“You think you’re gonna live your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?”
That’s what Pete asks Don halfway through this strange hour of Mad Men. You can almost hear the writers worrying about that, too. Last week, we got an episode that suggested no one can possibly escape the past, because everyone keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. The central question in that episode—”Is that all there is?”—was one that also haunted me as a viewer. There was Don Draper, single again, drinking again, darker than ever, and we only had a few episodes left for Mad Men to show us something more profound. Don probably wouldn’t learn anything new before the final episode. But would the show?
Last week, I was hopeful that it would. Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe nothing ever really changes—not in life or on television. The title of this week’s episode is “New Business,” and as everyone on Mad Men knows, new business is the oldest business around. Remember that, in “The Wheel,” Don began his pitch for Kodak’s Carousel by recalling his first job at a fur company, where an old Greek guy named Teddy taught him that the most important idea in advertising is newness. It “creates an itch,” he said. And yet, Teddy also taught him about nostalgia, which literally means “a pain from an old wound.” “It’s a twinge in your heart,” Don said, “far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again… It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again… to a place where we know we are loved.”
When it’s really great, Mad Men is like that time machine, taking us to a place we ache to go again. For some of us, that place never really existed, and maybe that’s why nostalgia is so powerful in the first place. But this week, the show only succeeded in creating nostalgia for itself, echoing its own early episodes. Case in point: the Greeks have been talking to Don again. In “New Business,” he gets a call from a Greek guy with a name his secretary can’t pronounce. Later, he meets up with the waitress, whose name is Diana, like the Greek goddess of childbirth. She complains of a “twinge” in her chest, which sounds a lot like that twinge in your heart, and it turns out that she’s sick with nostalgia for the child she lost. Meanwhile, that wine Don spilled last week is still there on the carpet, like an old wound, reminding him where the pain comes from. And “New Business” ends just like “The Wheel” did: with Don returning home to the place where he’s supposed to be loved, only to find an empty house.
It can be powerful when the same life lessons that Mad Men characters use to sell ads are the ones they can’t bring themselves to follow in real life. But it’s less moving when “real life” feels too much like a dream. I mentioned in last week’s recap that Diana is such a fantasy character, she’s like Rachel and Don’s mother rolled into one, with a little bit of John Dos Passos’ waitress thrown in, and now it seems that other female characters are following suit, fitting a little too neatly onto the same mother/whore spectrum that the show itself once critiqued. When the new photographer, Pima, tries to get more work with the agency by seducing both Stan and Peggy, Peggy calls her “a hustler.” Megan’s mom gets Roger to bring her money, then tries to kiss him in return. Megan accepts a million dollar check to make up for marrying Don, right after her mother literally calls her a whore for accepting $500 from him. Just as Diana is leaving Don’s apartment, they both run into Sylvia, a woman whose beauty mark once recalled the prostitute who took Don’s virginity. We already know that Don can’t stop returning to the same old wounds: his prostitute mother, his brothel childhood. But this is making that conceit much too literal.
NEXT: “It’s almost over”