As the ninth episode of Mad Men’s seventh season opens, Don Draper is standing in the kitchen making milkshakes for his two sons, Bobby and Gene. At first glance, it might be a shot from several seasons ago: a pre-divorce Don playing his weekend role of all-American, suburban Dad, with a bright red polo shirt to match. In reality, though, Don is far from that life: the year is 1970, he is preparing for a second divorce, and his brief exchange with his ex-wife Betty and her husband Henry only underscores how much things have changed.
The tension between change and continuity has always been at the heart of Mad Men, a show where the tumultuous transformations of the 1960s play out through the eyes of the stubbornly unchanging Don Draper. Sure, plenty has changed in Don’s life since Season 1—he has burnt through two marriages and countless affairs, created his own agency, been fired and rehired, and gone public with his traumatizing past. But for all that, Don remains the same alcoholic, womanizing, mysterious cipher he was from the very start.
Sunday’s episode was entitled “New Business,” but the fresh start implied by that title proved illusory. Yes, Don began a new relationship with Diana, a local waitress with whom he had a shady back-alley tryst last week. But in his relationship with Diana, as in so much of his life, Don remains haunted by the past.
As we learn more about Diana, the parallels become clear. Like Don, she comes from poor Midwestern origins. Like Don, she is divorced. Like Don, she is a serial liar. Diana first tells Don she has no children, then gradually reveals that one of her daughters died and she has abandoned the other. Perhaps Don is attracted to Diana because her past is just as troubled as his—but does such a relationship signal a new beginning or a dead end?
In many ways, “New Business” devotes itself to tying up loose ends and dealing with old business. Don’s second wife Megan flies to New York to finalize divorce proceedings, joining her mother and sister to move her stuff out of Don’s apartment. The Megan storyline was the most tiresome aspect of Sunday’s episode, saddling the viewer with unnecessary and unconvincing Calvet family squabbling. With only five episodes left, why waste precious screen time exploring Megan’s sister issues, or giving her mother another excuse to sleep with Roger?
Another Megan plotline involved Harry Crane, who promised the budding actress some career help if she would sleep with him. It was a more intriguing scene than the earlier family drama, revealing just how slimy Harry has become, but its ultimate relevance to the final arc of the show remains unclear. Perhaps these plots will pay off by the show’s finale—showrunner Matthew Weiner is the master of slow-burn storytelling—but for now they seem like mere distractions in an episode whose main goal was to get Megan out of Don’s life. Eventually, she did make her exit, telling off Don as a liar and scoundrel but walking away with a $1 million settlement check.
Back at the office, Peggy and Stan meet Pima, a famous art photographer whose services they are eager to solicit for a new ad campaign. As played by a somewhat masculinized Mimi Rogers, Pima seems to embody the women’s liberation movement, seductively making moves on both Stan and Peggy with little regard for gender norms or expectations. Rogers’ playful performance made her scenes more exciting than the average SC&P business storyline, and suggested that the show may tilt heavily toward feminist themes in its final episodes.
In the end, though, Mad Men always comes back to Don, and “New Business” was at its best when exploring his personal demons and crises. A brief elevator encounter with his former flame Sylvia was another reminder of Don’s past, and perhaps suggests that their storyline is not yet closed. As ever with Mad Men, though, Don’s fate remains an open question.
The episode closed with a classic Mad Men shot, where the spatial composition of the image tells the whole story. Don returns home from work to a barren, furniture-less apartment, standing alone in the middle of where his life used to be. What, or who, will fill that space by the show’s end? We only have five episodes left to find out.
Featured Image Courtesy of AMC