What does it take to get past the beginning?
“You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again? ”- Pete Campbell, 1970
By many accounts, “New Business” was a terrible episode of Mad Men. Obviously, I don’t feel that way, but I can certainly understand why. This past week, plenty of screen time was given to characters that were either new—Pima and Diana—or who the audience doesn’t care about—Megan and her family. It was also one of those Mad Men episodes that simultaneously beats you over the head with symbolism (seriously, re-watch the episode and listen to how many times the word “business” is used and in rather pointed ways) and also remains obtuse and elliptical; so much so that when the episode is over you wonder what the hell you just watched. And not in a good way, like say, after Don pulled Revolveroff the turntable in “Lady Lazarus.”
However, whether you like it or not, “New Business” did what Mad Men does; it showed people behaving badly, taking relationships for granted, feeling remorseful, but making the same mistakes (or trying to, in the case of Don) all over again. Plus you have excellent Roger Sterling lines (“It wasn’t my idea.”) and line deliveries (“What are you doing here....Megan?”) sprinkled in.
I know that sounds like a cop out— or a Perd Hapley line: last week’s episode was an episode of Mad Men—but it’s true. I read almost every Mad Men recap on the Internet and either the critics loved it or they hated it. I respect both opinions. But, at the end of the day, Mad Men is always going to be a show where people are either angry because they don’t get it or floored because it is the only thing they ever want to watch on television ever again. Just do a Twitter search for “Mad Men” while the episode airs and you’ll see the wide swing of hasty reactions.
There was plenty going on in this episode. I’d love to dissect the entire Peggy-Pima-Stan storyline, but all you really need to do is go back and watch the scene where Pima comes on to Peggy. That minute or two of screen time is an astonishing example of shifting power dynamics in a social interaction. Peggy flags Pima down in excitement; she wants to collaborate with her on exciting, new work. Pima struts in amused. Peggy then tells Pima to close the door—Pima is slightly off-put. Peggy gives her opinion of the selects of Pima’s work; Pima is further off-put. Pima asks Peggy if she has been married, which knocks Peggy askance as she admits that she is not. After a beat, Pima says she isn’t married either—putting she and Peggy back in a collegial level. Pima turns the conversation to Stan, but uses that as a means to come on to Peggy. Peggy is excited, but suddenly disappointed in herself for being excited and taken away by emotion. Pima leaves, having somewhat knocked Peggy from her position of authority. Seriously, watch it again; the entire exchange is the highest level of art. One could only dream of writing a scene like that.
What I want to focus on is Pete’s quote from the top of this post. “You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning? ” We learned from Dr. Faye back in Season 4 that Don only likesthe beginnings of things, so for most of his life he hasn’t shared Pete’s worry. But last year, in “The Strategy” we saw that Don was starting to worry about the consequences of only liking the beginning of things. In that episode, when Peggy asked him what he worried about, he answered, “That I never did anything. That I don’t have anyone.”
That’s what we all worry about. We all also worry about starting new things and how, if we do, we’re ever going to get past the beginning. In your current life, it is hard enough to get to the point where you now currently stand—to get to the here, the now, the point at which allfuture plunges into the past. But say you wanted to move to a new city, a new country and begin all over again: How hard would it be to get yourself past the beginning, past the mere shock, confusion and excitement of being in that new place, of starting that new life? What does it take to turn that beginning, that notion of a new life, into an actual a life—where routines are set and steady progress is made.
Don worked hard enough to make his second life with Betty and his children, by the time he got to Megan, he just wanted that feeling from California, from “Tomorrowland”, to carry on. He didn’t actually think about the work, the progress and the compromise that would go into actually moving past the beginning of his relationship with Megan and on to existing in an actual marriage. So, he took her for granted and the marriage faded. When Don met Megan at her lawyer’s office, he acknowledged that fact. He gave her a check for $1 million dollars for all the trouble he put her through; he told her he would always take care of her and he’s making good on that promise.
The fact that Don is making good on his promise to Megan doesn’t mean that Don is improving or progressing as a person. I don’t even see the money as a symbol of anything. What’s important in that scene, and in the past five or so episodes stretching these abbreviated seasons, is the sense of resignation on Don’s face and through his entire body. He doesn’t want to fight anyone anymore. Giving up the fight is easy when you have the money that Don does, but it’s harder to actually translate that resignation—that acknowledgement that you’ve wronged people and conducted yourself poorly—into actual acquired knowledge or progress.
Remember the end of “Waterloo” last season? Don told Peggy he was going “back to work.” Where is that Don? It seems as if Don has put aside doing actual creative work—losing himself in the process of writing copy and hammering away at pitches. But what has he moved on to? He tells Diana that he is ready to be in a relationship with her—and perhaps he is—but it seems like he is simply spinning his own wheels trying to gain traction, while people like Betty (and even Sylvia Rosen) are existing in worlds, in paths, that have long been established. Lives that are full of family, no matter how complicated that might be behind closed doors.
At the end of “New Business,” Don returns to his truly empty apartment. It was a heavy-handed symbol, but that’s what Mad Men does sometimes. How much does Don truly want to begin again? How much does he want to actually understand when something is worth working for and when it is worth giving up on? He’s spent his life cutting and running—deserting. There’s a nuance to that scale: committing, resigning and deserting. We’ve all made mistakes in deciding when to do one or the other in our lives.
It looks like the end of Mad Men will be watching Don figure out how to navigate that scale. He may not even make any big decisions by the time the series comes to a close, but hopefully we as an audience will be able to see where Don’ mind is heading.