'Mad Men' Recap: Business as Usual

Don Draper is trying to move on with his life — but the past won't let him go

Jon Hamm in 'Mad Men.' Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

After last week's densely packed and symbolically fraught midseason opener, tonight episode  ("New Business") felt like a breath of fresh air — or maybe more like a wisp of a breeze, over almost before it started. Is that all there is? It was a fragmented hour, jamming together stories that didn't quite fit, and full of great moments — Don Draper's secretary, Meredith, referring to California's notorious "Manson brothers" — that never knit into a larger whole.

Still looking for someone to be the third of his "three women in every man's life" (thank you, Ted Chaough), Don tracks down Diana the waitress, who's had enough time between episodes to quit her diner job, go back to Racine, and return to New York, where she's working at a slightly classier Bavarian restaurant. He gets her back to his apartment — "It's three o'clock in the morning, you know why you're here" — and inhales the scent of her hair. What is that marvelous smell, our hero asks, as if playing the straight man in a perfume commercial. She answers, "Shampoo." (The moment is like that final exchange in Barton Fink, between a wandering screenwriter and a woman on the beach: "You're very beautiful? Are you in pictures?" "Don't be silly.")

What Don smells, perhaps, is Diana's former life, the Avon products she bought "in my living room, in my ranch house, with my two-car garage." She had a husband and two daughters; then one died and she abandoned the other, trying to wipe the slate clean. Mr. Draper, of course, wants to cling to his past: lingering on the image of his two sons in the kitchen with his former wife Betty and her new husband; still taking the same stern, paternalistic tone with the second soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Draper. But it all goes. He gives Megan a million dollars, then returns to his apartment to find she's literally taken him for all he's got. Technically, the latter honor belongs to Megan's mother, whose unhappiness in her own marriage leads her to lash out at her daughter's. Is Mom taking steps towards a brighter future — with Roger Sterling, even — or just wrecking her old life? How can you tell?

With seven seasons of story to wrap up, it feels odd to devote so much time and emotional space to Diana's backstory, especially given that we seem unlikely to see her again. (Then again, we would have said that last week, too; Elizabeth Reaser's performance is too fine to simply wish away.) But the waitress' plight seems to bring Don back to his own beginnings. Her tragic Midwestern past and attempts to escape recalls his own; her dead daughter his own late sibling; her intellectual bent and squalid apartment Don's bohemian first-season girlfriend, Midge — and then there's the whole Rachel Menken business. Unlike Megan, who told Don she didn't need anything from him but seems happy enough to cash his checks, this new brunette genuinely wants nothing from him. He sees something in Diana he wants to reach out to, but she doesn't want to be touched.

As for Peggy and Stan? They'll take some touching, at least from Pima Ryan (hello there, Mimi Rogers), a swaggering Annie Hall-meets-Annie Leibovitz photographer who takes a shot at seducing both of them. Stan, both more vain and less uptight, falls for her techniques; Peggy resists after thoughtfully considering the sweep of Pima's fingers along her cheek. (Close, but no Brian Krakow.) Considerably less smooth: Harry Crane, who books a hotel room before meeting Megan for lunch to discuss the "future" of her "career." Few of Mad Men's core characters seem beyond redemption, but his association with the world of television has clearly taken Harry to the dark side for good.

But perhaps Don and Diana not that similar after all. When she tells him she feels a "twinge" in her chest, Don is sure he knows what it is: pain. "No," she says firmly. "I'm positive it's not that." That twinge — a word Matthew Weiner and Co. have to know will send us scurrying back to Season One’s "The Wheel" — defines so much of who Draper is. He's a man who's spent his life running from his past, and yet he's filled with longing for it, or rather for what should have been there in its place. With Sally at boarding school and Bobby and Gene merely good buddies who stay over every other weekend, Don seems to be experiencing premature empty nest syndrome. (That sunken pit in his denuded apartment is just waiting for some eggs.) Work seems to mean almost nothing to him now and even carving notches his bedpost seems to have lost its allure — the chance elevator encounter with his former fling Sylvia Rosen and her husband stirs nothing but a faint discomfort. There's always plenty of new business to attend to. The business Don needs to handle, however, is age-old.

Previously: Is That All There Is?