For an episode called “New Business,” tonight’s Mad Men sure brought back a lot of Don Draper’s old companions. His first wife, Betty. His latest predilection, Diana. His now-ex-wife, Megan. And Sylvia Rosen, who used to leave a penny under her doormat to let Don know when her husband was gone. Each of these four women holds a different charge for Don, yet a key exchange in “New Business” comes between Don and Henry Francis. Gulping down his milkshake as Henry gets back from dinner, Bobby asks his father to “make Henry one.” Don pats the kid on the head. “You give him a sip of yours,” Don says. Henry replies, “Maybe I’ll make my own.”
After Henry says this, Don looks back into the kitchen and sees a nuclear family that theoretically could have included him. Henry’s back is turned, and his hair looks slick and dark, which invites the viewer to project Don into the picture—because Don certainly is. Indeed, the opening shots of this scene feel like they depict an alternate universe, one in which Don and Betty somehow found enough contentment to raise their kids together. He works the blender in his shirtsleeves. She gets the glasses down from the cupboard. They look like a magazine advertisement, one that Salvatore Romano might have sketched up.
In Don’s imagination, Henry is living the conclusion of a story that Don set in motion—sipping the leftover bits of Don’s milkshake. Henry sees it a different way: He built this familial existence himself. He made his own milkshake. As Don departs, his face looks hollow, as he knows that Henry has it right.
And what has Don built? That’s the question. Mad Men’s final half-season is taking an ingenious approach to the problem of how to end Don Draper’s story: Let the creative genius himself try to figure it out. We are watching Don flip through past chapters of his life as he tries to tease out a narrative arc that he can extend to its conclusion. His vehicle for that self-exploration at the moment is Di. Or, rather, Diana, as she’s called in this episode. She gets a full name now, and likewise we glimpse her as a full-bodied person rather than a corporeal figment of Don’s tortured angst. But it takes a while.
Last week, Di was an avatar through which Don reexamined his relationship with Rachel Katz. Now the cryptic waitress proves to be an even more versatile figure as Don takes Diana on an accidental tour of his sexual history and parallels emerge at every stop along the way.
They ride the elevator with Sylvia Rosen and her heart-doctor husband. “How many girls have you had in this elevator?” Diana asks after the Rosens disembark. Don answers, “That’s not what that was.” In one respect, it’s a lie. This is the same elevator where Don pulled the emergency stop button between floors so he could hold Sylvia, kiss her, and assure her that he’d come by later. But there’s an honest sentiment in Don’s reaction, too. He quietly objects to the notion that Sylvia was just one in a series of “girls,” because he remembers her as something more. He might like to imagine what would have happened if, in the end, Sylvia had come upstairs to his floor. Maybe this is the image going through his head when he hangs back to watch Diana walk out of the elevator. Diana somewhat resembles Sylvia, after all, just as she resembled Rachel.
And Diana could be mistaken for Megan on a crowded sidewalk, too. For Don, that’s the great thing about this beguiling waitress: Squint a little and she can provide the epilogue for any story. Diana is newly divorced, like Megan. “No children,” she tells Don, and Megan’s lack of kids comes up in this episode as well.
The comparison isn’t perfect, as we learn in short order, but it fits together well enough in Don’s mind. After dithering over his divorce papers for some time, Don’s encounters with Diana inspire him to cut ties with Megan in a typical “this is what I have decided for you” Don Draper pivot. He begins the episode dickering over $500 for Megan’s moving expenses. By the end of the hour, he’s writing her a $1 million check. He can move on with Diana, he surmises. She’s practically the same woman, but she doesn’t have all the baggage. With Diana, it’s all new business.
Except this episode demonstrates that there’s no such thing as “new business.” Everything we do springs from old business. Don sees in Diana an intoxicating blend of his previous missteps—she’s a hazy vision of second chances, an opportunity to make something new from the old while simultaneously disregarding the old. That’s a tough circle to square, and Don’s preoccupation with his unsatisfying past keeps him from seeing Diana clearly. The irony is that she ends up resembling Don himself more than any of his old flames.
Don spends much of “New Business” trying to give Diana what she wants. He invites her over; she says she’s at work. “Fine, I’ll come there,” he says. She comes to him instead. He offers her a drink; she says she’s already drunk. He offers her a glass of water; she ignores it and kisses him. When she feels a twinge in her chest, he asks, “Are you hungry?” She’s not. Don is constantly probing for Diana’s desires, and he always misses the mark.
“Can’t you see I don’t want anything?” she finally says to him in their last scene together. Yet he still can’t see it. He reassures her that his divorce is final. “I took care of everything today,” he insists, having written that million-dollar check to close his Megan chapter. He also reassures her that she’s not a mere rebound. “You’re not the first one to come along,” and truer words were never spoken. To Don, Diana is the second one, on many fronts.
But Don’s not the first one to come along for Diana, either, and that’s her sticking point. “My oldest is in Racine with her father. Why?” she says to Don. “Don’t you want to ask why?” He answers no. That’s the difference between them. Don wants to erase the frustrating, inconclusive endings of his old narrative arcs and sketch new trajectories that might deliver him him some meaning. For a short while, Diana got swept up in Don’s new-business craze. She wanted to leave life behind, too. They were united in that respect. Now, speaking of her daughter in Racine, she says, “When I was with you, I forgot about her. I don’t ever want to do that.” The daughter she lost to the flu also continues to affect her, too. It occupies her thoughts the morning after she sleeps with Don, a morning when, not coincidentally, she keeps encouraging him to leave. Because she knows that unlike her, he does want to forget.
Or, more accurately, he wants to remember his past differently. And so they diverge. Diana accepts that like all people, she’s a product of the choices she’s made. The power of old business cannot be escaped. When you try to escape it nonetheless, you end up like Don in the conclusive shot of “New Business”: suspended in emptiness, with no sense of where to go next.
That apartment is barren because Megan’s mother, Marie, insists on gutting the place. She might want a clean break even more than Don does. “I hate what he’s done to our family,” she laments. It’s a remark that applies equally well to Don as to her own husband. Megan’s breakup serves as a receptacle for Marie’s own bitterness, and she expends so much energy exacting her revenge that it leaves her less than empty: She can’t even afford to pay the movers for all the extra stuff she made them load in their truck.
So along comes Roger to get her out of that stalemate, among others. He banishes the movers and provides the final messy catharsis she needs to leave her own marriage. Marie and Roger are in a similar place, as Roger is another person who has been mapping his own woes onto the erstwhile Mr. and Mrs. Draper. “No matter what she says, you have given her the good life!” Roger tells Don in a sort of divorce-proceedings pep talk. Don sees through it. “Megan is not Jane,” he replies. Yet Roger just works himself into a further froth, rattling off his imagined list of Megan’s grievances: Don stole her youth, her beauty, her career. “She made her choices,” Roger sneers, willfully oblivious that Megan’s main problem in her marriage to Don was the unending struggle to choose a path for herself. (On the other hand, even if Roger is projecting, he ends up coming pretty close to Megan’s actual invective against Don when they sign the papers.)
Roger sees Megan in the role of Jane; Marie sees her in the role of Marie. That’s the funny thing about Megan. Nobody gives her acting career much credence, but everybody is willing to cast her in the theater of their own imaginations. Harry Crane also has a starring role for Megan—well, it’s more like a co-starring role in his fantasy version of a television agent’s career. Teasing out-of-work Megan with the prospect of new business, he paints a scenario in which he plays the hero, placing calls from his hotel room, and she plays the romantic interest, on her knees in the hotel room. Megan feels that the Harry Crane: Hollywood Mover & Shaker script needs some work, and she rebuffs him. So he presents a panicked revision to Don, reinventing Megan’s character as the desperate has-been who would do anything for a job.
Don senses Harry’s self-serving rewrite of that sleazy lunch meeting, but he also detects that the general theme of Megan’s frustration is authentic. This could be why he advances the million-dollar solution so confidently (not that a seven-figure check really needs a special context to make a strong impression). Jaded, Megan looks for the catch. “I know it’s not real,” she snaps, “nothing about you is.” It’s a cutting yet fair retort, and there are other reasons for her to be suspicious. Don has typically cast Megan in secondary roles: his beautiful secretary, his nanny, his talented protege, his maid crawling around on the floor to clean up his mess. Now he’s going to make her a millionaire? Even the writers on her old soap opera would have cocked an eyebrow at that implausible twist.
But this isn’t a soap opera, as Don makes clear. It’s business. Megan ultimately accepts the check, and with that, she is done acting for now, a policy that takes effect immediately. She refuses to play-act the good daughter when she returns to the Waldorf. “I’m not interested in your drama,” she says, coldly, as her sister bemoans their parents’ shattered marriage. Megan sums up the story of more than one Calvet woman by telling her sister, “She was very unhappy for a very long time. At least she did something about it.” In those parting words you can hear Megan’s spiteful conviction that she’s choosing her own roles at last.
“I’m sorry about that,” Peggy says after Pima Ryan and Stan make their tense introduction. “He has a hard time with”—Peggy takes a moment to find the right word—“new people.” Not only does it fit the episode’s overarching theme, but it’s also a perfect summation of Pima. Clad in a necktie and a vested pantsuit, the fluidly gendered photographer observes that “all art is selling something,” and what she’s selling is the truth in newness. Stan ends up buying in. Peggy does not.
Stan is stuck in a creative rut that makes him especially receptive to Pima’s sales pitch. “Everything good I have is from a long time ago,” he grumbles when he’s searching for photos he can show to this “sensual” artist for her critique. He refuses to be defined by his old work. Yet Pima doesn’t perceive anything fresh in Stan’s latest shots of his girlfriend, either, rolling her eyes at the trite heterosexual submissiveness of the subject. “You can see it in her eyes: She doesn’t want to tell you the truth,” Pima says, and the barely unstated subtext is that Pima will tell the truth. She knows he’ll listen. His only stipulation for Pima’s critique was that she “promise to be honest,” and she senses the deeper need behind that statement, playing it to her advantage.
Pima misplays Peggy, however. The promise of a new truth doesn’t land as strongly with Sterling Cooper & Partner’s copy chief, who in the last episode noted with chagrin that she has “tried new-fashioned.” Pima’s flirtation is intended to make Peggy feel special, euphoric with the dizziness of an unprecedented experience. Instead Peggy recoils at her loss of control, and control is the one thing that Pima will not grant her. “Of course! You’re in charge. I know that,” Pima says as they browse selects from the vermouth shoot. But her mouth contorts in a barely contained grimace as she says it, and when Peggy leans down to inspect the photos, Pima lets the disdain wash across her face.
Peggy exhibits a similar disgust later when she tells Stan that Pima’s “business turns out to be more advertising than art.” While it’s an odd slur to be employed by someone whose livelihood is advertising, the line says a lot about where Peggy’s aspirations remain—she still clings to a sense of deeper purpose in her efforts to sell booze and pantyhose. This is why she is so enthralled by Pima, the up-and-coming visual artist, at the beginning of the episode. Peggy isn’t altogether averse to newness; it’s just that when Peggy thinks “new,” she thinks of meaningful, groundbreaking work.
She does not think of colleagues in suits and ties who try to manipulate her heartstrings to their advantage. Sure, it’s a woman wearing the suit this time, but beyond the initial shock, that novelty does not strike Peggy as a significant distinction. All she perceives is a new way of doing business that looks a lot like the old business. She sees through the mirage, in other words. The reward for her insight is the same familiar disappointment.
- This is the final version (aside from minor corrections/additions) of tonight’s Mad Men review. Because our readers are always eager to read about and discuss the show after it airs, each week I’ll post a review that examines the main storyline of the episode (probably Don’s), and then in the coming hours I’ll update the review with analysis of the rest of the show, screenshots, and more stray observations from my notes. That way, I hope I can split the difference between posting a timely take and conducting the closer analysis that this show deserves.
- Betty tries to look nonchalant as she says that she had dinner with “some distant Rockefeller,” but as soon as she’s done saying the word “Rockefeller,” she can’t help breaking into a smile.
- Double take of the night: When Roger’s secretary lets him know that there’s a “Marie” on the line for him, he barks, “Marie who?” Then, after a beat, he answers his own question, picks up the phone, and transforms into the silver fox: “Bonjour!”
- Torkelson’s Law: “You got your models, you got your bottles. If you make it to lunch without bothering anybody, we’ll let you have whichever you want.” You get the sense that Torkelson became very excited late one night when he realized that “models” and “bottles” rhyme.
- Betty is pursuing a master’s in psychology. “I know it’s beyond your experience, but people like to talk to me,” she tells Don, playfully but pointedly. This is a graceful payoff for Betty given how much time we’ve seen her spend in therapists’ offices—first with that double-crossing doctor who would call Don to fill him in on Betty’s sessions, and later with Sally’s counselor.
- The contrast between Pima and Peggy is set up nicely early on, when Pima observes that Stan hates himself and Peggy says, no, Stan has a huge ego. Peggy doesn’t understand that a huge ego and self-hatred can coexist. Pima gets that, and it’s the type of insight she applies to her advantage.
- Diana appears in Megan’s space (the apartment) and in Sylvia’s space (the elevator). But she doesn’t show up in place of Betty, and Betty is one of the few Draper paramours to whom Diana bears little resemblance, too. As the mother of Don’s children, Betty has a special status. Her role in his story is not so easily filled by Diana, Don’s otherwise elastic understudy.
- Stan tells Pima, “I do everything. I’m an art director.” It’s the peak of his puffed-up bravado, and from there it’s remarkable how deftly Pima breaks him down.
- A clipping on the wall of the darkroom reads, “Try it. It won’t bite.” That’s an old tagline for Sail Tobacco with a message that Stan takes to heart.
- Peggy tells Stan about Pima’s advances and furthermore says that Pima won’t be getting any more work. “I don’t believe you,” Stan says reflexively, as Pima, not Peggy, is his chosen beacon of honesty at the moment. “Which part?” Peggy responds, and Elisabeth Moss gives the line a potent spin, with a matter-of-fact confidence that turns the question into a challenge.
- Don’s not dressed for his golf outing, but he tells Pete that he’ll just throw his tie over his shoulder and roll up his sleeves. “They’ll love it,” Don says. Pete storms off as he mutters, “They probably will.” Everything Pete can’t stand about Don encapsulated in one conversation about golf pants.
- Motherly love in the Calvet family: “It’s a wonder you don’t have syphilis.”