It occurred to us this week, probably because so many people lately have been asking us how we think Mad Men will end, that the show doesn’t have the time or space to give any of the characters major story arcs. For good or for ill, the only thing left to do is wrap up the existing stories and send each character on their way. It means, in all likelihood, that who the characters are right now are who they’re always going to be. No major changes are forthcoming. And that’s completely of a piece with the show’s major themes and theses. Not only do people not fundamentally change, but they are the sources of their own unhappiness. It was kind of a depressing thought, made even more so upon viewing this slog of an episode.
Matthew Weiner has more than earned the right to be self-indulgent with these final episodes, and can end the show in whatever manner he chooses. But for the life of us, we simply cannot understand why he would spend the series’ limited time left not only on peripheral characters the audience doesn’t care much about, such as Megan and her mother, but also by introducing a bunch of new characters, forcing them into the story, and asking us to care about them. With so little time left in these characters’ lives, who cares about Pima, the middle-aged hustling androgyne? Or Marie-France, Megan’s apparently long-suffering sister? Or even Elaine, Stan’s supportive and game girlfriend in the nurse cap? Betty, Pete and Roger all get a handful of lines, Joan and Sally don’t appear at all, and Peggy and Stan’s storyline was hardly what we’d call illuminating; seemingly serving only to show us once again that Peggy knows who she is better than most of the people she works with.
“I’m vain,” Don says in a bit of harsh honesty masquerading as self-deprecating humor when Diana notes he’s dressed in a suit at three in the morning. Vanity was at the heart of a lot of the stories this week. Don tries to flatter himself by attempting to rescue another lost, dark soul in his life. Megan tries to flatter herself by pretending that Don is the source of all the unhappiness in her life and the reason she has no career. Even Betty is flattering herself by choosing to believe – against a mountain of evidence – that people love to tell her their problems and that she has a calling to help them. The hustling Pima flatters Stan’s pretensions of artistry and attempts to flatter Peggy through sex. But Peggy’s the only one who refuses to flatter herself or be flattered by someone else. She’s truly the only emotionally healthy person in the entire story.
And Don? He’s doing exactly what we all knew he would do; what he’s done time and time again in this story: he’s pouring all his emotional energy into an empty vessel of a woman who he hopes will become the answer to his prayers and the solution to all his problems. The only thing that’s changed this time is that this empty vessel, like Peggy, knows herself well enough to know what a waste of time this affair is.
The title of the episode is “New Business,” which is ironic, considering how much old business is being dealt with here, from the dissolution of Don’s second (real) marriage, to a pang of regret over what could have been had he not screwed up his first first (real) marriage, to the supreme awkwardness of having to ride an elevator with Sylvia Rosen and her husband. Rachel Katz’s death was just the beginning. All of Don’s old ghosts are coming back to haunt him as he surveys a barren wasteland of angry wives and bitter husbands. “I hate what that man has done to our family,” says Marie, who’s clearly working through some of her own issues regarding her unhappy marriage and the supremely bratty daughters it produced. “She made her choices!” Roger says angrily, as he, like Marie, imposes his own experiences and conclusions on Don’s failed marriage. Just as Marie, in her anger, cast Don in the role of her husband (and source of all her unhappiness), Roger casts Megan in the role of his ex-wife. “Megan’s not Jane,” Don reminds him, but by the end of the episode, Megan makes a speech practically written for her by Roger, hitting on all the same things Jane said as she exited her marriage. Not only is each person in this story making the same mistakes over and over again in their lives, but the mistakes are all roughly the same. But it’s Pete who bitterly gives voice to Don’s greatest fear. “You think you’re going to begin your life again and do it right. What if you never get past the beginning?” What if there are no more new chances left?
As for Megan, she’s following the Betty Francis model of ex-wifery, by causing any sympathy for her to evaporate in the wake of some seriously off-putting immaturity and anger. When Betty was firing Carla and slapping Sally for masturbating, we could at least look at her monstrous behavior and understand why she was so angry after a decade-plus of a mountain of lies. Megan’s bitterness here only serves to make her look selfish and childish in a lot of ways. Sure, Don was a horrible husband to Megan, but he asked little of her, gave her a ton of room to find out what she wanted from her life, and footed the bill on a high-end lifestyle that she clearly wanted and enjoyed. Obviously, a great deal of her anger is justified, but it’s like Weiner wanted to destroy any lingering good will for the character as she walked out the door for the final time. Even with Harry acting more scum-baggy than we’ve ever seen him act (and that’s really saying something), she still came off petulant and shallow. At the beginning of the episode, Don’s dickering with her over five hundred dollars (after she told him last year that he didn’t owe her anything), but by the end of the episode, he’s writing a million-dollar check just to make her go away. She can stomp off in anger all she wants, but she’s walking away with way more than the mother of his children did when she walked away.
Don, having dealt with his former marriage through the writing of a check, rather pathetically (and in typical Don fashion, completely blind to the other person’s state of mind) declares to walking sadface Diana that he’s “ready” for her. The only thing that differentiates this completely insane and desperate declaration of love from the similarly feverish one that greeted Megan years ago after a weekend spent babysitting his kids, is that Don knows even less about Diana than he did about Megan. And at least in the case of the latter, she was charming and bright and was able to appear interested and affectionate toward his children. Diana is almost hilarious in her moroseness and the heavy air of tragedy that hangs over her. A human Eeyore in a waitress cap. Megan was the happy Maria Von Trapp clone that could teach his children songs and wipe up spilled milkshakes with aplomb. Diana is the mother of one dead child and one abandoned child. That he honestly thought he could find happiness with this sadness generator is perhaps one of the most pathetic things about Don and his state of mind right now. At least after his first marriage he paid lip service to the idea of trying to figure out what kind of man he wants to be and what kind of life he wanted. He wound up running away from those questions and revelations (in the form of Faye Miller) and straight into Megan’s arms. It was a means of avoiding dealing with himself. Now he’s so degraded that he’s skipped past even the self-examination part and headed straight toward the avoidance. “It’s 3 in the morning.” he says to Diana. “You know why you’re here. Do you want a drink or not?” That’s pretty much where Don is now.
It’s late. You know who you are. Do you want to keep going or not?
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[Photo Credit: AMC]
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