Mad Men mostly is about how we all conduct the same emotional transactions over and over, performing the same rites, playing the same roles, pushing the same button in the elevator. You remind me of someone. There’s this twinge in my chest. What if I never get past the beginning again? What if … I only like the beginnings of things in the first place?
Last week’s “Severance” and this week’s “New Business” were both about this looping sense of repetition, and the inevitability of the patterns of our own lives. Don’s big on this, but so was everyone else this week, too. There was no new business at all. Everyone was such old business that they were already in the Rolodex, annotated. (And even that idea, of being generally too drunk for afternoon work, is something we heard Duck Phillips’s ex-wife mention, too.) Our newest business this week, Diana, is the living embodiment of nostalgia. “There’s a twinge in my chest,” she tells Don. Oh? A twinge? Don’s heard of twinges. In his pitch to Kodak, he talked about them:
Nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. Goes backwards, forwards, and takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called “the Wheel,” it’s called “the Carousel.” It lets us travel the way a child travels, ‘round and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.
Don gets in touch with Diana in the first place through her former boss at the diner — someone Greek, as Harry clumsily points out. In season one’s “The Wheel,” Don points out that he learned about the etymology of nostalgia from his own former boss, Teddy, also Greek:
My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, and [there was] this old pro copywriter, Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is new, it creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent.
Diana herself is on such a repeating loop that she’s still using the shampoo she bought when she lived in Wisconsin. (Lady, they sell shampoo in New York, too.) But maybe it takes her back home again, to a place she knows she’s loved. Unlike that dingy room she lives in — a space that conjures Adam Whitman’s SRO, or Don’s bachelor apartments.
Don and Diana are just part of this cycle. Megan loops, too, wearing her striking blue minidress that she wore in the season-seven premiere, “Time Zones.”
It’s also perhaps alluded to in the season-six poster:
Megan doesn’t like Harry, and Harry doesn’t really like Megan, either, so their disastrous, predatory lunch doesn’t reflect their patterns towards one another, but rather their patterns overall. Has Megan ever used her breathless, oh-wow-this-old-thing shtick before? Yeah, she has, and to good effect. Has Harry ever been a revoltingly inappropriate sexual harasser? Yeah, he has, though we haven’t seen it depicted to this degree. (And before anyone gets too hung up on the “fall” of Harry, this dingus cheated on his wife in the very first season of the show, too.) Not to mention there’s something going on with him and his secretary Scarlet, he swooped in and seduced (“seduced”) Paul’s Hare Krishna crush, and he scammed on teenagers at a Rolling Stones concert. Harry’s been gross for a long time. Maybe forever! “You always find out,” a sheepish Harry tells Don. “Because you always tell me,” Don replies. ‘Round and ‘round we go.
Megan’s not just looping herself, either: She winds up repeating Jane Sterling’s behavior, too, in an almost eerie way. Roger tries, in his gross Roger way, to be helpful, and tells Don not to let Megan get to him. “Take it from me, no matter what she says, you have given her the good life,” he says. Don claims Megan and Jane are nothing alike. “So she never said you squandered her youth and beauty? Used up her childbearing years? Thwarted her career?” If Megan had said those things before, we certainly hadn’t seen it; we know she’s ambivalent about having children, but also that after she begged Don to help her book a commercial, he did. Yes, the L.A. move has been a disaster, but Megan herself admitted that she was auditioning plenty. And yet at the lawyer’s office, she winds up doing just what Roger said she would. “I wasn’t going to give you the satisfaction of knowing that you ruined my life,” she spits. “Why am I being punished for being young? I gave up everything for you because I believed you. And you’re nothing but a liar. An aging, sloppy, selfish liar.”
Not always selfish, though, at least not all the time. “I want you to have the life you deserve,” Don says as he writes her a check. He’s said similar things before, like in “The Little Kiss”: “I just wanted you to have what you want,” he told her then, as she agonized over their filthy white carpet. “Just because you see white carpet in a magazine doesn’t mean it’s practical,” Don said at the time. (A magazine? Like Architectural Digest, which Diana herself references?) Marie even points out the red-wine stain from last week. “You have to have four or five on hand,” Don told Megan years earlier, referring to those prone-to-stain carpets. But he could have been talking about memento mori brunettes, perhaps.
Everyone is trying to convince themselves that new things are afoot, that something is changing, but throughout the episode, there were plenty of cues to belie that. Megan’s sister Marie-France is sort of a wet blanket, and you can tell because she’s wearing a prominent crucifix. The only other person who wears a prominent crucifix necklace on this show is Sylvia Rosen. And speak of the devil, here she is in the very next scene. And in the elevator, the nexus of where she and Don tend to interact in public.
Perhaps the biggest repeat here is Don and Betty. As Don stands in the Francis kitchen, making his sons milkshakes, there’s a moment — a twinge, if you will — of what their life almost looked like. Also recall that Don’s a-ha moment about deciding to marry Megan happened over a spilled milkshake in “Tomorrowland.” Milkshakes: Even they are resonant in this echo-filled episode.
“People like to confide in me,” Betty brags, which is almost hilariously false, particularly since her marriage to Don disintegrated at least in part because of his absolute unwillingness to confide in her at all. Her experiences with psychotherapy have been slightly less than wonderful, given that her personal therapist used to give Don updates on Betty’s care; later, Betty found herself wanting to talk to Dr. Edna, Sally’s child psychologist. When Megan accuses Don of ruining her life, maybe she’s right. But he definitely ruined Betty’s life, and yet she found a way to make a different life she seems to enjoy just fine. She could copy Betty — repeat some of her mistakes, but not all of them — and have the life she claims she wants.
“You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?” Pete wonders. If that’s not a callback to Faye’s withering “You only like the beginning of things,” I don’t know what is. Don tries to prove Faye wrong again in this episode, trying to get past the beginning of things with Diana — “I’m ready,” he claims, but ready for what? Another ride on the carousel, at best.