If last week’s episode (“Severance”) was all about the paths not taken, then the opening scene in Sunday’s “New Business” is a perfect example of a life not lived. There’s Don in the kitchen, making his sons chocolate milkshakes, and there’s a dolled up Betty. For a split second you wonder if this is a parallel universe in which Don and Betty did not break up. But no, here comes Henry Francis in his tuxedo. It seems the Francis’s are back from dinner with a Dean of Fairfield University (a minor Rockefeller and a potential funder for Henry) and we’re brought back to reality.
But it’s a nice reality. We haven’t seen Don and Betty together since they had that sleepover at Bobby’s camp several years ago, but that night seems to have healed their wounds and everyone is pretty chummy now. Betty tells Don she’s planning to get a master’s in psychology because “people like to talk to me. They seek me out to share their confidences.” Ha, leave it to Betty to think that being a psychologist is like gossiping with your girlfriends. Don merely smiles, though, and as he leaves the house looks back at the happy family scene ruefully contemplating what could have been.
Well, I hope you enjoyed the first minute of this episode because from there it’s a straight slide down to a black pit of despair. There have been episodes that were more operatically tragic or emotionally devastating, but few that evoked the low-grade depression you get when you realize everything decays and ultimately goes rotten. Because this episode was all about dashed promises.
This is the fourth in a series of episodes in which we’ve said good-bye to an important secondary character. First it was Bob Benson going to Buick, then Bert dying, then Ken Cosgrove to Dow, and now it’s Megan’s turn for a swan song. The Megan/Don marriage, which began with so much promise in Disneyland is grinding to an unhappy conclusion. Remember how Megan told Don he didn’t owe her anything and he said he’d take care of her? Well forget that. Like many divorces, this one is turning ugly over money.
Roger warns Don not to settle until he’s happy with the number. Reflecting more on his own failed marriage to a former secretary than to Don’s he says, “You have given her the good life. She would never have had it.” When Don replies that Megan is not Jane (Roger’s ex-wife, who was a more obvious gold-digger) he asks, “She never said you squandered her youth and beauty? Thwarted her career? What career? She’s a consumer. She made her choices.”
And the sad thing, is that when they have their final meeting, Megan does display Jane-like tendencies: “I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of knowing you ruined my life… I gave up everything for you. I believed you and you’re nothing but a liar – an aging, sloppy, selfish liar.”
This is a bit harsh considering that she was just a secretary when she broke up Don’s very mature relationship with Dr. Faye, that his connections launched her acting career, and that his money has subsidized her in Hollywood for a year-and-a-half so far.
Megan’s decline has been sad for several years now and her lashing out at Don is more a lashing out at her own failed dreams. Once described by Peggy as the girl who could do everything, she had confidence, youth, creativity and a real talent for sizing up a situation. Her acting career got off to a fast start and she was a minor soap opera celebrity before she quite her job thinking that she and Don would move to LA to start over. But when Don reneged on the California plans (after being begged by Ted to let him go instead) she didn’t even try to get her job back and just left for LA on her own. Now she’s stuck – no husband, no career, no prospects, an incompetent agent, and possibly no talent.
It’s a sign of her desperation that she called Harry Crane, who she despises, for help in finding a new agent. They meet for lunch, flattering each other shamelessly, until Harry suggests that she demonstrate her acting talent between the sheets. What a downer – Harry had seemed to be willing to help her out of friendship but in the end was only interested in one thing.
And to cap it all off, she had left her mother in charge of finishing her move out of Chez Draper and when she returns unexpectedly after dumping Harry at the restaurant, she finds Mom and Roger in dishabille. I don’t care how sophisticated you are, you still don’t want to find your married mother dressing in a hurry in your former dream apartment after a quickie with your husband’s partner. Or to further discover that said mother, out of spite alone, has stolen your husband’s furniture and sent it to your cozy house in California where it will be completely useless.
In the end, the only thing that will end the acrimony between Don and Megan is for Don to write her a million dollar check to shut her up. Don has a bad habit of thinking he can solve problems by writing a check and frequently he can. A million dollars can buy a lot of silence. So exeunt Megan. Don’t spend it all in one place.
The end of the second Draper marriage isn’t even the main misery this episode. That would be Don’s pursuit of someone who’s even more damaged than he is – the Dos Passos-reading, Mildred Pierce-impersonating, Racine-fleeing, Avon-shopping, ominously named Di. Twitter almost melted down last night when she reappeared on the screen and you can understand why.
When the final Mad Men episode is aired and we look back on the entire series, “New Business” will probably be one of the least-loved episodes, not least because of this extended dalliance with Di. But the Di subplot serves its purpose in the narrative arc of this season. We learned from last episode that he’s been on a sexual bender since separating from Megan, but he now appears ready to settle down again. Maybe it was the death of Rachel Menken last episode, maybe it was scene of the cozy family in the Francis household, maybe it was the finality of the divorce from Megan, or maybe it was just whatever mysterious pheromones Di is excreting, but Don is smitten. “I’ve been separated a long time,” he tells her. “You’re not the first thing to come along. I’m ready.”
Many pixels have been spilled trying to understand what Don sees in Di. She doesn’t have the innate sexiness of Megan, the coolness of Midge, the maturity of Dr. Faye, the beauty and status of Betty, the innocence of Sally’s teacher – well, this list could go on and on, but she doesn’t have any of the things that the other women in his life had. Instead, he’s attracted to her because she’s another lost soul undone by grief – someone who can understand him in a primal way. “You don’t think I’ve felt grief?” he asks when she tries to out-suffer him. “You knew that about me the first time we met.”
The problem is that unlike Don, she cannot compartmentalize her grief. She had been living the American dream. It was not much compared to Don’s success but she had a ranch house, a two-car-garage, a husband and a daughter back there in Racine, Wisconsin. She evokes Don’s famous “carousel” pitch for Kodak, telling him that she has a twinge in her chest; it’s a “pain” Don says, which is how Don had described nostalgia. (The first hint that the carousel pitch was in play was the call from the owner of the diner where Di and Don met – he’s a Greek, and it’s a Greek copywriter named Teddy who told Don that nostalgia is a pain from an old wound.)
Like Don, Di has secrets that she doles out. First she confides that he daughter died of the flu two years ago, and then devastatingly, she confesses that she has another daughter who she’s abandoned to her husband. Grief-stricken at the death of a daughter, she has blown up the whole family, leaving a daughter who probably needs her desperately. She can only wallow in her grief, explaining to Don as she breaks up with him up with him: “I told you about my heart; I don’t want to feel anything else. When I was with you I forgot about her and I don’t ever want to do that.”
The romance with Di, as unpleasant and uncomfortable as it was to watch, presumably leaves Don at another emotional low point and possibly ready to build himself up again, setting the stage for the last five episodes. Only a fool would predict where Mad Men is headed, but previous seasons have ended in a catharsis. You can’t have a catharsis unless you hit bottom and we can only hope, for our own enjoyment, that this was the bottom.
Some other observations:
- There were zero clues to the time frame of this episode, until the end, when we caught a glimpse of Don’s million dollar check, which was helpfully dated May 24, 1970. In other words, we have resumed the pattern of each episode taking place about a month after the previous one.
- The name of the episode is “New Business,” which is something that all agencies crave. There’s nothing better than the prospect of a new client and the possibility of a lucrative new relationship. Presumably the title refers to the new Cinzano account, the Nabisco client that Pete and Don go golfing with, or the beginning of the relationship with Di. It could also ironically refer to the “old business” that comes to an end between Don and Megan.
- The closing song of the episode was Yves Montand singing “C’est ci bon” (or “It’s So Good”) is meant to be ironic, since life is not so good, certainly not for anyone who speaks French on this show. It’s a love song and its appearance is a bittersweet way to say goodbye to Megan: Translated, the opening lyrics are: “I don’t know if there is anyone more blonde/But more beautiful, there is none for me/She is truly all the joy in the world/My life begins the instant I see her”
- Also disheartening, like we needed more punishment, was the scene in the elevator, when Don and Diana (in her waitress uniform no less) run into Arnold and Sylvia. When the Drapers were married, they were all good friends, by that too has decayed. Arnold, once the only man Don looked up to, makes snarky jokes about Don’s sexual conquests. Worse, it seems he actually is a jerk, not just someone cranky at Don, as he describes his new daughter-in-law as ugly. Nice.
- The “B Story” in this episode – the struggle between Stan and Peggy over “Pima Ryan,” a famous photographer hired to shoot the Cinzano ad – is as dispiriting in its own way as Don’s interactions with Megan and Diana. We’re able to confirm what we expected all along – that Stan hates himself for working in an ad agency, when he should be expressing himself artistically. Like Ken Cosgrove and fiction writing, Stan wants to be a photographer but has subsumed that dream in favor of earning a living (unlike Megan, btw, who actually did pursue her dream to disappointing results.) Pima flatters both Stan and Peggy, telling Stan he has talent drawing (but not apparently in photography), and complimenting Peggy on how well she’s doing in her career. She also observes that Stan “hates himself,” something that Peggy’s too blind to see. She’s canny, but not canny enough; wanting more business from the agency she seduces Stan and makes a pass at Peggy, When they compare notes, Peggy denounces her as a “hustler” and says she’ll refuse to do business with her again, leaving both of them disillusioned by someone they had considered an artist.
- Pima was played by Mimi Rogers, the first Mrs. Tom Cruise. As a former Scientologist I wonder if she had much to say to Elizabeth Moss, a current practicing Scientologist (!!?).
- As usual, the few humorous sketches from the episode belonged to Roger. The scene with his “two secretaries and three telephones,” was hilarious. His current secretary Caroline can no longer keep up with him, so recruits Shirley to help out, making life twice as complicated. He eventually retreats to the privacy of Don’s empty office, remarking that he feels like “Marlin Perkins is chasing me on the Savannah.” This is clearly an inside joke because with his white hair and white moustache, Roger actually LOOKS like Marlin Perkins, who had one of the first wildlife shows on TV.
- As if the shattering of Megan’s dreams weren’t bad enough, she also has to face reality of the terrible dynamics in her own family. Ugh. What a terrible family. It’s bad enough that they all speak French and have the condescension to go with it, but Papa’s a champagne socialist and adulterer (this we know from previous episodes), Mama’s a judgey snob and a slut (ditto), and sis is some kind of religious nut, who judges Megan’s life a failure because of the divorce, presses her to get an annulment instead, and is distraught to discover that Mama has run off with some man because she’ll need to explain that to her kids. Megan’s so disgusted with them all that she can’t even enjoy the $1 million check that’s burning a hole in her pocket book. Still, Mama does get off the funniest line of the episode, when she discovers the stain on the bedroom carpet: “You think he drinks red wine? It’s a wonder you don’t have syphilis.”
- Second-funniest line of the night: Meredith to Harry Crane about L.A. “How do you go to sleep at night knowing the Manson brothers could be roaming around?”
- An speaking of Charles Manson, that line was undoubtedly another inside joke about how frantic everybody got two seasons ago about Megan potentially being murdered by the Manson family.
- Even a blind pig eventually finds an acorn. A stopped clock is right twice a day. And once a season Pete Campbell will say something smart: “Jiminy Christmas. You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning.” Good point Pete, but keep your eyes on the road.
- As we see from the first scene. Gene Draper seems to be growing up nicely, although I don’t think he’s uttered his first bit of dialogue yet. But Bobby Draper doesn’t seem to have aged at all. He should be about 14 now but he still looks about ten.
- It’s a nice touch that Don moved the Mets poster from Lane’s office to his own. By jumping ahead from July 1969 to April 1970, we not only missed the Manson murders, Woodstock and the chronological end of the 60’s, we also missed the Amazing Mets campaign of 1969, when the Mets shockingly won the Word Series. That poster, which Don retrieved from Lane’s trash can, is not only a symbol of Lane’s love of Americana, but also an example of how there are actually are cases in real life (if not in the Mad Man universe) where dreams do come true.
- Last episode Roger learned that Ken Cosgrove, whom he had so cavalierly fired at the request of McCann, would end up as his client at Dow. This episode he learns that Bert Peterson, whom he’d fired with so much relish after the merger, is now managing the client account at Nabisco. Maybe he should stop firing people.
“It wasn’t my idea.” Such a useful line.