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Mad Men recap: the latest episode was pretty bad — but also necessary

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Don (Jon Hamm) takes time out of his busy schedule to grab a bite to eat.
Don (Jon Hamm) takes time out of his busy schedule to grab a bite to eat.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

By any stretch of the imagination, "New Business," which debuted Sunday, April 12, was a weird way to spend one of the last six episodes of Mad Men. It was largely centered on three minor characters, one of whom we just met in this episode and another whom we first met last week. And the third was Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), a character many fans have never much liked. (Fortunately for them, this sure seems like the last time we'll ever see the character.)

Yes, I would agree, this was not the show's finest hour — and if the rest of the season is like this, then we are in for one disappointing final stretch of episodes. But as I watched the episode, I was struck by how incrementally and intelligently it advanced the themes introduced in the midseason premiere. Yes, it's a bad episode of Mad Men, but it might be a necessary episode of Mad Men.

From one point of view, this was a bizarre hour that asked us to get invested in the lives of a bunch of people we don't really care about, while characters like Joan and Sally sit out the week. But from another point of view, this was excellent table-setting for whatever is coming — which is bound to be something big.

Either way, we'll know in a few weeks. But until then, here are some of the episode's best shots (as directed by Michael Uppendahl, from a script by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner), underlining the season's three biggest themes.

1) The life not lived

We talked about this a lot last week, but it was back in a big way in "New Business" — yet another episode about characters who look back on their lives and imagine what might have been, but for a few different turns.

First and foremost among these people is Donald Draper (Jon Hamm).

Don watches his ex-wife and sons, in a life that could have been his, on Mad Men.

Don watches as the family that once was his goes on without him.

The very first scene of the episode involves Don making milkshakes for his sons, Bobby and Gene. It's the end of a family outing, but it's quickly disrupted by the arrival of his ex-wife Betty (January Jones) and her husband, Henry (Christopher Stanley), who were away at a political fundraiser.

I love the way Don lurks in this show — in the foreground so we're aware of him, but also clearly not belonging to this life any more. And what's remarkable about this is that he could have had this life, if he had been faithful to Betty — or maybe just been a different man. Those are his sons. She was his wife. None of it had to be this way.

But it is, and he's alone.

An awkward elevator rides transpires on Mad Men.

Don and Diana are joined by the Rosens on an awkward elevator ride.

I've heard an intriguing theory that every episode of this half-season of Mad Men is going to allow Don to say farewell to all of the women he's been with in his life. And if so, then this is the appropriate farewell for Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini) — a woman whom he slept with in a time of desperation, whose husband, Arnold (Brian Markinson), could have happened upon them at any time.

What's interesting about this awkward little collection of people is the way Diana (Elizabeth Reaser) is right there. It remains to be seen if trying to get viewers to care so much about a woman who literally just joined the show last week will prove a bad idea, but I love the way she acts as a mirror of almost every woman in Don's life. In this episode alone, she has immense resonance with everybody from his daughter, Sally, to his coworker Peggy (to the point where she and Peggy dress in similar hues in the episode's later moments).

Pima clutches at Peggy's hand on Mad Men.

Pima's attempt to seduce Peggy is quickly rebuffed.

Then there's Pima (Mimi Rogers), who represents a kind of Ghost of Artistic Future for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). There are several inset shots of hands clutching each other in this episode, and they almost always represent ill-advised attempts to connect.

Here, Pima attempts to seduce Peggy but is ultimately rebuffed, because Peggy, almost alone among the characters, has at least some glimmer of an idea of what she wants. It's not that the life not lived doesn't apply to Peggy — it's that she, at least, seems to understand the playing field.

2) The decay of society

Mad Men has always been fascinated by changing social mores, by the way the cultural evolutions of the 1960s left so much turmoil in their wake. In particular, read my colleague Amanda Taub on this point connected to last week's episode. The show is about the breakdown of one society and its eventual replacement by another — and those things never happen easily.

Diana cries in Bobby and Gene's room on Mad Men.

Diana left behind a life as a wife and mother. Here's one of our first big clues as to that.

This is another plot Diana fits into almost too perfectly. If the Diana stuff doesn't quite work, it's because she's got so much melodrama — a dead daughter and another abandoned back in Racine, Wisconsin — laced through her. But Reaser is a tremendous actress, and the ache in the character for what was is palpable.

Here, surrounded by the trappings of childhood, we begin to get our first sense of what emptiness in Diana draws Don to her. Mothers are not supposed to leave their children — no matter how sad they are. But Diana's only chance at moving forward with her life (or, given how lost in grief she is, standing still while others moved on) was to leave her still-living daughter.

This is not how it's supposed to be, and yet it is. Don can relate to that all too well.

Megan gets a huge check on Mad Men.

Don gives Megan a giant check as part of their divorce proceedings.

The main complaint leveled against this episode is that it has entirely too much of Megan and her mother and sister. And, yeah, wrapping up the story of whether Don and Megan's divorce goes through — it's going to! — likely wasn't something the show needed to do so terribly much.

But the episode also uses Megan to nod toward both the theme of decay and the life not lived. She wasn't happy with Don, and she felt he was using her up, so she left. Here's another thing wives aren't supposed to do that has been opened up as a possibility. And by doing so, Megan allows her own mother to realize that it's not worth living a life of such unhappiness — thus leading to an impending divorce between Megan's parents.

What's brilliant about Mad Men is that it understands perfectly how one person's freedom is another's prison. If the rules start to fall apart, what's to stop anybody from doing whatever they want? What's to stop everything from dissolving?

As Megan's sister is all too happy to point out!

Megan's sister is none too happy about things on Mad Men.

Marie-France has some choice words on this matter.

3) Dissolution

"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 (Vincent Kartheiser) asks Don as the two of them drive toward a meeting with clients over golf.

Don looks concerned for a moment, before uttering a perfunctory, "Watch the road." But it's true. The characters keep trying to erase their mistakes and start over, but all they're left with are blank spaces that used to be lives. So they watch the road, focusing on what's ahead, trying to ignore what's behind.

Diana and Don cuddle in bed on Mad Men.

Don and Diana spend a long night talking about their pasts.

It's something Diana mentions to Don during her first night at his apartment. She used to have the life he might depict in one of his ads — the ranch-style house and the garage and the perfect yard. And then something happened (as we find out later, it was the death of her daughter), and that life just dissolved. When something that monumental happens, the facade cracks, and the reality of who you are comes tumbling out.

Diana couldn't handle it. At some point, she realized she would have to move forward in her life, move past the death of her child. But she didn't want to. Who would?

Diana chases Don off on Mad Men.

Diana can't pull herself out of her past.

That's why she ultimately can't be with Don, forcing him out of her tiny apartment when he brings her a New York City travel guide and asks her to start a relationship with him. A new relationship, even a travel guide to a city she's unfamiliar with — they both represent the idea of a new beginning, and that's something she can't afford.

The thing about being sad — so sad you can't do anything but feel sad — is how bracing and correct it feels. When you look around at other people who aren't sad, particularly if you've all been through the same trauma, it can start to feel like they're lying, like you're the only one still tapped into the truth. That's where Diana exists all of the time, and it seems fitting that the final love affair for a man obsessed with reinventing himself would be with a woman who refuses to do just that.

Don comes back to an empty apartment on Mad Men.

Don is left in an apartment empty of nearly everything.

And though the episode's final shot is so obvious it almost hurts, there's still a deep tragedy to it. Don gets to start over again. His first wife has moved on. His second wife is a fading memory. And here's an empty apartment he no longer wants, a blank space he can't even begin to know how to fill in.

That was sad. Here's a gif of Stan looking happy.

Stan is such a happy camper on Mad Men.
(AMC, gif by Todd VanDerWerff/Vox)

It's smilin' Stan!

Comments are open, everybody, and I'll be dropping in for an hour and a half, starting at 12 pm Eastern time, to chat about this episode or anything else you might be curious about in the world of culture.

Come back later today for this week's discussion with Dylan Matthews and Libby Nelson.

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