“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”
You could argue that Stan is just as much of a whore as any of the women here, since he slept with Pima while Peggy rebuffed her. To me, the female fantasies here—including Stan’s girlfriend stripping off her nurse uniform—still feel lazy. It was almost cruel for the writers to let Roger mock the way he thinks all women respond to divorce—by complaining that they wasted their youth—only to hear Megan echo his thoughts pretty much exactly. And it was punishing to make her wear the same dress she wore as a big TV star in L.A. to a meeting with Harry, who tells her, “Don threw you out.” Sure, Harry was just being his typical gross self, trying to convince her to sleep with him. But he was also echoing that old Jaguar line from the agency: “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” You don’t truly own something until you can throw it out.
Now, maybe I’m making too much of this. The symbolism of Mad Men is so rich, it has always invited close readings, which is part of why I love this show: Just like future therapist Betty, it begs to be psychoanalyzed. Tonight, it even seemed like Don was trying to caution me against this habit: “I think, if I were you, this would bother me, and it shouldn’t, because it’s almost over,” he tells Diana about Megan’s visit and the breakup of their marriage. It’s as if he’s warning Mad Men‘s viewers not to judge this episode too harshly, because the grand plan will soon be revealed, and by then, the whole series will be over. And I’m still a big believer that all of this is leading to a gorgeous, meaningful, just slightly incomprehensible finale. Besides, as Don says in the teaser for next week’s episode, “It’s supposed to get better.” I hope so. Only five episodes left.