Judging by the vitriol flowing on the ‘Net Sunday evening, you’d think there was an important world crisis at hand, or Starbucks chief Howard Schultz had committed another misstep on race. Nah, it was just people upset with what they felt was a lackluster episode of Mad Men.
While it is small consolation, veteran Mad Men watchers know the series through the years has toggled between strong episodes and weaker ones. And, as it has done so many times before, an episode ignores what seem to be promising story lines from the previous episode, picking them up later in the season. That was certainly the case this week, with “New Business: Divorce American Style” declaring the Peggy-Stevie romance and the Ken Cosgrove reappearance stories missing in action.
Perhaps the underlying issue for the people who were vocal online is that with so few episodes left it’s a bad idea to waste an episode (their sentiments not mine).
My view is that it wasn’t a waste, but a restatement of a major theme of this series. With the lyrics to Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?’ still floating around in our minds from last week, this episode cemented the point of her song—sometimes it feels like there’s not a great deal of depth in life, in the lives of these characters. On the other hand, with the kind of money Don, Pete and Roger haul in each year there are infinite opportunities to redress the emptiness. The question is will they recognize that and act? Roger faced the truth in his shrink’s office, but it really hasn’t changed him much. Pete seems to have learned some lessons from his missteps with his estranged wife, but will he change? This episode showed Don making a lot of the same mistakes he’s committed for 7 seasons, yet there seems to be hope.
Let’s go back to the Internet madness, though. Maybe it’s that the waitress, Diana (Elisabeth Reaser), whom we suspected was a sad soul last week and now has confirmed that assessment, is not as glamorous as the usual Don Draper companions. Heck, even committed Mad Men fan, the TV critic and terrific analyst Alan Sepinwall, blasted Sunday’s episode as “dull.” And a headline at Salon, quoting a tweet, urged Mad Men to “set Diana on fire, like now.”
While we won’t go that far, the pace of the episode surely was slow, as was Diana’s storytelling. Diana unloaded details about her life like droplets of water falling from a leaky faucet. Still, look how long it has taken Don to fess up about elements of his upbringing. In fact, much of his life, indeed his true identity, still is unknown to many Mad Men characters. And, as we’ve said before, if it’s fast-moving storylines you seek, Mad Men is the wrong series for you.
On the other hand, in an otherwise lethargic episode, there was much ire online about how quickly Megan Calve-Draper turned on Don, beginning the episode not wanting their divorce to be antagonistic and ending it by being very upset with Don who, after all, cheated on her and put her acting career low on his personal food chain. The consensus was that the bitterness that Megan’s ‘Maman’ had been experiencing for years courtesy of an arrogant, cheating husband rubbed off on Megan.
Still, Don, who said his finances were a mess since the McCann deal, coughed up a $1 million check for his ex in a magnanimous gesture, perhaps one signaling his recognition that he needs to grow up. He also apologizes and seems to mean it. The question is how will he react to having his apartment stripped bare by ’Maman,’ aided by Roger’s money?
On a practical level, immediately after Don signed that check, America asked, ‘How much money does Don have? ‘ They also might have recalled comments made about Don to the effect that he has no idea how to handle money. Will this gesture come back to haunt him?
How Does Diana Stack Up?
But let’s get back to Diana. It’s true that she is unlike the carefree, young models and airline hostesses Don was seen cavorting with last week. A nice-looking woman, she lacks the uncommon beauty of ice princess (and future psychology student and possible Bobby Flay side dish) Betty Francis (January Jones) or the leggy allure of the former Megan Draper, (easy, there, Dirty Harry, or if you prefer, Harry the Dirty Dog). The panache and business sense of Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) are not in Diana’s toolbox, neither is the simple passion and compassion of Ossining, NY, schoolteacher Susanne Farrell (Abigail Spencer), although Diana’s economic condition and her simple Avon shampoo make comparisons with Susanne apt. And while Diana seems to be a reader—she was first spotted last week with nose firmly in a book—she lacks the sexy brainpower of Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono). And unless you count last week’s coitus in the alley, Diana lacks the element of danger that Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini) brought to the table, the kitchen, the maid’s room and everywhere else that she and Don carried on their affair.
Diana has something those other women lacked: She’s a mirror of Don in that she is a troubled soul running from a former life and trying to assume a new identity.
Like the artistic hustler Pima Ryan (Mimi Rogers), who tried to work Rizzo and Peggy, but didn’t succeed with the latter, Diana has tried to forget her former life. She’s not as ‘good’ as Don is at it, though. True, her brief fling with Don allowed Diana to forget about the daughter who died of flu and the other one she left behind in Racine, WI. Unlike Don, who has striven to forget his awful early life, Diana deep down doesn’t have it. As she tells Don, “When I was with you, I forgot about her … I don’t ever want to do that.”
It was an episode of family dynamics and while last week we heard about the life not lived, we saw some of it this week, too.
The opening scene ended with a wistful Don glancing over his shoulder, looking at his sons, ex-wife and Henry Francis enjoying the simple family pleasures of ice cream. Poor Don, the life he could have lived, right?
Yet notice the wonderful direction by Michael Uppendahl in the scene where Diana slowly spills some of the beans, confessing to Don that she had a daughter who died of flu. The scene is set in Sally’s bedroom and just over Don’s head is a black-and-white cameo drawing of Sally. So Don is the healthier of the two lost souls in this sad but sexual relationship. He has children, though they don’t live with him. At this point Don doesn’t know, nor do we, that Diana has more to tell. Later in the ep we learn that Diana has left her middle-class-sounding life, including a second daughter.
Speaking of families, we saw evidence of a recurring pattern last night and one that this blog has emphasized ad nauseum—in spite of money, the Mad Men characters are at their root pretty miserable.
- First, it was Don and the mess his family life has become. That wistful glance back at Betty, the boys and Henry.
- Then it was Pete, waxing nostalgic and worrying about whether or not he can get his family life back on track in a short but memorable moment en route to golf with Don, the two divorcees comparing notes on how to negotiate business dinners without spouses. (Yes, yes, it was memorable also because Pete was driving and there were no fatalities.)
A thought—remember how the noted philosopher Duck Phillips told Pete to get his family life in order, how it was his family that ultimately saved the Duck?
- Then it was the previously mentioned Dirty Harry Crane, a married man as far as we know, offering to help Megan with her career in exchange for horizontal French lessons in his hotel room. She should have thrown the wine at him, although it would have been a waste of a good bunch of grapes.
- And then the shot of Stan Rizzo, nuzzling with his nurse girlfriend, Elaine, after he’s allowed himself to be seduced by Pima Ryan. Well, he realized his artistic talent was wanting compared to hers and the only way he could play on Pima’s level was to succumb to her advance. Of course, on a much grosser level, ol’ Stan has never been one to distinguish between the finer points of art, love and a bit of afternoon delight.
- And last was the sordid affair between ‘Maman’ and Roger, which resulted in Don coming home to an empty apartment, and the creation of an iconic scene, although one that was as subtle as one of Roger’s wisecracks. Don, alone in his apartment, stripped bare of everything. A symbolic vision of Don at the nadir, the life that could have been with Megan is figuratively and literally gone.
That Scene in the Elevator: Does Dr. Arnold Rosen know about his wife’s dalliance with Don or is it merely suspicion? Or perhaps his attitude was jealousy of Don reaping the benefits of being a handsome, successful, single man in NY City? Clearly Dr. Rosen was drunk and it could have been the alcohol talking, still there was tension in that scene that made it one of the best of the evening. Slightly better direction would have lingered on Jon Hamm’s expression when he first caught sight of Sylvia Rosen, though. In a night of pained and wistful glances, it was terrific and deserved more attention.
Marie-France: What was the point of Marie-France, Megan’s sister? Was it to show that a so-called happily married woman with children, as opposed to her glamorous yet unhappy actress sister, is aching to break free for a weekend in NY? Didn’t we see that in season 6, when Joan’s childhood friend Kate, comes to town and confesses that she’s dying to have what (she thinks) Joan has? In the end, both Joan and Kate have a wild night on the town as they drink too much and fool around with guys they found at a meet market. But again, is that all there is? Maybe Betty Francis has them all beat. The original inspiration in Mad Men for ‘Is That All There Is?’ she’s going to engage her mind by heading back to school for a Master’s degree.
Say What? Harry on Megan, no, not that way, not a chance, we mean as in Harry describing Megan: “You are every man’s fantasy. You’re like Ali McGraw and Brigitte Bardot had a baby.”
McCann: Liking the subtle notes about the McCann deal, Roger’s two secretaries, the details about conflict of interest with Nabisco, which seemed so unimportant in the midst of the episode, the remark by Don that since the McCann deal his finances have been a mess.
Kenny’s Brother From Another Mother: We saw it in 2013 and it’s still there—a huge poster of Moshe Dayan above Stan Rizzo’s bed. It’s a nice photo, but what’s its meaning? At the least, Ken Cosgrove doesn’t own exclusive rights to eye-patches on this series.
Let’s Go Mets: And speaking of hidden meanings, why is Lane Pryce’s Mets’ banner hanging (no pun intended) in Don’s office? Not that we’re complaining. And Shea Stadium co-tenant, the NY Jets, also got a mention in the ep, when Don asked Megan if she needed so much money because it was the football team removing her things from what used to be their apartment.