April 12, 2015, 9:00 p.m. (EST), AMC
Mad Men is transparently a show about illusions, but its also, at its core, a show about how spells tend to be broken, how our best efforts to fool ourselves tend to fail. When Peggy Olsen had her baby and Don Draper visited her in the hospital, he told her “It will shock you how much this never happened,” and, to a certain extent, that’s been true. But one of the lessons of Mad Men is that it will shock you how much this all did happen, no matter how far away you run, no matter how hard you try to put the past behind you. Don Draper writes a check for a million dollars tonight to try to avoid the hardships he’s made for himself, but he still comes home to an empty apartment. You can’t buy your way out of past mistakes, even if it seems like you can. You can’t pay enough to like the person you wake up as every morning, if you can’t find a way to live a life that honestly allows for that.
This idea is underlined by Diana, whose brief flirtation with Don apparently ends when she tells him “When I was with you, I forgot about her. I don’t ever want to do that.” That’s the power of Don Draper. That’s the mystique he’s always sold. Don’s false brand of existentialism is one in which you can be whoever you want to be, starting right now, ignoring the past entirely. Don dreams of a world where his past has no weight, where he can shrug off his many mistakes and just stride forward into brighter tomorrows. But Diana lives in the real world. She lives in a world where you can make mistakes, where you can choose to do bad things, but where the consequences of those actions follow you, where they brand you as the type of person who would do those things in that situation. Don Draper believes in existentialism for the way he thinks it allows him to recreate himself from scratch. But Diana is an existentialist because she understands what you do is who you are. You can leave your husband and your daughter behind at a moment’s notice. But you can’t do that without becoming the sort of person for whom that is a possibility. You can make whatever choices you want. You just can’t murder someone and then pretend you aren’t a murderer. You can’t leave your life behind and pretend it never happened, ignore the fact that its there in the rear view. Living an authentic life means owning up to what you’ve done, but it means more than that. It means understanding that what you do matters in more than just this moment. It reverberates outward, effecting those around you, but effecting also you, the person you are, and who you might become. Sartre’s famous summation of existentialism is “existence precedes essence.” Don Draper has always been focused on the essence, on the idea that if he could create a vision of himself and project it out in the world, that vision would become reality. But the truth is that reality informs who we are far more than our perception ever can. What we do defines us, whether or not we can own up to that fact.
When Don makes Bobby and Gene milkshakes, he is interrupted by the return of Henry and Betty. Bobby suggests Don should make a milkshake for Henry, but Don refuses, suggesting that Henry can have a sip of Bobby’s. In Don’s mind, he’s made this family, and all Henry can hope to enjoy is the scraps upon his departure. But watch his face as he prepares to leave and turns back to see the family he let escape. Henry Francis declares he can make his own milkshake. Before he leaves that house, Don realizes, if only for a moment, that Henry already has.
What, then, do we make of Diana. Last week, she existed as a stand in for the now-dead Rachel Katz. This week, she plays look alike to Sylvia and Megan, providing a whirlwind tour through Don’s sexual history, a glimpse back at many of his conquests as we head into the final stretch of episodes. Temporarily, Diana plays like a choose-your-own-adventure for Don, a chance to look back at his past mistakes, and forge a better way forward. But ultimately, she solidifies as a human being, someone else he’s tried to pull into his self-delusions, but someone who has her own ideas about who she is and what she can be. Don Draper offers the empty promise of escape. But Diana isn’t looking to forget her mistakes. She’s looking for a way forward, for a way to move past who she was and what she’s done. But she isn’t looking to forget. When Don initially tries to pry, he tells him “I don’t want to talk about it. Obviously. I’m in New York City.” But unlike Don, she hasn’t come here to forget. She’d like to, and for a moment she almost resigns herself to taking Don up on the offer he posed to Rachel back in season one. Back then, he asked Rachel to run away to Los Angeles with him. Now, he knows better. He understand geography is not enough to make a difference, but he still tries to offer Diana a chance to forget her mistakes and make herself anew however she sees fit. But Diana isn’t so easily fooled. She knows she can’t blink and erase the damage she’s done. She’s looking for a way forward, but she isn’t asking for a short cut. She wants to do the work it takes to become a new person. That’s an idea that remains foreign to Don, even now.
In Don’s mind, every woman is “New Business.” But that’s a reductive view of another human being, and a deeply flawed conception of reality. Diana isn’t “new business.” She isn’t a chance for Don to start over, to forget two marriages’ worth of mistakes and the other human wreckage he’s left in his wake. She is a person, with her own problems and her own solutions. She isn’t perfect, but then, if she was, it would only be in the eyes of the beholder. Diana resolutely refuses to be what Don hopes that she is, what he wants her to be. She isn’t the end to his story; she’s in the middle of her own.
“My oldest is in Racine with her father. Why?” she asks Don. “Don’t you want to ask why?” He says no, and that underlines the difference between them. To Don, there is no why. There is just action, and attempted erasure. Don still thinks that by moving forward, he can successfully ignore the past. Don Draper doesn’t ask “why?” He asks “how?” And his answer never gets far beyond the idea that anything is possible, if you forget well enough, if you can shock yourself by how much something never happened. But things happen. Actions carry weight. “I took care of everything today,” Don tries to comfort Diana. But all he did was write a check. He didn’t heal any wounds. He didn’t close any doors. He tried to buy off the past, and lost more than he bargained for in the process.
“New Business” is, ultimately, not about the sort of escape Don’s selling. No one walks away from their life clean. No one gets out unscathed. When Megan returns to her hotel room to find out her mother has left her father, her response to her poor sister. She says of her mother: “She’s been very unhappy for a very long time. At least she did something about it.” And maybe that’s the problem, ultimately. Don’s been unhappy for a very long time. But has he ever really done anything about it? You can kick a mess under the rug, but all you get for your trouble is a misshapen rug. You can run from the past, but you’ll someday learn how much of it you carry with you. It will shock you how much this did happen, and how much it will keep happening, if you let it. The only way to put the past behind you is to incorporate it, honestly, into your conception of yourself. Mistakes define you as much as triumphs. You can’t hide from your dark side. All you can do is try to shed some light on it, and to hope that it can survive out in the sun. All you can do is examine your mistakes and try to figure out how they fit into a better you. Tomorrow is coming quick. But it carries yesterday with it, whether you like it or not. You can try to leave your baggage behind. But the smart thing to do, the better thing to do, the right thing to do, is to learn how to carry it with you, and how to not let it weigh you down enough to stop any forward momentum. Then, maybe, it will shock you how far you’ve come, with all you have to carry.
- “I know its beyond your experience, but people love talking to me.”
- “Well this certainly is a two man job.”
- “I’ve been down this road before, and you always find out.” “Yes. Because you always tell me.”
- “I’ll throw my tie over my shoulder and roll up my sleeves. They’ll love it.” “They probably will.”
- “Jiminy Christmas. You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?”
- “You’re like Ali McGraw and Brigitte Bardot had a baby!” Jessica Pare is kind of like that.”
- “Why did I believe you? Why did I believe the things you said to me? Why am I being punished for being young?”
- “Look, I’m pretty sure I had a worse day than you. Please don’t be in a mood.” “I’m not in a mood. And I’m pretty sure you’ve never had a worse day than me.”
“New Business” is, ultimately, not about the sort of escape Don’s selling.