‘Mad Men’
Season 7, Episode 9, ‘New Business’

“Mad Men” has never had a problem with looking back, but in its last two episodes — that is, the ones right before its last ever episodes — it’s been looking at the present and especially the future. And for Don Draper (Jon Hamm), perhaps most of all, it hasn’t been upbeat. This is the second week in a row Don has come face to face with his own cosmic insignificance and realized he is not, to borrow a phrase from a ’90s semi-classic about to be remade, all that. No matter how low Don got, he could always fall back on his self-image as a rakish ad wizard/lady's man; failing that, he could always know he fell harder and better than anyone. Now he can't even say that. Last week he discovered an old flame, first season affairee Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), had died but only after going on to a fruitful and happy life without him. Meanwhile he wrestles with a second divorce.

This week he realized something arguably even more depressing: he’s not that depressing. Don has always been self-destructive, and that’s amplified over the last few seasons, as marriages have crumbled and trysts have petered out, or persisted for far longer than it should have. (Hellooo, cold, awkward cameo this week from Linda Cardellini’s Sylvia in the elevator!) Now he finds himself pursuing — actively pursuing — an unhappy waitress he hooked up with in the last episode. Her name is Diane, she’s played by the terrific Elizabeth Reaser, and she’s told Don no means no. But he finds himself mysteriously drawn to this mysterious, distant, dismissive woman who wants nothing to do with him save for a brief alleyway tryst.

Diane succumbs to his advances, because Don, even now, is still Don. But it doesn’t go the usual Don fling route. Diane has secrets that she’s quick to spill: She has a daughter who died, she left her husband and, in a coin flip between New York and San Francisco, she went with New York. And now she’s working dead-end jobs, making no money and living in a tiny box in a flop house. She needs saving, Don thinks, and that’s what Don does. (More on how he “saves” to-be-ex-wife Megan in a sec.) 

But she doesn’t want saving. She later reveals she also left her other daughter, and this sketchy, permanently soused, detached, solitary life is her self-inflicted punishment. “Can’t you see I don’t want anything?” she scolds Don after he gifts her with an NYC guide book (a guide book!). Even slipping into easy sex with a rich guy who clearly hates himself is too good for her — a too nice respite from her problems. She wants to feel the pain she thinks she deserves. And when Don witnesses someone who really has it bad, he doesn’t feel better. He feels worse. He thought he was self-destructive but he really had no idea. He can’t even be good at being bad.

Of course, he’s still not very good, and even his chivalrous deeds are spoiled by less than chivalrous intentions. His other big business this episode is divorce paper stuff with Megan (Jessica Pare), whose contempt is greater than any love she once had for him, especially since the sudden move to L.A., away from a plum soap opera gig, has led to a wasteland of acting jobs. “You’re an aging, sloppy, selfish liar,” she charges when they meet face-to-face, right before he cuts her a check for one million dollars. But is that a lavish gift or a lavish pay-off? Don can barely muster the energy to deal with Megan telling him off, not out of indifference but out of genuine, general fatigue. And given that Megan may never find steady work — she clearly has to deal with the likes of Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who in his lunch meeting with Megan finally, officially outed himself as just another sexist, petty slug — a cool mil for a lifetime hardly seems sufficient. Megan was the big tragic character in this episode — someone who, like Don, assumed she had it made and now faces a grim and rudderless future.

Also like last week’s episode, all this downer business was intermingled with legitimate hilarity. First, there was the much-welcome return of Julia Ormond’s Marie Calvet, Megan’s cheerfully short-fused maman, who flings insults in French and generally acts like a Tazmanian Devil when crossed. (She brings regality to a line as simple as “Marie-France, don’t be a bitch.”) She was there to help Megan get her stuff from her old, swank apartment, and when Megan nipped off for her disastrous lunch date with Harry, Marie helped herself to every single thing in the apartment, just because she hates him that much. She also helped herself to Roger Sterling (John Slattery), despite, or even because, of that new honker of a ’stache. Ormond herself was once in Megan’s shoes: an “It” Girl in the ’90s whose big films (“First Knight,” the remake of “Sabrina”) died before she got her footing, and even seemed to poison her stature in her native England. But she can be a great actress when properly used, and perhaps Megan will one day, in her middle age, pop up in some retro show as a supporting character’s hilarious, scene-stealing mom.

The other big scene-stealer — and another ’90s movie hottie — was Mimi Rogers, who killed as a Pima, a celebrity photographer decked out in a proto-Annie Hall three-piece suit, complete with a dangling watch. “I can feel the tension of the need for my opinion,” she purred to newly mega-burly Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) before working her way through the art department, much like Terrence Stamp did to a traditional Italian family in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Teorema.” She hooked up with Stan and later put the moves on Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who didn’t acquiesce but did consider at, and seemed more than a little jealous when Stan went into double entendre bragging mode.

“Imagine all the adventures I would have missed,” Pima told Peggy when talking about how neither has ever gotten hitched. Peggy, of course, hasn’t had too many adventures: just a handful of boyfriends of ill repute. (Though her possible new boo, played by the onetime Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), was AWOL this week.) She’s spent most of it in offices, working her way up, and working herself to death. More than anyone at SPC, she has the brightest future — or at least she has decades of casual gender condescension and non-equal pay to look forward to. But in terms of relationships and happiness, she has it only slightly better than Don. And look where he’s at.

Grade: A-

Token stray observations:
— This isn’t the first time “Mad Men” has decked out a car scene with old-timey rear projection, in which actors sit in a studio inside a car that’s doing no more than rocking while scenery is projected on screens all around them, giving the illusion of movement. It’s a tradition that died around the time “Mad Men”’s timeline began, as movies started being made in real locations, to appease a hipper audience. By 1969 any Hollywood film that featured it was officially a laughing stock, so using it here is a very, very funny joke. (And besides, “Mad Men” already isn’t cheap before you put Vincent Kartheiser and Jon Hamm on a country road in a car with a camera strapped to it.)
— Enough can’t be said about Reaser’s work, especially as this might be the last time we see Diane. Even when she’s completely remote, which is most of the time, she quietly telegraphs so much. And when she’s turned on, she has the same tired-flirtatious moves you see in Anouk Aimee in “La Dolce Vita” — another character trying to destroy herself, albeit on the other end of the economic spectrum.
— As a friend noted, Betty becoming a psychiatrist is a hoot. She only talks about herself!

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge