[This is a review of Mad Men season 7, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
Even when Mad Men goes a little overboard with its visual representations of an episode's (or the season's, as it is starting to look like) major thematic elements, there's still a rare beauty to the way the series conveys its messages and make them resonate as much for the audience as it does for the characters.
Last week, 'Severance' explored the idea of the life not lived, by letting characters take a look at the many ways their lives could have been different (possibly better, but who knows?) had they made a different choice at one point or another. For a character like Don Draper, those moments are many, and for him to choose one would be like picking a drop of water out of a vast ocean. Others, like Pete, have fewer choices to look over and weigh against their current situation, while Ken has but one, really – choosing to abandon his dream of being a novelist out of spite for being fired so callously by Roger. They may pale in comparison to the choices Don has made, but one is still enough to complicate things when the idea of starting over seems so tantalizingly close.
In 'New Business', the episode underlines the previous week's theme by depicting Don in the role he should have had, before shuffling him out the door to be all alone. Don is making milkshakes for his two sons, Bobby and Gene. He's in the kitchen, dressed casually, working a blender like a pro, but he doesn't belong there. By having Betty enter the scene first, and begin talking to her ex-husband in a congenial fashion, the scene tips closer to becoming another one of Mad Men's fabulous dream sequences. It's almost as though episode writers Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner, along with director Michael Uppendahl, want viewers to think that this is going on in Don's head - perhaps while he's sitting home alone in his empty apartment, waiting for a sad waitress to stop by and fill the void.
It's a little heavy handed, but the subtlety of Jon Hamm's performance is such that, when he looks back into the kitchen to see the family he could have had (and watches briefly while Henry Francis assumes his role as father to his two sons), there's a palpable sense of heartache hovering in the background of the scene. From there, Don becomes this glowering figure throughout the rest of the episode, standing in places where he doesn't belong, surrounded by things or people that are just going to leave him (that elevator scene with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) and Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson), for example).
The notion that Don is alone, and the painful obviousness of why, works to make the return of Diana (the waitress from last week played by Elizabeth Reaser), and Don's desperation to begin a relationship with what he clearly senses is a kindred spirit, all the more believable. Diana exudes all the qualities of women that Don finds irresistible - and the fact that he equates her in some way with the recently deceased Rachel Menken-Katz (not to mention any number of strong brunettes he's been with over the years) goes a long way in justifying his tracking her down.
But as much as Diana represents the possibility of a new beginning for Don, her own story is steeped in such sadness that Don's eager propulsion toward the future is stopped in its tracks. As much as Don wants to move forward from his divorce with Megan, and to start something new with someone he can relate to on some sort of emotional level, Diana remains firmly anchored in her grief over losing one child and abandoning another. In many ways, Diana is a lot like Don; they have both done things that parents and spouses shouldn't have done – they left their families behind. But unlike Don, Diana cannot see the other end of what she's done; she's locked in place, while Don just keeps pushing ahead.
In one of the saddest moments of an already incredibly sad episode, Don comes to Diana's depressing one-room apartment, bearing the gift of a New York travel guide. It's Don's attempt to help Diana find her way, to help her navigate her new home and the anguish she's so willingly trapped herself in. It also represents Don's readiness to keep moving (something he does quite well) to try and reinvent who he is one more time.
"You think you're going to begin your life over and do it right, but what if you never get past the beginning again?" Pete asks Don as the two are on their way to meet some clients for a round of golf. It's a question worth contemplating, as it carries a lot of meaning with regard to the episode's themes, but Don's response of telling Pete to watch where he's going does as well. As much as these characters have been looking back, trying to discern where they made that wrong turn, Don's around to remind them it's always a good idea to keep an eye on what lies ahead.
Perhaps that's why he no longer wants to fight with Megan, and writes her a $1 million check. Don can't keep looking over his shoulder at the life that could have been; he has to keep both eyes on the road ahead. It sure seems like this could be the last time we'll see Megan - and if it is, she leaves with a strong message that people don't have to stay mired in misery forever. She accuses Don of ruining her life, of using her up – which Harry brings up in his failed and super gross attempt to seduce her – by having her quit her soap opera to move to California. Megan may not know what she wants, but she knows she doesn't want to stay unhappy.
And in a world where fractionalization runs rampant, and everything seems to be dissolving, that kind of self-knowledge can be as infectious as it is frightening. Perfect examples of both are displayed by the Calvet women, as Megan's mother Marie (Julia Ormond) chooses to leave her husband (and shack up with Roger, apparently), while Megan's just-introduced sister, Marie-France, sees that kind of freedom as an affront to her sensibilities – i.e., her ghoulish nature and desire to feed on everyone's pain.
'New Business' throws in a light and funny subplot about Stan and Peggy being sexually hustled by celebrity photographer Pima Ryan (Mimi Rogers). Peggy's refusing Pima's advances acts as way of showing how characters don't always need a new beginning, so long as they see the road ahead – something Peggy has always been very good at doing. That's in stark contrast to Don – someone famous for reacting to change, rather than anticipating it – startled to find himself in an empty apartment he no longer wants.
It's the fresh start he wanted, but in that single moment, the presence of the void overwhelms the possibility of the road ahead.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with 'The Forecast' @10pm on AMC.
Photos: Justina Mintz/AMC