Mad Men 7×09: The Illusionist

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“I know it’s not real. Nothing about you is.” – Megan Draper

The opening scene of tonight’s Mad Men felt, for just a split second, like a time warp back to the first few seasons. There was Don Draper, in his casual weekend polo, in a suburban kitchen with his kids, making milkshakes. And then in walked Betty, elegantly dressed, making casual conversation–the four of them, Don, Betty, Bobby and Gene, looked like a family, Don’s long-sought portrait of domesticity.

And then Henry Francis stepped into the kitchen, dressed to match his wife, and Don became the man on the outside looking in.

Don Draper has always had a vision of the life he wants to lead. He started constructing it as a child, the boy who built normalcy out of the taste of a Hershey bar. He’s been filling it out ever since, taking on a new identity, conning his way in the front door of Sterling Cooper, marrying the model in the expensive fur coat and then turning their life together into the picture of domestic bliss that might show up in one of his ads (that did show up in the Kodak pitch back in season one, “the pain from an old wound” he spoke about over slides of his supposedly happy family), with the little girl and the little boy, the dog and the house in the suburbs.

And when that didn’t work out, when his family cracked to pieces, he tried to start over with a different script. He followed Roger Sterling’s example and married his young secretary, told her his big secrets so they wouldn’t be lying in wait, traded in the suburbs for a fancy apartment in the city. And still it didn’t work out.

Because Don always forgets the same thing: the wives he’s using as props are the central characters in their own life stories, whether that’s Betty struggling through a combination of depression and arrested development in the wake of her mother’s death, or Megan realizing she’s not ready to give up on her dreams just because she’s married. Their lives continue when Don leaves for work in the morning, they don’t sit in their well-appointed living rooms, in suspended animation, awaiting his return.

Tonight’s episode was titled “New Business,” but it was really just more of the same: Don playing like a child with a dollhouse. Megan’s moving her things out of the apartment, so he’s stalked Diana, the waitress he met in last week’s episode, the one who reminded him of someone (His mother? His step-mother? The ghost of Rachel Menken? Sylvia? Megan? Midge? Miss Farrell? Take your pick from Don’s long list of sad brunettes) to her new job and brought her home to take Megan’s place.

Don’s quick to reassure Diana that he’s had the time to move on from his marriage, that he’s ready for another commitment, but he fails to take her emotions into account, just as he did with Betty, just as he did with Megan. In Diana he sees a kindred spirit, a woman who has just gotten divorced, who has left behind her ranch house and her two car garage in Wisconsin for a new life in New York City, and he thinks, because he believes he is ready to start fresh, that she is too. But Don’s not listening (literally not listening. When she refers to a twinge in her chest he hears her reciting that Kodak pitch back at him, “a pain.” “It’s not that,” she says), not to her grief over a child she lost, or to her general ambivalence towards the city (a city that is as crucial to his self-image as the wife and kids. “I always wanted to live here. It was in all the movies, all the magazines,” he tells Diana. Don’s repeatedly flirted with the West as a place to escape, but the stories he’s built for himself have all been centered around New York City). He’s looking for a new prop to lie next to him in bed at night, to wear his ex-wife’s coats, to take on those client dinners he discusses with Pete. He doesn’t want a new character in his life, a woman with her own motivations. The idea that the people around him might be following a different script presents too wide of a window for complications.

Mad Men is often praised for its attention to detail, the meticulous costuming and set-dressing that brings the show to life, but that careful construction is as much about Don as a character as it is a part of the show itself. I wrote last year about the way Don put on a suit to meet Dawn at his door for a few minutes, even though he had no reason to bother with the ruse. He does the same in “New Business,” but it’s Diana at the door this time, and it’s 3 am, and this is whatever you would have called a Booty Call in 1970. When she questions the suit he claims he’s vain, but the truth is the illusion is cracking. He doesn’t know what to wear to meet this woman at his door at 3 am. The pristine white carpet in his bedroom is scarred with the red wine we saw spilled last week. He’s playing golf in his suit and tie, with rented clubs. It’s the spring of 1970 and he still doesn’t know about the Manson family. His kids live in another man’s house, fill out another man’s family, and their bedroom in his apartment is just negative space, a frame onto which Diana can project her own grief.

At the end of the episode Don is standing alone in an empty living room. Megan’s mother has taken all of the furniture. The house in Ossining was decorated by Betty, down to her chaise lounge crowding the living room, and as Don told Diana tonight, the apartment was decorated by Megan. But Diana has turned Don away, he has no one to decorate the set for the next show he puts on, whatever that might be. He has no script, no co-stars, no props, breathing or inanimate, he’s even out a million dollars. So the questions coming out of “New Business” are these: where does Don Draper go next? Towards what vision does he rebuild? Will it finally resemble the truth under the Don Draper facade? Was that the last we’ll see of Diana? (And please, oh please, will Sally be back next week?)

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