by Linda Beail and Lilly Goren
As an audience, we have become used to Don Draper/Dick Whitman punishing himself. We have seen it over the course of quite a few seasons. Last night’s episode is about punishment—and while Don is punished by others, he does not punish himself. Thematically, we hear and even see how divorce is a form of punishment, especially by wives. Roger makes cutting remarks early in the episode, about Jane, his second wife, who cost him so much to divorce because she wanted to punish him. Pete, who has also recently experienced divorce, says the same thing—that divorce is a form of punishment. This episode is also about “New Business,” as the title indicates. Lots of things start: Don and Diana’s dating relationship, a new photographer named Pima working on an account for Peggy, life after their marriage for Don and Megan (who comes to New York to retrieve the last of her things from Don’s apartment), Betty going back to school for a graduate degree in psychology, an attempt to get a new agent and revitalize her career for Megan. But as Pete says in the car as he complains about his punishing divorce and lack of a date for client dinners to Don: “ You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?” All Don can do is sigh, “Keep your eyes on the road.” Life is zooming past, perhaps not allowing him to start over and get it right.
Don has had a lot of new beginnings: life after Dick Whitman, marriage after Betty with Megan, a resurrection of his career after being put on leave. But the “new business” of this episode is not a rebirth. These beginnings are transactional in nature, and as Pete observes, sometimes you don’t get the opportunity to start over and do it right. Don is left wondering if he might be stuck back at the beginning again—though, at the same time, we had learned in season five, from Dr. Faye Miller, that Don often only likes the beginnings of things. The episode opens with Don making milkshakes for his sons in Betty and Henry Francis’ kitchen. When they return from an evening out and it’s time for Don to end his evening with his children, he pauses in the doorway. Henry and Betty are already engaged in ordinary banter with the children, as Henry remarks that he’ll make a milkshake of his own. Don blinks, seeming to realize all at once that he has given up his place in this family, but home life goes on; the “new business” of making a family is happening, but without Don in the picture. He is shut out, back at the beginning, having to start over – but can he?
Marie Calvet, Megan Draper’s mother, is punishing her philandering husband by taking up with Roger, while trying to make sure that Don is punished (even if Megan won’t do it herself) by taking all of his furniture and cleaning out his apartment of all his possessions. Megan’s sister, who we discern to be quite Catholic and positions herself as superior to her sister because she is a mother, is also punishing of Megan—noting that Megan’s situation is a failure. Megan herself doesn’t view it that way until after she catches her mother and Roger in the aftermath of their illicit liaison at Don’s apartment. After seeing both their willingness to use each other, and her mother’s effort to give Megan all Don’s possessions because that’s what she deserves after Don “ruined” her, Megan seems to change and enter into this new business of exacting revenge and satisfaction. She castigates Don, accepts a large sum of money from him (in addition to keeping his furniture), and even praises her mother for leaving her father for an assignation with Roger: “She’s been unhappy for years. At least she finally did something about it.” Roger’s attraction to Marie Calvet, it should be noted, has to do with business – of revenge against Don and of commodities. “Bring cash!” Marie hisses to Roger when she summons him to Don’s empty apartment. She needs to pay the movers for filling up their truck; she pays Roger back in sexual favors.
Pima, the new and avant-garde photographer Peggy hires for a shoot, makes a sexual play for Stan and then later, for Peggy as well. Under the guise of creative acumen and erotic desire, Pima attempts to secure further employment. Peggy is the first to come out from under her thrall, noting that Pima was less about art, and more about advertising – the business of commodifying desire, not consummating it.
Harry Crane also tries to use sex as a commodity and to punish Don—by swooping in, and saving Megan, but Megan turns down his attempt to get her on the proverbial casting couch. Harry then goes to Don and, trying to save himself before Don hears anything from Megan, goes on to try to punish Megan for not accepting his advances. Harry explains that Megan is crazy and hysterical and should never have quit her job on the soap opera in New York and moved to L.A. Don mostly ignores Harry, except for the final remark about Megan’s choice to quit and move to L.A. – of course Harry does not know that Megan quit the soap opera because she and Don were going to move to California together. Don seems to recognize he has potentially undermined Megan’s career, recalling Roger’s earlier ironic comments about Jane, but understanding the reality of the situation for Megan.
In an effort to no longer fight with Megan and abide by his commitment to provide her with the life she deserves, sitting at the lawyer’s office, Don writes a check for one million dollars and passes it to Megan. Her reaction is in keeping with what we know about Don Draper, “I know this is not real, nothing about you is.” This second marriage ends with echoes of the same accusations and disillusionment on his wife’s part as his first marriage did. Don is trying to do the right thing—but is stuck beginning again, and can only offer cash to Megan to start the business of rebuilding her life.
Megan is angry at Harry and angry at Don, and spitefully tells him that he is an “aging, sloppy, selfish liar.” Don seems aware of this critique and might even think it is true, but this is not an episode where he punishes himself. Megan’s accusation raises the question, though, if Don can ever change for the better.
There is also call back to the final episode of season one, The Wheel, in the midst of the growing intimacy between Don and Diana. It is from Don’s most famous pitch, to Kodak, and his explaining what nostalgia means as he narrates the function of Kodak’s slide wheel to take us back home again, in our emotions and memories. Di notes that she has a feeling, a pain in her chest—Don asks her if it is a twinge, almost word for word the beginning of his pitch to Kodak. We learn later, from Di, that it was that feeling that made her decide she could not continue with Don, she had briefly felt something beyond the tragedy of losing her daughter to the flu and abandoning her other daughter. She could not allow herself to feel emotions that weren’t punishing her, or making her feel guilty. She lives in a small, dingy room, which calls back to the rooms that we see in Don’s flashbacks to his life in the whorehouse, with reddish wallpaper and the omnipresent and somewhat ornate bed in the midst of the room. Unlike the promise of the “The Wheel” to use that twinge to take us back to the place we long to go, though, Diana resists that circling back to begin again. She refuses the feelings she has with Don, feelings that push her forward out of numbness and grief, ending her relationship with him before it can get past its beginning.
The final scene of the episode is Don, standing in sunken center of he empty living room, adrift in the middle of his apartment. No furniture, no lovers, no wives, no booze. His life and his apartment are empty, ready for a new beginning. But can he start over and do it right? Or is it too late for rebirth – and merely time to keep his eyes on the road as his life passes by, and begin the transactions again?
Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.