For 4,000 years, people have been pairing into legally-binding partnerships – aka, marriage – but it wasn’t until we hit the general ancient Greece/Rome time period (starting just shy of 3000 years ago) that people started to split up those marriages. Aka, divorce.
The first divorces weren’t actually as complicated as you’d expect. If you lived in Athens, you could split with your spouse if you gave a good enough reason to the local magistrate (although “good enough” was entirely his decision). If you lived in Rome, either parter could dissolve a marriage, and do so sans magistrate. After that, following the history of divorce becomes significantly more complicated. Once the Roman Empire (and eventually, the entire Western world) started getting heavy into Christianity, marriages became deeply Christian affairs and thus much harder to get out of. The Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s gave us new kinds of Christianity that were much more divorce-friendly. As was everything to do with Henry VIII, who really enjoyed divorcing (also, beheading) his many wives.
Fast-forward a few years, then switch continents- here in the United States, divorce has been a thing ever since the colonies. But again: super Christian, super restrictive. After we broke free from English rule, we relaxed the divorce law quite a bit in celebration- but they were still pretty rare until after the Civil War, when the divorce rate skyrocketed. In the early 1900s, feminism. In the ’50s, family courts. And in 1970 was the very first no-fault divorce- which is a convenient bridge into “New Business,” last night’s episode of Mad Men and an episode centered around the death throes of Don Draper’s latest marriage. And all relationships in general, kinda.
Maybe it’s just me, but I really wasn’t expecting this much Megan in last night’s Mad Men. The hour before, Don spoke three whole words about his former spouse (“getting divorced again”), and so much of “Severance” was devoted to a new and different post-spousal Don- a guy who looked like Jon Hamm but acted a little more like Hugh Hefner. Megan didn’t seem to factor into his life at all. Yet in “New Business,” New Don’s evaporated into nothingness as quickly as he was introduced. Last night was a Don we’re very familiar with- a Don who bickered with his ex, threw himself headfirst into a relationship that fizzled spectacularly, and didn’t utter the word “audition” once. He even did real, honest work this week (assuming that going golfing with Pete and someone else’s client counts as work- and in Mad Men land, I’d think it does).
Did this feel a little regressive to anyone else? I get that Don was probably just putting up a front with that whole tuxedos-and-a-babe-on-each-arm thing, and that reality would crash back down soon enough. But the crash seems to have sent us backwards. Megan’s storyline- a fair portion of the hour- felt like material I’d seen in more than a few Mad Mens before this one. Don squabbles with Megan. Megan’s family is extremely horrid. Not exactly new ground. I’m not sure what we were supposed to take away from this Megan-Don storyline that we didn’t already know, other than that wonderful caught-by-surprise moment when Don comes home to an empty apartment. And, I suppose, the irony that Don and Megan seemed at least semi-amicable at the start of “New Business,” yet she ends up becoming the stereotypical bitter divorcee- cleaning Don out for a million bucks, plus all of his possessions- through no fault or action of her own.
I got a very similar vibe from Don’s continued relationship with Diana, which was something I also assumed had run its course last week. Like Megan, she’s back, and like Megan she hangs around for an hour before reaching the same conclusion she had in “Severance” – out of Don’s life for good. But at least “New Business” gave us more of Elisabeth Reaser, who’s all kinds of mysterious and gives a performance I have a very hard time putting my finger on.
Don is definitely trying to make Diana into his newest Megan. He’s doing that same sprinting-into-a-relationship thing he did with his now-ex, buying her thoughtful gifts and smothering her with puppy love and reassuring her that he’s a very serious guy who wants a very serious relationship. No flings here. Except that Diana might be less Megan and more Don- aloof and hiding from her tragic backstory by fleeing to NYC. Also, she’s funny- dryly, bitingly funny- which isn’t really a Don or a Megan thing. More Roger, really.
- “You should go,” urges Diana. Replies Don: “…But this is my house.”
- Or, when at three in the morning Don answers the door in a suit: “Do you sleep like that?”
Hilarious. And I’d say that “New Business” really is the end of Don and Diana, but who knows? It didn’t seem like she’d be back this week. She could pull the same stunt again. Or not. Part of her whole “mysterious” vibe.
And if Don/Megan and Don/Diana have one thing in common, it’d be “New Business’s” overarching theme- relationships are bad, and they make you feel bad. Every time we see two people coupling up, or an attempted couple-up, or a reminder of couple-ups from long ago, the net result is a giant, disappointing negative.
- Roger and Marie hook up, which is plenty awkward when Megan catches them (not quite) in the act. Although at least Don doesn’t know his bachelor pad has been defiled.
- Harry hits on Megan, because Harry is just an absolute disaster.
- Photographer and proto-Annie Hall Pima Ryan (Mimi Rogers) makes a pass at both Stan and Peggy. She’s an equal opportunity horndog… and really just doing it to worm her way in as a SC&P regular. Later Stan’s girlfriend Elaine cuddles up to him in bed, as he stares out at nothing in particular with a mix of regret and stoic mystery. If you shaved off all the hair, he’d be a perfect match for Don Draper.
- We’ve also got a little Greatest Hits of Don’s love life going. First, Don awkwardly removes himself from a pleasant Francis family evening- as soon as Henry and Betty show up, he’s out the door (save for one last parting glance). One could assume Don would do the same in an elevator with Arnold and Sylvia Rosen, if the elevator ride wasn’t so short.
It’s an unrelenting parade of awkward, terrible relationship choices- something that seems especially dour for Mad Men. Sure, someone’s relationship status gets thrown into the meat grinder on a regular basis, but rarely with this kind of all-encompassing pessimism. Don’t we usually get at least one character who comes away with a win?
If it feels a little out of sorts, I’d say that’s about right for “New Business.” In any other instance, a Mad Men that erred on the “too slow, too repetitive” side would be a minor deal, but we’re in “The End of an Era” here, people. The last seven episodes. The stakes- and that feeling of disappointment when an episode whiffs by- are considerably greater. Plus, of all the things I wanted to see brought back from “Severance,” Diana was pretty low on my list. What about evil client Cosgrove? Or Joan getting secret backroom mentorings from Don? All are things I’d very much like Mad Men to pursue in detail before this era really does end for good.
Although if there’s one consolation to be had, it’s this: Roger, with his mustache, his vest and (at one point) his hands planted squarely on his hips, looks like he just walked out of an extremely clean and fashionable alternate-universe Deadwood. While you’re at it, Mad Men, feel free to pursue that too.