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On Mad Men, is Diana Don Draper's "Cool Girl?"

Diana (Elizabeth Reaser) is the most interesting new addition to the show at this late date.
Diana (Elizabeth Reaser) is the most interesting new addition to the show at this late date.
AMC

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by political writer Dylan Matthews and education reporter Libby Nelson. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Dylan Matthews: As right as you are about the analogy, Todd, it almost feels like an insult to "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase" to compare it to this episode. I'd much rather watch Chief Wiggum clean up the streets of New Orleans than endure another scene of the Calvet family bickering. It's the sort of thing I'd grudgingly tolerate in, say, season six, but it's far too late at this point. There's no way to make the Marie-Roger relationship emotionally compelling in five episodes — or to grow Megan into the kind of character (like Don or Peggy or Roger) whose concluding arc is important enough to merit inclusion in the show's scarce final minutes.

The Pima (excuse me, Pima!) stuff could very well turn into nothing, but at least it has potential. It's intriguing to me that twice now, the show has introduced women vying for Peggy's affection: first Life photo editor Joyce Ramsay (Zosia Mamet), and now Pima. On each occasion, Peggy's at least a bit drawn to it. She rejects Joyce's advances, but is still intrigued and seduced by her and her artsy friends (including poor, speared-in-the-belly Abe). When Pima stroked her cheek, there was at least a moment when I thought Peggy was going to go for it.

It'd be lazy writing for Peggy to suddenly realize she's gay or something, but by now, the show's taking place post-Stonewall, as the gay liberation movement was taking shape and fluidity around sexual orientation was beginning to be accepted for the first time (at least among avant-garde types like Pima). It's fun to see the show playing with that historical thread a bit.

That leaves Diana, for whom I have even less conflicted affection than you do, Todd. Don has met people like her before, who are damaged like he is and don't expect anything of him. But he's always had them as mistresses. This is his first opportunity to enjoy that dynamic in his main relationship, or at least a relationship that's not an active betrayal of his main partner.

I can see the appeal, in a dark and solipsistic kind of way. Whereas Megan expected Don to support — or at least not actively sabotage — her career, Diana's job at the diner doesn't require much of him and doesn't threaten his identity as the dominant force in the relationship, as Megan's quest for fame did. Whereas Megan and Betty were clearly, and occasionally vocally, displeased with his drinking, Diana's as much of a lush as he is. Megan accepted his past but could never really understand it; Diana, having left her life in Wisconsin behind, has the potential to really get it.

One way to think of it is that Diana is Don's Cool Girl, to invoke the perhaps over-cited archetype Gillian Flynn described in Gone Girl. She won't challenge him. She'll let him do what he wants. She may not actively enjoy the same things he does, but she certainly won't keep him from them. The question is whether this is more a function of the newness of their relationship (if we can even call it that yet) than of that relationship's fundamental character.

I can't imagine her getting mad if Don slept with someone else, but I'm not sure if that's because it's too early to assume exclusivity yet, or because she's sufficiently lacking in self-esteem to put up with whatever he does. The first time Don slept with Megan, she made a point of signaling she could be casual about it — that she wouldn't "run out of here crying" the way his other receptionist, Allison, did after her one-night stand with Don. Is Diana play-acting at being chill, like Megan was, or is she for real?

And if she's for real, why? If she genuinely is this indulgent of Don's faults — not just the affairs but his minor cruelties and neglect — it seems to suggest that she either thinks very little of herself, or that she just isn't that invested in Don. The latter would be an interesting dynamic, one that was also present with Sylvia Rosen to a degree. Don can either be with a woman who genuinely cares for him but also demands more from him, or with one who's as tolerant as she is uninvested in the relationship.

Read the recap and come back later today for thoughts from Libby and Todd.

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Next: Libby Nelson on Megan's greatest sin: being boring