologically unthinkable act of leaving a message feels woefully inadequate to never seeing her friend again.
Etymologically, an apology isn’t simply an acknowledgement of error or an expression of regret; it’s a speech in one’s own defense. At the nexus of I made a mistake and I merit forgiveness, apology’s subordination of the past to the present is prerequisite to imagining a future. Somewhere between the penance required of The Breakfast Club (1985) and the college entrance essay framing The Spectacular Now (2013) is McCann’s prompt for a written statement on the future of the company, and it stumps Roger, Ted, and Don because this, unlike copy, is an occluded genre: not a toast or a manifesto, so much as an apology. A speech in self-defense.
We haven’t seen Don in such aimless pursuit of an answer since “The Crash,” S6E7, when all of SCDP/CGC gets high on B-12 and Don ransacks the archive for a soup ad, thinking its dormant commercial genius also holds the idea that will resell Sylvia on their affair. A little later, I Ching-wielding Wendy Gleason suggests that the meaning of life lies in a question as unanswerable as it is common:
Wendy: ‘Does someone love me?’
Wendy: That’s what your question was.
Don: Why would you say that?
Wendy: That’s everyone’s question.
Love also haunts “The Forecast,” focused though it is on failure, the future, and the perils of being hot. This place reeks of failure, says Don’s apparently very candid realtor. Ruined marriage, barren apartment: we’ve been here with him before. When Don sinks into his couch after firing Mathis, with his glass on the coffee table and TV console to the left, the office morphs into the home he no longer has–and even this, according to Mathis, may be more than he deserves.
Don appears to suffer writer’s block because he can’t predict the future, yet everything else in this episode suggests that the future isn’t frightening in its opacity, but precisely in our foresight. Simultaneous with the hope that it’s supposed to get better is awareness of the ways in which it probably won’t. New paramour Richard (also pathologically candid) looks fourteen years into Joan’s future and says, “You can’t go to the Pyramids–you can’t go anywhere.” The exchange is especially barbarous as it echoes Bob Benson’s fear-mongering prediction that Joan remain her mother’s roommate for the rest of her life. Sometimes I think that more than anyone, Joan and Bob understand patience: its utility and its limits, how happiness both requires it, and exceeds its metered affordances. We know from Bob’s proposal that Joan is willing to die hoping, though we continually hope that she won’t have to.
Like Sally’s school friends, Peggy sees the future as a large-scale to-do list; but from titles and projects bloom ideas, importance, visibility: “lasting value.” Not surprising, given that her greatest satisfactions have involved recognition in promotion (think of her swiveling Don’s old chair into the opening credit position), and her defeats have seen her overlooked and diminished. One day you’re there, and then all of a sudden, there’s less of you. In her ‘performance review,’ Peggy thinks she’s being ridiculed, set up to fail by an improvised line of questioning. But Don is simply doing what he’s always done (and what Peggy learned to do from him): composing by way of listening. Plagiarizing the better idea.
Don knows very well that work and the meaning of life, while often inextricable, aren’t reliably the same thing. Or rather: that the substitution of a meaningful life with meaningful work isn’t tantamount to its removal. The first half of Season 7 details Don’s professional return such that we finally find him back in his old office: directing a casting session, scheduling naps. ‘Life’ proves more elusive. What he needs is a Burger Chef-caliber idea, potent and transformative–plus Peggy’s idealism that such ideas are still yet to come.
Instead, he self-flagellates via Mathis: “You could’ve thought of something yourself, you know … Take responsibility for your failure.” The reflexivity couldn’t be any clearer if Don were yelling at himself in midday drunken voiceover. He’s the one who’d sooner pick Meredith’s brain than articulate an original vision of the future, and who’d let a seventeen year-old imagine that he’s “made it” when he’s actually lost the keys to the penthouse.
The “just” of Mathis’ no-punch-pulling rebuttal–You’re just handsome–is crucial, as Don’s beauty has long been thought abundant, a source of wonder and inevitable attention, its limitations (or limitedness) heretofore unexpressed. But the more I think about this, it doesn’t just resonate in Sally’s tantrum by the bus: it’s in Joan’s recurring underestimation, and in Megan’s unemployment. It makes sense that a show about advertisers would question and re-question the substantiality of appearances, even as Mad Men’s aesthetic demands that we take the surface seriously.
Sally doesn’t want to be a Draper when she grows up; seeing Betty flirt with newly sideburned Glen and watching Don light her “fast” friend’s cigarette, Sally suffers exclusion while caught in the frame, her unease inseparable from her centrality. Yet sitting at the kitchen table, cracking a pregnancy joke that recalls Betty’s own black humor (remember that this is the mother who deadpanned rape jokes about one of Sally’s friends), Sally is as much her mother’s daughter as she was in “The Quality of Mercy” (S6E12), coolly smoking in shotgun.
So we hardly need the pregnant couple buying his apartment to know that the closest Don comes both to defending himself and to seeing the future is Sally, the sheer fact of her, proving that beauty and substance are in no way mutually exclusive. Someday, freer from the oppressive regime of her parents than even boarding school permits, Sally may come to see that people like Betty and Don don’t so much ooze as gape. That Betty taking Glen’s hand to her face isn't just an offer, take this, but also a question: does someone love me.