In case you’re just tuning in, I’m a big believer in virtual headspaces in storytelling. Very often, our homelives — or workspaces — reflect our mental state, and for my money, Mad Men makes great use of this device by inviting us to explore the various headspaces of its characters. (Side note: I never found Breaking Bad to be quite as worthy of symbological inspection as Mad Men, but it also showed us a lot of virtual headspaces, most notably Jesse’s. Maybe it’s an AMC thing.)
Anyway, my all-time favorite virtual headspace for Don remains the SCDP archives, but this season has seen his headspace spread across every location he visits, and no matter where he goes, he seems to run into a clone of his ex-wife, Megan. Diane herself looks like any number of his conquests, including and especially season two’s Rachel Katz, but she also bears a passing resemblance to both Megan’s mother (Julia Ormond) and sister (Kim Bubbs). It’s no surprise that the three of them play a role in emptying out his headspace by episode’s end. Don has, over the course of the series, made himself unwelcome in his own life, and his malfeasance and cold-hearted immaturity are starting to catch up to him.
Last week, we watched as Don explored a succession of dank, cramped chambers in his subconscious, while this week, he finds himself unwelcome in his own mind, and by extension, his own homes. I say “homes,” because twice in “New Business” we see Don told that he can’t be inside one of his own spaces. Diane the mysterious waitress asks him to leave his own apartment — prompting Don to curiously refer to it as his “house,” revealing a common rural heritage with her — and later, Don’s secretary (Meredith, played by Stephanie Drake like a smart Lucy from Twin Peaks) warns Don away from his own office, telling him not to disturb a hungover Roger Sterling, who’s crashed inside.
All of this points to a stripping down, a paring away of Don’s sense of self as this season goes on. He seems to be divesting himself of his personal trappings, either voluntarily (writing Megan that million-dollar check) or against his will (having all his shit stolen by Megan’s mom). As always, Don seems to be rebelling against this, but he doesn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight. When Diane arrives for a late-night tryst, he impatiently reminds her that she essentially belongs to him in that moment: “It’s three in the morning. You know why you’re here. Do you want a drink?” he says, but when she tells him she’s already drunk, he slips into “paternal” mode. It’s basically the only way he can feel empathy, and it’s usually reserved for his daughter, Sally. Like the stunted man he is, Don expertly transfers those paternal feelings to Diane, keying off a series of weirdly creepy father-daughter imagery between the two. Don asks her if she wants a glass of water, and later, he comforts her in his sons’ empty (and very childish) bedroom.
Oh, let’s talk about that bedroom scene. It includes one of many lies in this episode when Diane tells Don that she left home because her daughter died from the flu. She later reveals that she had more than one daughter, also implying that her other child was somehow left infirm from her illness. (At least that’s how it registered for me.) The lies pile up over the course of the episode, usually against the backdrop of a seduction, either successful or bungled. The most cringe-inducing of these lies happens in the aftermath of Harry’s (Rich Sommer) ghoulish come-on to Megan (Jessica Pare, awesome as always), who meets him for lunch to talk about getting a new agent. Somehow Megan restrains herself from throwing a drink in face — three cheers for Megan! — so Harry rushes up to Don’s office to weave some ridiculous tale of how she came on to him. As before, Don tries to stake a claim to his possessions by stepping up and generally hulking over Harry, but even in this case, he backs down. “It’s none of my business,” he says.
I’m still pondering what all of this is leading to. I’ll circle back around to my predictions for the end of the series, but before that, I want to talk about more about lies, along with families … and Mimi Rogers.
The cast of Mad Men feels like a big, dysfunctional family sometimes, and like a lot of fucked-up families, its superstructure rests on a foundation of small lies told, assumed and tacitly accepted. Mimi Rogers vaults into this episode to shake up the status quo for two of my favorite characters — Peggy and Stan — and in the process, reveals how these two characters — heretofore staunch allies and fast friends — lie to each other like a pair of sibling rivals. The network of seductions expands as Rogers’ hotshot photographer (Pima Ryan) seduces Stan in one of his own headspaces, his darkroom. The next day, Rogers’ character tries to seduce Peggy, and even though Peggy seems taken with her, she resists her charms. (I couldn’t quite tell if Peggy was into it or not.) I’m a fan of Rogers from her days on The X-Files, and even though she’s not a dazzling performer, she’s a perfect fit for this world and this part. Visually, Pima feels like a hybrid of Don and Joan — a broad-shouldered, curvy knockout clad in perfectly tailored suits — but as for her personality, she’s all Don: sleaze and manipulation and bravado. She’s like something out of Evelyn Waugh; Shameless Blonde crossed with Truman Capote.
Hear, hear for a great new character.
Later in the episode, Stan boasts of his “conquest,” ignorant both of Peggy’s encounter and of Pima’s implied bad-mouthing of his prowess. (“He doesn’t know anything about women,” she says.) The news upsets Peggy, who had apparently been cherishing the flattery even though she didn’t act on it. Peggy reasserts her position as head of the account by basically firing Pima from any future jobs. Unlike Don, Peggy jealously guards what’s hers, but sadly, the damage is done — Peggy and Stan will likely be on the outs going forward.
But this episode also gives us another rare glimpse into Stan’s homelife, where we find he’s dating a comely and extremely devoted nurse, Elaine (Erica Piccininni). (Side note: I could’ve sworn there was a previous romantic duo on TV named Stan and Elaine, but I think I’m wrong.) Anyway, Elaine’s positive energy and good nature belie Pima’s earlier critique of Stan’s self-esteem, or lack therof. I contend that people generally attract what they are, and Elaine seems like a good one. It speaks well of Stan that she’d date him.
Contrast Elaine’s good vibes with Diane, who radiates grief and regret and loss. My girlfriend’s still not convinced she even exists, and I can’t say I disagree. When Don bumps into his neighbor, the cuckolded Doctor Rosen (Brian Markinson), he barely acknowledges her existence, only referring to her as an object of conquest (“You brought the whole restaurant home with you.”) Given that Don and Roger both saw her at her old job – the cramped, Edward Hopper-esque diner – I’d put my money on her being an actual person in this show’s cosmology, but nevertheless, she feels more like a figment of his subconscious, a specter from his nightmares. She’s an amalgamation of all of Don’s women, with Megan’s hair and Betty’s clipped, elliptical speech patterns. Even her personality feels like an extension of his consciousness. When he compliments her bodily fragrance, she channels one of his evocative sales pitches: “It’s Avon. I bought it in the living room of my own house.” (In his recap, the eminent Matt Zoller Seitz noted that Diane feels like a female version of Don and further added that she might present a last, best chance at happiness for him.)
Earlier, I promised to make some predictions for the remainder of the show’s run. Well, all I can offer is that it fills me with dread that Roger inadvertently paid for Diane’s “services” for Don, and later, he helped pay for Megan’s mother to clean out his apartment. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some kind of collision between them by series’ end.
Odds and Ends
• Everyone thinks Megan’s going to get killed, a la Sharon Tate, and last night included yet another reference to the Manson clan. Funny how Meredith mistakenly called them the Manson “brothers.”
• Still no sign of Sally this season. Joan was also MIA this week.
• Was it just me, or did it seem like Don paid a million dollars just to get that engagement ring back?
• Was it just me, or was there an unusually large amount of diegetic music in this episode?
• Nice Angie Dickinson reference, Harry.
• Maybe I was too hard on Don this week. Over at Vulture, Seitz saw Don’s behavior as far more mature and peacemaking than I did:
“As has often been the case recently, there were moments in “New Business” where Don, previously a hot-tempered, prideful, and childish man, could have said or done something to make a bad situation worse but restrained himself, as well as moments where he endured tongue-lashings that included a mix of unfair and fair complaints and did not bite back.”