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Maclean’s Mad Men panel: Don Draper, back to old habits

A recap of the second episode of Mad Men’s season 7B and analysis of its biggest moment: a subtle throwback that said it all


 
(AMC)

(AMC)

After seven seasons, it ends May 17: Mad Men, that sartorially splendid, slow-burning show from AMC, will wind down its clock. What will become of the lusty, booze-swilling ad man, Don Draper? Every week, Adrian Lee, Colin Horgan, Jaime Weinman and Sonya Bell quickly recap what most stood out from each of the final episodes and, in true Mad Men fan form, finds one detail to obsess over, analyzing its many prisms, as the Mad Moment. There are spoilers ahead, for those who have not seen the latest episode. You can read last week’s panel here.

THE ROUNDTABLE

ADRIAN LEE: For Don Draper, our eminently watchable antihero, his turn this episode fit a familiar narrative—Don takes a woman again, this time Diana, the mysterious waitress from the restaurant (more on that below)—and so the B-stories won this day. Oddly, that doesn’t feel that strange for a show in its final hours; fans can find themselves resenting series that, in their final throes, don’t resolve the protagonist soon enough. But the other storylines shone in this one. There’s Peggy’s dealings with Stan’s pining for the lusty celebrity photog Pima, inexplicably dressing in a style made famous by Diane Keaton seven years later. There was Pete dressed in a loud golf outfit (there should be a segment in our recap series devoted to hilarious Pete cameos). Harry proves himself to be the worst, always, with his obnoxious come-on to Megan—and his even worse response to her rejection. But this episode’s highlight was the triumphant return of Marie Calvet, Megan’s mom, a fascinating, grinningly devious woman whose machinations are all the more delightful because she seems so unwilling to see her own faults. “I hate what this man [Don] has done to our family,” she tells Megan in French—minutes after she tells her daughter not to be a bitch, minutes before the married mother has the movers take every scrap from Don’s house, and hours before Megan catches her in post-flagrante with her sometime flame, Roger Sterling.

In the end, Don decides he’s uninterested in fighting with Megan over a divorce settlement, and writes her a cheque for a million dollars—no doubt because he feels comfortable with how things are going with Diana, the mysterious waitress. It’s a concession that feels familiar, too—it’s how he handled the bitter divorce with Betty when he had Megan in the first place (Betty makes her own return in the beginning of this episode—and the fact that she’s going back to school to get a master’s in psychology was a delicious detail). And the last time he just gave it all away to an ex-wife sure worked out, eh?

JAIME WEINMAN: Mad Men abounds in prostitution metaphors, but it seems like they’ve been really playing it up in this run, starting with the first scene of last week’s episode. This week you had Megan’s old-fashioned Québécois sister handing her the money after she mentions her “career,” Megan’s mother snapping “bring cash!” at Roger, Don handing over the million-dollar cheque to his ex-wife. (Matt Weiner truly understands the struggles of the everyday millionaire; don’t say he’s not a man of the people.) Don is an advertising man, a man whose career is about intertwining consumerism with all the everyday experiences of life. So it makes sense that the show is constantly hinting that sex is a consumer commodity, even if the participants don’t intend it to be.

How does this fit into Don’s new romance? Well, she says she doesn’t want anything from him — not even a guidebook, after he just tossed $1 million to make his marriage go away. Maybe more importantly, she doesn’t want an artificial way of making herself feel better about her past: she says she doesn’t want to be with Don, because he makes her forget about her daughter, and she never wants to do that. She’s rejecting the things Don has built his whole life on: you can get any experience if you’re willing to pay for it, you can and should remake your life, you can and should turn to some artificial consumer product to fix your messy life and wipe away your past. Don has done all of these things, and he’s made it his job to sell all these things to the world. But here’s a woman who is no longer buying it — and what’s more, she seems to see Don himself as the artificial, manufactured experience that would make her life more pleasant but less real. He’s become the carousel.

COLIN HORGAN: I sometimes think that life’s moments are often akin to waiting for the newest record from your favourite band. When it’s not what you expected, you’re left unsure about what to do with it, and maybe you start to wonder whether it’s for you at all. So maybe you think, this was not what I was waiting for, and you put it away for a while, as you look for something better. Maybe one day, you’ll be right for it, you hope. You put faith in the future—and in the future you.

“You think you’re going to do your life over and get it right, but what if you don’t get past the beginning again?” Pete Campbell tells Don.

Well, sure. But maybe you’ve changed. Maybe that abandoned record suits you better now. So you always try once more.

SONYA BELL: For an allegedly watchable antihero, I didn’t find Don at all watchable this episode. (Save for his response to Betty’s announcement that she’s going to get a master’s degree in psychology: “That should be fascinating for everyone involved.”) Don’s latest romance, with Di from the diner, is mysterious but in a very contrived way: She’s come to New York to escape, she’s telling lies about her past, she left behind a family, she didn’t show up to work for a few weeks, she’s drinking maybe too much … she’s kinda just him. Give me a scene between Don and one of his ex-wives over that (rather dull) dynamic any day. I agree with Adrian that Megan’s mom Marie stole the show this week, with Megan herself running a close second. She had to deal with a number of terrible men back in New York, but finally got the last word with Don: “You’re nothing but a liar. An aging, sloppy, selfish liar.”

THE MAD MOMENT

(Frank Ockenfels, AMC)

(Frank Ockenfels, AMC)

Every week in this segment, our Mad Men experts find one particularly fascinating detail to analyze deeply, reading into it for its clues and its contexts. This week’s Mad Moment: The waitress Diana returns to Don’s house after sleeping with him the night before, unpacking the takeout they ordered. She goes up to Don, and as they hold each other, she whispers: “There’s a twinge in my chest.” Don replies: “A pain.”

ADRIAN: So, about that new love interest. When we last saw Diana, the waitress that Don can’t quite place and, as a result, felt the need to return to her diner—once for depressing alley sex and later just to sit—it seemed like she wanted very little to do with him. But Don tracks her down again, and they go home together, and it seems like even Don is aware of how good—maybe even boringly so—he is at making women fall for him. (Diana: “I don’t know how I feel about getting to know you better.” Don: “It’s 3 in the morning. You already know why you’re here.” Who says romance is dead?) So in a way, the fact Diana was sharing takeout with Don in such short order isn’t so remarkable.

What is remarkable was the degree to which she is his parallel: the person he thinks he recognized in her could well be himself. She’s a hardy woman who gets what she wants, and someone who is herself trying to run away from a secret in her past—even moving to New York to do so. (She lost a daughter to the flu.) And that’s clearest in the line, a dead-ringer giveaway for a subtle hand like showrunner Matthew Weiner. After all, in one of the show’s signature moments—when Don blows the Kodak team away with his pitch for the Carousel, comparing it to a merry-go-round, in the first season—there’s phrasing that is too close to be merely coincidence:

“Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards.”

The pain is in both their pasts—Diana’s in her daughter, Don’s in his childhood and his identity fraud—but Don and Diana are fractured mirror images of each other, a concept that’s been repeated a couple of times now, given the forlorn stare Don subtly gives his reflection to end the last episode. But while Diana chooses to bathe in her pain and live in the backward, Don must inexorably move forward, even if it means very literally clearing house. Of all the women who has flown into his life, this is the one that is most truly a door into a world he could’ve lived but didn’t, and that seems to be part of the show’s farewell tour: in the last two episodes, we’ve seen two ghosts from the past, in Rachel Katz (née Menken) and, in an awkward elevator interaction/non-hallucination, Sylvia Rosen, the upstairs neighbour Don bedded. And fair enough. Purgatorio, the second tome in Dante’s Divine Comedy—Don read the epic poem’s first third, Inferno, while on a beach vacation with Megan in season six—posits that sin comes from love, either misdirected, warped or deficient. Past love can be the lessons to get to Paradise. Let’s see if, through these past lovers, Don makes it there.

COLIN: “There are a lot of coats in that closet,” Diana says to Don. Well, quite. And they all belong to a memory, just like everything else in the apartment (Megan picked out everything, Don told Diana earlier). But so begins Don’s strange time with Diana, the broken woman from Wisconsin, who left behind Avon sales in her living room, a two-car garage, a ranch-style house, the town of Racine, her husband and a daughter. Influenza, she tells Don, took her other girl, and she will not let the lies of nostalgia let her memories cloud that fact. Around and around and back home again? No.

Mad Men has a lot to say about memories. One could probably write an entire thesis proposing that, in effect, the entire show is about memory – how it works, how it doesn’t, how it can change, how it can be suppressed, how it affects people.

“Everything good I have is from a long time ago,” Stan Rizzo says, surveying his artwork in anticipation of showing it to Pima, as his girlfriend hands him a beer moments before she offers to pose for him in the nude. Perhaps there’s also something to be said about memory obscuring the present.

No matter what Don says about the past as he sells the Kodak carousel, you can’t actually go there. You can learn from the past, but you can’t live in it. Nostalgia is a deliberately false construct, a never-never land. This is what Don offers Diana: nostalgia – a return to what was never really there. To Don, her description of her life in Wisconsin could be romantic. To Diana, it’s reality. That’s the other thing about nostalgia as a tool of memory – it requires you to forget. Diana can’t. She doesn’t want nostalgia; she would rather keep living entirely in the past.

It’s notable that by the end of this episode – which opened with Don at peace with Betty’s new life – as he stands in his empty apartment, free from all of Megan’s choices, Don is very literally not. The coats in the closet are gone.

SONYA: I hadn’t connected Diana’s “twinge” when she embraces Don with the Kodak pitch, but what strikes me about the comparison is that she substituted “heart” with “chest.” This seems like a red flag. We use “chest” when we’re describing something like angina, and “heart” when we’re describing something emotional and profound, usually love. I wonder if, even though Don has professed he’s ready to move on, Di ultimately won’t go with him. Something this episode showcased well was all that Don has lost since we met him: he steals a long look at Betty with their boys and his replacement in the kitchen, and in the final scene he looks around the living room Megan’s mom has emptied. It’s hard to imagine this show ending on a high note for Don — perhaps Di is the one last thing he’ll lose.

We saw another twinge in this episode, one I hope the show returns to address. That’s the twinge of jealousy Peggy clearly felt when she learned Pima, the celebrity photographer, had slept with Stan. There was definitely a spark between the two women when they looked over photos from the Vermouth shoot in Peggy’s office. Even though Peggy later wondered if Pima was just “a hustler,” Stan (and the rest of us) could see this twinge was felt with the heart.


 

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