“New Business” is an unsatisfying episode of “Mad Men,” almost by design. I’m not totally convinced that creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner set out to make the sixth-to-last episode of “Mad Men” a weird and uneven one—but I do think he may have set out to make “New Business” leave a bad taste in the audience’s collective mouth, a sense of having consumed something that didn’t quite agree with us.
It’s similar to the feeling that Megan and Don are leaving each other with, after all. Don’s almost-ex-wife dominates the episode, from the first nearly missed phone call to the cleared-out apartment at the end of the episode. A check for a million dollars is a lot of money, but it’s not really a substitute for a happy marriage and a long life with another person. Don and Megan leave their attorney’s office having closed a chapter, yes. But they don’t leave satisfied.
Just as last week’s “Severance” was about saying goodbye to Rachel Menken, last night’s “New Business” is about saying goodbye to Megan. My guess is that because Jessica Paré’s character took up so much space in this episode, she won’t be coming back. And her send-off, much like her marriage with Don, is an episode of much glorious revving of engines but never finding a way to take flight.
Partly that’s because the episode spends so much time with Megan herself, and Megan Draper nee Calvet has been, by design, a very thinly sketched character. At first she was just that one woman in the test group who washed her face with cold water; then she was the secretary with a sense of humor; then she was Don’s fiancée who didn’t flinch at a spilled drink. She was constantly being presented as an alternative to someone else—usually another woman. And unlike Don’s previous wife, Betty, we didn’t eventually come to understand her character. (The show did, at times, offer more insight into her character, but it was not the level of examination directed at Peggy, Betty or Joan, to name some of the show’s strongest female characters.)
“New Business” is, in some ways, rubbing the fact that we never really knew Megan in our faces. Megan breezes into New York with not just her movers but also her mother, Marie (Julia Ormond), and a previously unheard of sister, Marie-France (Kim Bubbs). Both are unhappily married, but loath to admit it. Megan’s divorce is, according to both of them, doing something terrible to their family. It’s not an uninteresting story line, but it comes out of nowhere, reminding the viewer just how little we know about Megan’s interiority, her upbringing, her relationship to her Catholicism. Diana (Elizabeth Reaser), the waitress that Don has a brief, sad fling with this week, reveals more about her particular loneliness in one episode than we ever learned about Megan in her multiple seasons on the show.
Specifically, that seems to be because Don Draper never really understood Megan—or never truly attempted to understand her. He wanted to escape through Megan, and then lost his temper when that didn’t end up working in the long run. It’s a familiar pattern for him. What is unfamiliar is how sad Don is about it, this time around. The episode opens with Don making milkshakes for his two sons, in the suburban kitchen his ex-wife and her new husband live in. Betty and Henry come home earlier than expected, dressed to the nines, and Don leaves as quickly as possible, either because he’s uncomfortable or because he’s worried they’ll be uncomfortable. As he’s walking out the door, though, he takes a moment to look back—and sees a domestic scene that used to be his, now with no room for him, as Betty asks her boys about their day. And he misses it—it’s written on his face, in the dejected slouch he pushes himself out of, even in his eagerness to answer his ringing phone in his darkened apartment. It’s a bed of his own making—we have seen that firsthand, over the last several years, and he knows it, too. When Megan calls him an “aging, sloppy, selfish liar,” at the end of the episode, in one of her more beautiful line deliveries, he doesn’t even try to deny it. It’s all a mess, and it’s all his fault, and now he’s very sad and very alone, without even the comfort of his furniture.
Don’s relationship with Diana, such as it is, is wholly defined by this sadness. Even though she is happier with Don (and therefore breaks up with him), the two of them fall into each other in desperation more than passion. It’s not fun, or funny, or even challenging for either—it’s instead a bleak, minor comfort in a world that currently is offering them little else. Diana will mostly be remembered for her voluminous bangs, but Reaser’s physical embodiment of Diana’s tragedy is heartbreakingly poignant.
That does lead me to the other unsatisfying element of this episode, though. In “New Business,” it does not feel like “Mad Men” is actually drawing to a close. The episode introduces several new characters, and this late in the game, it’s unsettling to all of a sudden be treated to the back story of a just-introduced waitress or a hired artist for a vermouth account. Pima, played by the ever-versatile Mimi Rogers, is a proto-Annie Hall, conjured up, apparently, by the unresolved sexual tension between Stan and Peggy. Marie-France is a ping-pong ball bouncing from her mother’s court to her sister’s court. And Diana, the now-named waitress, is a manifestation of tragedy itself. The women are all interesting (and all, interestingly, brunettes), but their existence is hard to justify in a show that already has a hefty, far-flung cast. “New Business” is an episode that feels like moving the furniture around to make room for the party that will be the series finale. In typical “Mad Men” fashion, the show took the metaphor quite literally: The furniture has been moved. Now we get to see what happens next.