“I’m ready,” Don Draper tells his new lover, Diana, in the second-to-last-scene of “New Business.” Something in Jon Hamm’s delivery suggests that Don means it this time — that he’s ready to commit to a woman and have an entirely adult (and maybe even monogamous) relationship. Does he mean it? It doesn’t matter. He’s a sexual version of the boy who cried wolf, a parable that shows how liars are rewarded: On the occasion when they finally tell the truth, nobody will believe them.
That’s a terrible position to be in if you’re someone like Don, who’s trampled a lot of people during his time but now seems to be making a sincere effort to improve his character. As has often been the case recently, there were moments in “New Business” where Don, previously a hot-tempered, prideful, and childish man, could have said or done something to make a bad situation worse but restrained himself, as well as moments where he endured tongue-lashings that included a mix of unfair and fair complaints and did not bite back. (In one case, the meeting with Megan at the lawyer’s office, Don responded with a simple, “I’m sorry,” then cut a check for $1 million.) In every scene with Diana, Don behaved with patience and tenderness, treating her like an opportunity for happiness that he didn’t want to miss this time (the most obvious message of the events from last week’s “Severance,” a “road less traveled” episode). Diana’s story, incrementally disclosed, of fleeing a personal disaster in a small town, her glumly intelligent way of speaking, even her bone structure and pale skin and dark brown hair, were Don Draper–eseque, or maybe Dick Whitman–esque; he’s dating a dream doppelgänger.
There is (or maybe was?) a sense of a recovering addict (Don) — a man who has been addicted to massive, dramatic changes-as-escapes deciding to live in reality, at long last, and perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit in Diana, counseling somebody who seems to be at the start of a similar journey, and trying to impart whatever wisdom he’s picked up the hard way. (As my friend Jeff Strabone pointed out, “Diana is from Racine. Racine wrote Iphigénie, his adaptation of the Greek tragedy about sacrificing a daughter.”) “I want to eat dinner with you, even if it’s five minutes at a time,” he tells her early in the episode, after tracking her down at a new waitressing job — a line so romantic that it nearly makes you forget that he’s mainly interested in what Diana symbolizes at that point and is, for all intents and purposes, stalking her.
Unfortunately, everything about Don’s current circumstances all but screams, “Don’t trust this man” — the faintly hostile elevator conversation with Sylvia and Arnold (which hinted that maybe Sylvia has confessed her affair with Don in the months since it ended), and the way Don assured Diana that he was divorced, then separated, and the way he hustled her out of his bedroom before Megan and her family came by to prepare for the move-out. A quote from The Royal Tenenbaums came to mind: “Can’t somebody be a shit their whole life and try to repair the damage?” Maybe not in this case, or in this way. Maybe it’s just too soon, or too late.
I liked this episode quite well, although — as was the case with last week’s “Severance” — it was not an outwardly likable installment, and it offered little in the way of fan service. I had to watch it twice to appreciate its richness. As written by series creator Matthew Weiner and Tom Smuts, and directed by Michael Uppendahl, “New Business” is another Mad Men episode with a Sopranos-like feel, in that you don’t sense the connections between all the different characters and their situations right off the bat. It was also the second super-slow-burn episode in a row — maybe the third or fourth or fifth or sixth, depending on how you feel about the episodes in the front half of season seven. And it irritated fans by emphasizing new or new-ish characters (besides Diana, we got a lot of scenes with Megan, her mom and sister, Harry, Stan Rizzo, and a visiting photographer played by Mimi Rogers). When a long-lived series nears the end of its run, viewers resent anything that takes time away from the core cast.
But all the subtle (and unsubtle) mirror images and situations still made this a quintessential Mad Men episode, less interested in checking in with every major character (Joan wasn’t even onscreen this week) than revisiting and summing up the show’s recurring obsessions. One of these is the tension between selfishness and responsibility, and how the moral judgment of other people affects the individual’s quest for happiness; to complicate things even more, Mad Men characters often do things that they think or hope will make them happy, only to cause more unhappiness for themselves or more damage to their loved ones — damage that sooner or later circles around and crashes back into them.
Megan’s mother Marie has been symbolically, passive-aggressively running away from her own bad marriage since we met her in season five. She went down on Roger in “At the Codfish Ball” and goes all the way with him here, in the apartment that she ordered cleaned out by movers by way of projecting her own feelings about her unsatisfying and unfaithful husband. “I took what you deserved,” she tells Megan after she returns home to the cleaned-out apartment and finds Roger there.
Megan’s sister Marie-France is religious — Marie contemptuously suggests that after she storms out of Don and Megan’s apartment, she should hole up in a church — and both mother and daughter display aspects of traditional bourgeois morality, always a fly in Mad Men’s hedonistic ointment, with Marie correctly deducing that the red-wine stain on the carpet is from one of Don’s conquests and saying it’s a wonder he didn’t give Megan syphilis, and Marie’s “good” daughter absentmindedly describing Megan’s impending divorce as evidence of “failure.” It’s clear that Marie-France is jealous of Megan and secretly delighted that her once-glamorous life is a shambles. Late in the episode, Megan calls her on this, warning her that “it’s a sin to be a ghoul and feed on everyone’s pain,” and describing her mother as somebody who deserves empathy because “she’s been very unhappy for a very long time … at least she did something about it.” (Mad Men characters are constantly describing other people while describing themselves.)
But like almost everyone on the show, Megan is as torn between “do what makes you feel good” and “do what your culture tells you is right.” A few scenes earlier, on discovering Roger with Marie, she blurted out, “I guess you don’t care that she’s married to my father,” suddenly becoming a “traditional” daughter. There’s no moral framework for upper-middle-class North Americans anymore; the mentality expressed by the beatniks that Don used to make fun of has become more culturally normalized, especially in big cities like New York, which is seen only as a series of interiors in this episode, more a state of mind than a city — a place for people to go and figuratively or literally reinvent themselves, escape the aftermath of embarrassment or failure, and prove Don’s famous declaration to Peggy that “it will shock you how much this never happened.” Set in 1970, the episode is four years removed from the still-notorious Time magazine cover that asked, “Is God dead?” The answer would seem to be yes.
Mimi Rogers’s character — a sexually omnivorous photographer who calls herself Pima, and who’s trying to make a little money in the ad racket while seducing men and women alike — is the first blatantly opportunistic female predator on a series that’s given us plenty of male versions (including Don, Roger, and most of the men at the agency, who never miss an opportunity to treat auditioning models and actresses as prizes). Stan Rizzo, who seems pretty happy-go-lucky but is artistically frustrated, seeks her creative and sexual approval, and screws her in the same darkroom where he’s showing her photos of his nurse-girlfriend Elaine, who had only posed naked for him as a defensive measure, after Stan absentmindedly admitted how sensual Pima was. (A nifty and rather deeply embedded pop-culture reference: Pima is much older than Stan and has a streak in her hair, like Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate; Stan eagerly lets Pima seduce him, betraying his age-appropriate girlfriend Elaine.)
Throughout the episode, as well as in the “previously on” montage, there are reminders of secrets between characters that they’d rather no one discover, mostly of a sexual nature. Marie runs off with Roger (or so we learn secondhand in a conversation between the sisters), but prior to that, nobody but Marie, Roger, and Sally knew about what happened between them in season five. Don’s look back at Betty, Henry, and the kids is a reminder of the life he destroyed a few years ago and that he can never reenter, but it’s also a callback to the moment in season six where he and Betty had a nostalgia-bang during an overnight visit to summer camp (that story ended with Don watching Betty eat breakfast with Henry from the other side of the camp’s mess hall). Am I right that Arnold’s body language and snarky comments suggest that Sylvia confessed her infidelity with Don? Maybe not, but that’s still another secret that nobody involved would want shared with the world.
And in this same episode, we’ve got Harry Crane inviting Megan to lunch, to counsel her on her post-Don acting career, then coming onto her super-strong and badly overplaying his hand (which wasn’t a winning hand to begin with). Then he doubles down with blatant sexual harassment, which he identifies as such by suggesting that Megan’s career would be in better shape if she were more amenable to the propositions of scumbags like Harry. This ugly exchange is a secret that both Megan and Harry would probably like to keep secret indefinitely — though as Harry admits, he makes a habit of confessing such shameful acts, often to the very people he’s trespassed against.
It’s continually fascinating how Mad Men parallels different characters whose situations are connected by nothing except their inhabiting the same world, and structures stories so that one character will seem to be prophesying events that another, barely connected character will experience, or feelings that they’ll come to share. The best example here is Roger’s speech to Don about how to behave in a meeting between a soon-to-be-ex-spouse and divorce lawyers. Much of what he says about his own divorce proves a true indication of Megan’s feelings about her own experience with Don, that he “squandered her youth and beauty, used up her childbearing years, thwarted her career … What career? She’s a consumer.” In the lawyer’s office with Don, Megan furiously tells him, “Why did I believe you? Why did I believe the things you said to me? Why am I being punished for being young? I gave up everything for you, because I believed in you, and you’re nothing but a liar. An aging, sloppy, selfish liar.”
Don’s response — astonishingly, gratifyingly — is, “You’re right.” And she is right. He’s seeing himself more clearly than he ever has before. He’s not a perfect person, not by a long shot, but in this seventh season, we’re seeing evidence of real growth. Will it lead to happiness? It depends on how you define the word, and whether you think that sort of happiness (happily-ever-after happiness, fortified by daily maintenance) can exist. Don’s million-dollar check, followed by his arrival home to an apartment denuded of furniture, hints at a future divestment of things that don’t matter and perhaps an embrace of things that really do. The money he paid Megan was by way of apology. Writing a check to say you’re sorry is a crass way to express remorse. The viewer might be reminded of the moment in “The Suitcase” where Peggy complains that Don never said thank you to her, and he snaps, “That’s what the money is for!” But at the same time, people who can use the money aren’t inclined to discount such a gesture, and sure enough, Megan pockets the check. Sometimes we have to literally pay for our mistakes, and that’s what happens to Don in this episode.
“Can’t you see I don’t want anything?” Diana asks Don after he tries to give her a New York guidebook (New York as reinvention-place; he knows it quite well). Maybe she doesn’t not want anything. Maybe she wants Don. She’s definitely in New York because she wants something. Maybe she just wants what Don wanted when he stole a man’s identity, and when he married Betty, and when he impulsively proposed to Megan in Disneyland, the “happiest place on Earth.” Maybe she doesn’t know exactly what she wants, except that she doesn’t want to be her old self anymore. But the sense of a collective reckoning still hangs over this scene, and over all the show’s characters, old and new.
The most powerful image in the episode is the close-up of Megan laying her engagement ring on the tabletop in the lawyer’s office after accepting the check. The ring was Anna Draper’s. The symbolic power of Don’s giving it to her was immense, and the act of returning it is equally powerful. We want Megan to be happy. We want Don to be happy. But we’re aware that it might be too late for both of them.