For most of "Mad Men" so far, Glen Bishop has lurked around the fringes: friend to a young Sally, companion to a bored Betty, protector to an older Sally. He's always been so nicely underwritten, both guileless and slightly blank. Even as he shed the baby fat and moved into manhood, he's remained lovable. In other words, he's exactly the kind of minor character we want to see pop in to the show's final episodes.
And what a pop-in it is. On the way to Rye Playland, Glen, now 18, and a new girlfriend drop by the Francis/Drapers'. He might have been Sally's pen pal all these years, but it's clear he wants him some Betty. Betty doesn't recognize him, which is weird but not as weird as Glen's news. He's packing off to Vietnam. His rationale: why should all that dirty business be handled by poor American kids? It's a line of thinking that's both admirable and hard to swallow. After all, this is late spring 1970. By that late date, it's hard to imagine an educated, suburban kid putting aside the horror that was Vietnam enough to enlist.
But this is "Mad Men": all shall be explained. It turns out that Glen's motivations are, as so often on this show, more pragmatic. Joining the military had the benefit of getting his stepfather off his back. Could it help him woo Betty? "I feel safe because I know you're mine," he tells Betty in studly fashion. Betty turns him down by telling him that she's married. She doesn't, as one might expect, object on the grounds that he's just a kid. Whatever's there between them has always been there and is still there. Glen is a balm to Betty's loneliness, which seems to transcend whatever domestic situation she is in at the moment. Don was a bad guy; Henry is a good guy. Either way, Betty is pretty much miserable.
I wouldn't necessarily say that this loneliness makes her an inveterate attention-craver, but Sally sure seems to think so. The scene where Betty and Glen reacquaint themselves, though short and set in a foyer, is fraught with tension -- and Sally is now old enough to interpret it correctly. Using one of her trademark sideways glares, Betty tries to get rid of Sally, who won't budge. She fully understands what is going on. Mom is stealing the spotlight she long ago should have ceded to her daughter.
In the show's penultimate scene -- it now seems obligatory that every episode ends with a shot of sad/perplexed Don -- Sally expresses just how weary she is of her parents' ability to take over a room, usually sucking the air out of it. Don has taken her and a few of her keener friends out for a meal before leaving them at the bus station for a 12-day "teen tour." During the meal, there's a bit of heat between Don and one of the teens. (To be fair, Don, this time, is more the flirtee than the flirter. Sample come-on: "When I watch television, the commercials are my favorite part.")
Either way, Sally is fed up.
Sally: Anyone pays attention to either of you -- and they always do -- you just ooze everywhere. I wanna get on a bus and get away from you and mom and hopefully be a different person than you two.
Don: You are like your mother and me -- and you're gonna find that out. You're a very beautiful girl. It's up to you to be more than that.
Sally, despite her age, has always been one of the most aware, mature characters on the show and this exchange, though it comes out of exasperation, is no exception. To be a teenager and to understand the limits of being at the center of attention is wisdom beyond age. She's not really talking about her parents' good looks. She's talking about the way they go around, puttin' it out there. Fair or not, it's a sharp observation.
Don makes this about looks because that's where his head is at. His advice to young copywriter Mathis after a bad meeting on the (fictional) Peter Pan peanut butter cookie project is to go back and make a joke. The joke about making a joke is that Don can do it and the dorky Mathis can't. The meeting goes bad and Mathis comes storming into Don's office with nothing left to lose.
Mathis: You don't have any character. You're just handsome. Stop kidding yourself.
Don: Everybody has problems. Some people can deal with them. Some people can't.
Mathis is terminated without much thought, but the Sally exchange shows how his words have stuck with Don. He's essentially admitting that all he is a handsome face -- albeit with increasingly bushy hair! Go 70s!
Most of "Mad Men" has seen Don trying to confront or at least accept his past. There are plenty of indications he's been successful in this, like both Sally and Roger casually mentioning that Don grew up poor and Don himself regaling random folks with tales of yore. These final episodes have him figuring out his future. Sunday's ended with the sale of the penthouse apartment where he tried to make a life with Megan -- and failed. It was lucky he could even sell it, devoid of furniture -- save for the patio set serving as a drinking and TV-watching perch -- and with carpets stained.
"It's so lonely," the realtor tells him. "It looks like a sad person lives here."
"A lot of good things happened here," Don protests. Yeah, that's why your ex-wife's mother stole all your furniture, leaving you with an empty room.
Don's also a blank slate when it comes to his professional future. Roger has asked him to write up 2,500 words on the future of the agency -- the "forecast" of the episode's title -- for a presentation to McCann-Erickson bigs. For most in Don's shoes, this would be an opportunity to show off your vision. Don, naturally, flails, stumbling upon some feeble kinda-sorta inspirational language: "We know where we've been. We know where we are. Let's assume that it's good. Imagine it gets better. It's supposed to get better."
Don tries to get Ted and then Peggy to do the work for him. They're not exactly teeming with ideas either. Ted wants to "land a pharmaceutical" and Peggy wants to get famous. When his secretary references a space station (the Soviets would launch one in 1971) Don corrects her: "gas station," as in an oil company client, and also a nice reference to the gas shortages of 1970s and the general U.S. decline during the decade. We've already made it to the moon. It's all downhill from here.
Given all this stumbling about, you might as well substitute "vision" for "character" in Mathis' put-down. Don doesn't seem to have any, which is something of a flaw in a creative leader. Don's true value as a creative thinker -- as opposed to handsome and smooth-talking client handler -- is probably subject matter for a post of its own. But it's fair to say that Don isn't particularly well-positioned to help define the decade again. When he says to Ted, "There's less to actually do and more to think about," it wounds less like an expression of freedom and more like a whine.
Speaking of folks trying to embrace freedom, there's Joan's new beau, Richard, who is immediately compelling not only because he's played by the great movie character actor Bruce Greenwood but because he's rich and dashing and way into all that is Joan, even her four-year-old kid. He gets there after a stormy hotel room encounter, but he gets there.
Richard's plan, as he tells it, is not to have any plans. A divorcee at the end of a very successful real estate career, he's a man of means who wants to see the pyramids and whatnot. He's not exactly looking to raise another kid and tells Joan as much, pumping some friction into their early days. But by episode's end he turns up at the agency, flowers in hand, ready to buy a place in New York. As story lines go, it wasn't exactly chock full of dramatic tension, but it manages to be satisfying in part because you want things to work out for Joan.
Do we have a glimmer of a happily ever after ending for her?
I could live with that.