A large part of Matthew Weiner’s genius is his ability to gain miles out of a simple “I love you” on Valentine’s Day, or a dinner at a fast-food restaurant between three work colleagues.
So when Mad Men lays its themes on thick like in these two opening episodes of the final season, it feels very unlike Weiner.
In “New Business,” instead of quick looks and shared moments between characters we’ve spent years with, we get thin, shallow conversations between Don and the new woman in his life, a waitress named Diana. Over the course of two episodes (with a good amount of time having passed narratively), we initially learn that Diana is from Ohio, but moved to New York after losing a daughter. At the end of the episode though, we also learn that she not only lost one daughter, but left the other with the father. In that revelation, it becomes clearer why Don would gravitate to Diana; as someone just as emotionally damaged from their past, they were able to find some sort of peace in each other, however quickly that was.
Where Don finds comfort in it, Diana fails.
“I know you think you deserve this,” Don says, looking around Diana’s apartment. She tells him about her daughter. “Stop blaming yourself,” he replies, not understanding that she didn’t mean the daughter that died, but instead another one she willingly left.
“Why? Don’t you want to ask why?” she asks after clarifying her past for him.
“No,” Don says sympathetically, as if he felt he was doing the right thing by not prying further into her past.
But the thing is that Diana wants just that.
“I told you…about my heart,” she explains. “I don’t want to feel anything else. When I was with you, I forgot about…her. I don’t ever want to do that.”
Unlike Don — a man who stole an identity and paid his actual brother to forget about him — Diana wants to live with that past. She doesn’t want to go back and raise her daughter; she doesn’t want to do that. But that choice doesn’t retroactively abolish the existence of whatever past led to it being made. It harkens back to Pete’s point earlier in the car as the two talk about their failed marriages: “You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?” And it’s a point further layered in these two episodes — whether its the marked surreal tone in the premiere or the more explicit writing.
For Diana, choosing to never forget, and shirking away from perceived comfort that would allow her to forget, is her way of avoiding the cycle.
The problem I have with it is that it’s portrayed in a heavy-handed manner unlike Weiner. When Diana tells him she essentially never wants to forget about her past, I think that we’re made to believe that that’s the missing piece Don’s always failed to grasp. As someone so ashamed of his past, it makes sense for him to be conditioned to always try and escape it, leading him to consistently fall into the cycle. From the struck look on his face after Diana rejects him for what seems like good, I think it’s easy to believe that Don — standing in his literally empty “living” room — now understands that he has to embrace his past, his family, and his mistakes.
It’s not a terrible theme in and of itself; it’s quite cathartic and seems like a very eventual realization for Don. On its own, though, it feels unearned by Weiner’s past standards. Instead, I like to think Weiner plays with it on two levels where one completely subsumes the other in its constant need for attention.
In “New Business” Don actively tries to remove himself from the implications of his past. As Megan moves out of their apartment — amid the constant reminder of how he ruined her and how they failed — Don ultimately pays her to allow them both to move on with their lives. Given his past actions, it makes perfect sense for Don to actually think that giving $1 million to his ex-wife fixes that problem because it actually does; by doing so, he effectively never has to interact with Megan again, and thus forget.
With Diana’s role as avatar of that very behavior and unwillingness to embrace his past, Weiner is able to layer on that message thick. But he only uses the divorce with Megan and the presence of Diana as a frame to further bolster one of the two portrayals of the “cycle” theme. It’s the more explicit one — the one that feels unfamiliar, strange, and wrong in a lot of ways. And it feels that way because Weiner doesn’t care about those relationships; the “new business” would always mean less to Don than the old business, so Weiner sends them off quickly in a forced way that adheres to rules of seniority.
What he’s really concerned with is Don’s actual family in the opening scene of “New Business.” This is where we get the good old-fashioned subtleties. After making milkshakes with his sons and first ex-wife, Betty, Don leaves as Henry comes into the kitchen.
“I should go” is his immediate response, to which Henry replies “Don’t rush off. You can finish your milkshake.” The way Henry says it implies a sincerity and, what’s more, an acknowledgement of what this Draper-Francis family is now. It implies an acceptance of what both Don and Betty’s lives were before and what they will be now; Henry’s fine with Don making milkshakes with his step-sons in his kitchen, because they’re Don’s sons first.
“Make Henry one,” says Bobby Draper as Don puts on his coat.
“Give him a sip of yours,” he replies.
Don prefers flight, but also distancing himself from the opportunity of sharing in whatever his new life — made by the consequences of his past — could be. Where Henry decides to make his own milkshake and presumably later enjoy it with his step-sons, Don prefers to leave after a moment of longing regret in a doorway. In that constant reaction to leave the situation, he represses his past and hides from it instead of embracing whatever this new life is — messy, confusing, nice, and everything in between.
It’s this exchange that matters to Weiner, not the exchanges between Don and Megan. The juxtaposition of Diana and Megan’s presence in the episode’s narrative — where Weiner hammers home the “cycle theme” — allows us to easily associate the theme of always returning to the same beginning if we don’t accept our past with the failed relationship of Don and Megan. Don effectively ends his relationship with Megan in an entirely forced way: paying his ex-wife so she can leave and he can forget her. And Weiner ends the narrative’s relationship with Megan by constantly reiterating this point of cyclical destruction made by the presence of Diana.
But in that one early moment with his family, all we get is tinges of regret — strained attempts to never forget that picture of his family as he lingers for a second before leaving.