“Mad Men”: Back to the beginning?

Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 9, “New Business”

In the car as they head to the golf course to meet clients, Pete talks to Don about the challenges of being a high-profile businessman post-divorce. He admits that his failed marriage was his fault and worries, “What if you never get back to the beginning again?” Don doesn’t answer him, but his actions demonstrate the paradox of his life (perhaps of any life): while he knows he can’t get back to the beginning-in terms of starting again; there are no do-overs-at the same time, his loveless beginning will always be a part of him and will forever drive him: to continually seek the love that was withheld from him in his childhood and to muck up his relationships when he thinks he has found it.

In the evening’s first scene, we see him in the Francis kitchen, making milk shakes for his sons and himself. They all seem to be having fun, but when Betty and Henry return, Don takes his leave, with a kiss to the top of Gene’s head, without drinking his shake. At the door, he turns back to look with sadness at the family he failed to make work. There’s another man at the center of it now, and Don is the outsider. There’s no way he can go back to the beginning with Betty and their children.

We next see him alone in his dark apartment, on the phone with his soon-to-be second ex-wife. The pained look from the Francis home returns as he hangs up the phone. With no apparent emotion, he later writes Megan a check for a million dollars to give her “the life you deserve” and to end their fighting. This is another failed relationship that he knows he cannot go back to the beginning to fix.

Yet, he holds fast to the quest for a meaningful relationship, pursuing Diana-a woman whom he thinks is simpler, with her Avon shampoo and a ranch house in Racine, Wisconsin-to the new restaurant at which she waits tables. She at first acquiesces to his request for time together, but Don soon discovers the extent to which she-like he-has been emotionally damaged by loss and feels herself unworthy of giving and receiving love anymore. He initially relates well to her, expressing his sympathy for the death of her daughter and taking time off work to comfort her in the room his children inhabit only every other weekend. But when he later visits her rented room, the “dump,” so like the place he chose after his and Betty’s break-up, he realizes that she too thinks she doesn’t “deserve any better.” After she discloses that she left a second daughter back in Wisconsin, Don realizes the extent to which she has allowed her child’s death to wall off her core self: “I told you about my heart,” she says. “I don’t want to feel anything else. When I was with you, I forgot about her. I don’t ever want to do that.” Don places the guidebook he’d bought her on the bed before he walks out, but I can’t see Diana being guided out of her hell of deep sorrow anytime soon. Does Don’s leaving signify his respect for her feelings? A recognition that she’s right, and it’s not wise for her to be in a relationship at that point? His awareness that since she is incapable of being a mother to her own surviving child that he’s not going to get from her the mothering he often looks for in a lover? Whatever his leave-taking means, all it leads Don to is an apartment that is now not just empty of other people, but also of every stick of furniture. Our last glimpse of him drives home just how very alone and isolated Don Draper is.

While Don is continuing last week’s focus on loss that began with the death of Rachel, other characters provide fodder for continued reflection on the culture of commodification that these advertising industry workers create. The photographer, Pema, opines that “All art is selling something,” when she decides to place her photographs at the service of an ad campaign. The episode takes this further, though, when it demonstrates that all relationships are about selling something. Everything is a transaction: in ordering all of the Draper furniture onto a moving van, Megan’s mother asserts, “I took what you deserved.” She then offers Roger sex in exchange for the few hundred dollars she needs for the extra work of the movers. “Please, take advantage of me,” she moans to Roger-who is ever-accommodating in that regard. Don exchanges a million dollars for an end to fighting and divorce negotiations. Harry expects sex from Megan in exchange for his advice about an agent, and she has the idea planted in her head that perhaps the reason she is not offered leading roles is because she is not following directors to the casting couch. (As scummy as Harry is, he might not be wrong about that.) Stan has a hard time at work; now he not only has a female boss, but he is told he has to contend with a female photographer. “It’s hard to keep my balls at this job,” he says while leaving Peggy’s office. Once he’s able to put his balls into play again, though, asserting his manhood with Pema in a bit of darkroom sex, he’s willing to exchange this for his approval of her work. He’s on familiar footing. The woman who was threatening has now-he thinks-been placed under his control. He exudes enthusiasm for her being placed on a number of accounts. Peggy, however, is in charge of this transaction, and she’s not having it. Completely disconcerted by Pema’s advance to her, she refuses to consider her for another job. And Stan, disconcerted by the idea that he might not have put Pema under his control, refuses to believe Peggy.

While this episode jumped around a great deal, I found most interesting the situations of the three women with whom Don has to contend as he faces his existential position with regard to Pete’s question on beginnings. Betty may actually be in a position of beginning again. After last half season’s struggle with judging Francine for going back to work after not finding her family to be enough, and her fights with Henry over her right to her opinions, Betty has declared her intention to go back to school. Don is dismissive, but she seems not to care about his opinion. I hope the show gets back to her to explore this more fully; I find the offer of nothing more than an enticing glimpse into her possible future frustrating, but it’s an intriguing development.

Megan is unsure which story to tell herself about her divorce. When her sister refers to it as her “failure,” she fights back, arguing that the States are in the 20th century. She is a modern woman following her own path and career. When with Don, she sounds like Roger’s version of Jane that he whined about to Don earlier: “I wasn’t going to give you the satisfaction of knowing you ruined my life” and “I gave up everything for you.” Is she letting her mother’s and sister’s judgment get to her here? Is she feeling hopeless, after her lunch with Harry, about the career that she never gave up for Don? For all of his serious flaws as a husband, Don did provide the financial support that allowed her to quit office work and pursue acting full-time. She’s right that Don is a liar, but is she lying to herself about what’s happening too? She seems truly stuck between having no desirable beginning to head back to (her family-of-origin is a mess; her marriage is a deceased mess) and the recognition that the career she does desire might have too high of an entrance transaction fee.

Finally, there’s Diana. A character I wish we’d have more time to get to know. There’s no going back to the beginning for her either. With her grief for her dead child strangling her ability to be a mother to the child she has left, she outcasts herself to a shabby, unhappy room in a big, unhappy city, having managed-perhaps-to find, and then reject, the briefest of respites in the arms of a man who also feels unloved and unlovable.

An interesting, but most unhappy, episode.

This article is from Mad About Mad Men blog.

Photo: “Mad-men-title-card” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.



Cathy Colton
Cathy Colton

Cathy Colton is a community college English professor in the Chicago area. She offers a feminist take on books, movies, TV, and more at her blog, And Another Thing.