A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I have two secretaries and three telephones…
“Jiminy Christmas. Think you're going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?” -Pete
The latter half of the run “Mad Men” has featured some of the series' most ambitious episodes, as well as some of its most satisfying. It's a more complex show than when it started, and frequently a better one. Yet I often hear complaints from fans who have grown weary of the show, and particularly about how Don keeps making the same mistakes time and again. It may be true to his character, they acknowledge, but if – to borrow Peggy Lee's question from last week's premiere – that's all there is, then why is the show still going? What's the point to it all?
The craft of the show has been so strong most of the time that I haven't been particularly bothered by Don's inability to grow. “New Business,” though, was an episode so frustrating – and, with few exceptions, dull – that I could for once see that point of view.
Now, “New Business” was an episode specifically about how Don – like Roger, Pete, Harry and others – is trapped in a cycle of personal weakness and failure, and about Don's acute desire to escape that cycle. (Contrary to the title, he spends much of the hour dealing with old business, and failing to land the new relationship he wants.) He begins the episode looking at the first family he lost, and feeling an acute pain at realizing how well they've done without him. As soon as he gets home, he's greeted by a phone call from Rightfully Bitter Ex-Wife #2, and even when he gets Diana to come back to his apartment a second time, they wind up in the elevator with Arnie and Sylvia Rosen.
As he did before with Megan, Don decides that a woman he barely knows is the solution to all his problems. But Diana isn't nearly as simple as Megan was – or, rather, as Megan seemed at the time. She lost one child to the flu, and ran away from the other, and while Don Draper may be the man in New York best qualified to appreciate someone's need to run away from their problems and/or family, she's not buying whatever he's offering to her when he says he's “ready.”
All of this material felt familiar while also trending more towards the feel of actual '60s melodrama – particularly whenever David Carbonara's score started to swell right as Don was drawing Diana into another embrace – than “Mad Men” does when it's at its best. We've seen this bit too often before on this show, done better, and without nearly as much of Megan and her family as we had to deal with here.
Matthew Weiner can be brutal about cutting characters loose when he feels they've served their purpose (where have you gone, Sal Romano? a nation turns its lonely eyes to you), yet he's kept Megan around long past the point where she was adding anything to either our understanding of Don or the series as a whole. When I interviewed him before the season began, he said that Betty and Megan are different than Sal or Paul Kinsey because they're more important to our understanding of Don. (And Betty also provides continued access to Don's kids.) The problem is that Megan is such a flat and uninteresting character that she barely even fulfills the Don-related function Weiner's asking of her(*), let alone justifies being such a significant standalone part of one of our last remaining episodes. When Ken suddenly returned to prominence last week after being an afterthought for several seasons, it worked because his dilemma tied in so well to what everyone else was going through in the hour, but also because there remained aspects of his life that the show hadn't properly explored yet. Each time we cut to the Calvet women, whether alone or together, I found myself trying to imagine a less compelling use of the precious time the show has remaining.
(*) In that same interview, Weiner said he thinks viewers didn't like “Tomorrowland” – the episode where Don proposes to Megan out of the blue – because “They wanted him to go back to Betty.” It was never that – not even for the small but vocal core of Betty fans – but that Megan barely felt like a character at this point, particularly in contrast to Dr. Faye, who seemed like a worthy and complicated love interest. Which, again, goes back to that common refrain about Don repeating his mistakes: choosing Faye would suggest Don had genuinely changed, whereas marrying Megan was Don trying to recapture what he had with Betty when they first met. And it worked out about as well. Don had a blind spot about Megan, but so does “Mad Men.”
“New Business” drew thematic parallels between its different storylines – Megan's return, Don's attempt to start a relationship with Diana, Peggy hiring the more artistic Pima(**) to shoot their Cinzano ad – in that usual “Mad Men” way, here often focusing on imbalanced power dynamics between men and women. At various points, it seems the women have the upper hand – Pima seducing Stan and at least intriguing Peggy, Marie stealing all of Don's furniture, Megan consenting to a meeting with Harry (who knows how much she hates him) – but it never turns out that way. Peggy realizes that Pima is just desperate for work and using the most powerful weapon in her arsenal to get more of it. Marie doesn't have enough money to pay the movers and has to call on Roger for the extra cash. And Megan and Harry's lunch meeting turns into a particularly gross (and unsuccessful) seduction attempt by Mr. Crane.
(**) Mimi Rogers, almost single-handedly holding the episode aloft each time she appeared.
But even though the stories were linked by people repeating old mistakes and sleeping around (Marie finally leaves Megan's father, and even Stan cheats on his girlfriend Elaine), as well as discussions of new ways versus old (Pima causing a stir in her masculine three-piece suit, Marie-France being upset with how her sister and mother's marriages have both fallen apart), the whole thing was a drag: too many notes the show has played too often, and/or ones involving characters not worthy of the focus this late in the game.
Diana spends much of the episode seeing right through Don – she understands right away, for instance, that he and Sylvia used to sleep together – and does it again in the final scene when he tries to convince her that they can have a real relationship and somehow heal what's wrong with each other.
“You're fooling yourself if you think this will make a difference,” she tells him, shortly before sending him home to an apartment that's empty in several ways at once.
She knows that this would be another mistake and another blown shot at redemption for Don, even if Don doesn't recognize it. I'm not sure he's capable of it at this point, even though we've seen things improve with him and Peggy, and him and Sally. I don't mind a “Mad Men” that ends with Don largely unchanged from the wreck he's been for so much of the show's second half, but I hope that if he's going to keep struggling to get past the beginning, that at least the remaining episodes are a lot livelier – and pick more exciting characters to focus on – than “New Business.”
Some other thoughts:
* Don's conversation with Diana about her absence from the diner and trip home to Racine suggested a long gap in time from the end of the last episode, but the check to Megan puts the date at the end of May 1970 – about a month after the events of the premiere.
* That check, by the way, would be worth about $6 million today, while the movers would have charged Megan and her mom (combining the original $200 with the $180 Roger brings over) almost $2300 to move all of Don's furniture to California. A bargain!
* Though the menswear-for-women look wouldn't become a huge phenomenon until much later in the '70s (thanks in large part to Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall”), it was a trend that had started to bubble up in the mid-late '60s (see Yves St. Laurent's Le Smoking, for instance) and absolutely would have filtered to a woman with the worldly affectations of Pima.
* John Slattery usually has to do so little to get a laugh out of his material, which is why all the business with Roger and the two secretaries felt oddly flop-sweaty. Not only was Caroline's need to bring Shirley in to help out never properly explained, but all of Roger's scenes save the ones at Don's apartment were pitched at a more overtly comic level than the show usually feels the need to aim for, given how much Slattery can do with a look or a dry line reading. Like so much of the episode, his scenes felt… off.
* “People love to talk to me.” -Betty Francis, as self-aware as always. She will make a fine psychologist.
* We get our first extended look at Don's reclaimed corner office this week, and among other pieces of decor, he kept Lane's Mets pennant.
* More decor: Stan still has the Moshe Dayan poster on his bedroom wall.
* Meredith's fear of “the Manson brothers” was perhaps a wink at all the “Mad Men” fans who became convinced that Megan was going to be murdered alongside Sharon Tate.
* The Francis clan (minus Sally) made their first appearance of the half-season, but the episode was without Joan, Ted and Ken (assuming last week's episode wasn't meant as his farewell), and Jim Cutler has been absent for both of these episodes.
* Very disappointed we didn't actually get to see Don and Pete's golf game, if only for the return of Michael Gaston as the twice-fired Burt Peterson. (And because any work story would have been welcome over much of what the episode actually offered.)
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org