Do not read on unless you have seen "New Business," the ninth episode of "Mad Men's" final season.
Oh, “Mad Men.” Don’t ever change.
Wait, scratch that. Do change. We’re close to the finish line, but “Mad Men” is absolutely allowed to change if it means it swerves away from focusing on new characters that aren’t particularly compelling, gives more screen time to characters we do care about and deprives us of predictable greatest-hits collections of ideas and dynamics it has shown us too many times before.
“New Business” -- oh, the irony of that title. This plodding hour isn’t on the level of “Across the Sea,” which was, for my money, the worst-ever episode of “Lost.” “New Business” was mostly tiresome, not particularly enraging. “Across the Sea” truly altered my view of “Lost” (which I still love overall, mind you) by introducing mythological underpinnings for the show that were hugely troubling, to say the least. This episode of “Mad Men” just left me with a very tired feeling -- that feeling you get when you’ve spent too much time traveling down the same roads over and over.
That said, there were some strong similarities between "Across the Sea" and "New Business": Both episodes introduced new characters very late in the game and meandered around in the realm of signs and symbols each drama had previously established. More importantly, both pretty strongly implied that dark-haired women are pretty much the cause of every problem ever. Obviously.
Look, I don’t have anything against Elizabeth Reaser as an actress, but much of the Diana arc has served as an advertisement for the fact that the show is coming very close to overstaying its welcome. Yet another attractive, feisty brunette with a secret storehouse of pain? Where have we seen that before? On this show -- everywhere. And in the interest of going to a number of wells too many times, “New Business” gave Don even more reasons to find Diana just about perfect.
Don has endured so much death -- the death of his mother, and the passing of his mother figure, Anna Draper, as well. In Betty, he’d hoped to find a pliable version of Anna, and with his tragic brunettes, he appears to be trying to find a loving, damaged facsimile of his dead mother, again and again. Diana is, in the weird belief system of Don Draper/Dick Whitman, the total package: She has a dead child and she abandoned another child. Don/Dick is the ultimate lost child, always looking for a mother to take him in and fill up the void inside him. Diana symbolizes all Don’s needs and wounds -- sex, poverty, death, abandonment, self-hatred -- so completely that she doesn’t seem like a real person. Though Reaser wisely underplayed the character, Diana is an almost comically overwrought collection of Don's most painful personal obsessions.
The whole Diana dynamic, however, just plays into an increasing exhaustion that dogs Don’s dealings with women. So often, he pursues his whip-smart brunettes because he knows he can’t really have them. He slept with a neighbor’s wife, with a school teacher, with a flighty artist, with various work colleagues -- he’s always chasing after someone he knows he can’t truly have. I love this show so much, but after seven years, I think we’re allowed to be tired of that particular carousel, don’t you?
There’s also a crass quality that has crept into “Mad Men” over time. Think about how many money shots there have been in just these last two episodes. No, not that kind of money shot -- I’m talking about characters discussing money, writing checks, handing over money (“Bring cash!”). In this episode and others, “Mad Men” has strongly implied that all relationships are transactional, not just in terms of status and favors, but in terms of filthy lucre. If we look back at the sweep of the series and at these episodes in particular, it’s hard to avoid the implication that in the world of “Mad Men,” all relationships are doomed unless they are blatantly mechanical transactions that both parties agree to for various kinds of personal gain. Don and Roger in particular appear besieged by women wanting things from them. Women on this show are often doing the grasping and the wanting and the demanding, and if they don’t get what they want, they end up bitter and at odds with their female friends and relations, like Joan and Peggy or the Calvet women. Charming.
Can I say with complete confidence that these things are always true about “Mad Men”? Nope. It’s such an consciously ambiguous drama that it will always support a wealth of interpretations. But the idea that some men and most women always want status and money from each other in exchange for sex is pretty pervasive at this point, as is the idea that women are solo operators who don’t tend to support each other. The latter idea is incredibly far from my experience and I don’t believe that was so often the case 40 years ago, but I’ve given up on waiting for women to be depicted as people who can sustain intimate relationships, personal friendships and fulfilling careers and still be interesting people. "Mad Men" has done many things well in its seven years, but it seems completely uninterested in those concepts all existing together in individual women, let alone in communities of them.
Diana: working class, alone and unhappy. Peggy and Joan: white collar, alone and unhappy. Pima Ryan: successful in her profession, but her clothing and behavior code her as male and she’s portrayed as being an equal-opportunity opportunist. Sylvia and Betty are the two women who are in functional relationships in this episode, but isn’t it interesting that we were reminded that both have cheated? As did Megan’s mother. Sylvia, Betty, Joan, Megan and her mother and sister are painstakingly depicted as being financially dependent on men, which brings to mind Roger’s nasty remark: “What career? She’s a consumer!”
I still have hopes for Peggy, but they’re not tremendously high, given that the women on this show in recent years have been depicted as frequently grasping, prickly and acquisitive. I think “Mad Men” thinks its doing women a favor by showing how hard life can be for them, and sometimes it’s terrific in that regard. But more and more, the depiction of the women on the show is so continually negative that it comes off as condescending: “Isn’t it sad for you that your life is always limited and sad, which tends to make you bitter and moody?” Blergh.
Anyway, back to the theme of the episode: Don has a type. Did you notice how Sylvia and Diana were positioned in the elevator in Don’s building? It’s as if the director was underlining for us, again, that the women Don has affairs with tend to look alike. Yep, we got that, thanks. Don + woman in pain + alcohol = sexy times - (abandonment x money). Been there, done that, got the highball glass.
Ultimately, this episode might just be evidence of a syndrome a lot of “Mad Men” watchers predicted: The split season, as I said last week, is no friend to this show. Most seasons have slow starts, and the second or third episode of a season rarely ends up on any list of the show’s finest outings. “Mad Men” didn’t have enough time to make Diana all that interesting, and positioning Megan as another focal character didn’t help. I’ve never cared about the character, so to watch her fight in French with her sister and mother was simply a chore.
Mix in Harry Crane being a complete and total creep and a Betty appearance and you get an episode designed to bring me maximum ennui. Not that Rich Sommer isn’t great at playing the increasingly gross Harry, but the episode was filled with facts we already know. Betty has no self-awareness. Don tries to buy his way out of unpleasant feelings and gets called on his bullsh-t quite accurately (“an aging, sloppy, selfish liar”). Harry creeps on women. Roger is a selfish, lazy man. The sex life of Megan’s mother makes everyone in the tri-state area feel shame and regret. Check, check and check.
What gave this episode a measure of interest was what didn’t happen, or what I don’t think will happen. Don left Diana alone, and I think he’s more or less OK with that. The fact that Don recognized her depression, her grief and her overwhelming desire to punish herself, and the fact that he gently tried to talk her into treating herself more kindly -- all these things indicate that Don has, in fact, learned something in the past decade. Old Don would have gone on a bender after a rejection by a dream mother figure/sex partner. Not this time. He's been in the spot she's in, but he's not following her down into that dark, dark place.
After offering to help her in his own limited way, he left her with a map of New York. She’ll have to find her own way out of the labyrinth, just as he did.
A few final bullet points:
- I love it when Matthew Weiner straight up trolls us with Betty content, as in: “I know it’s beyond your experience, but people love to talk to me. They seek me out to share their confidences.” You take this one, Arya.