The most unfortunate effect of AMC’s decision to split Mad Men Season 7 into two halves is that it’s hurt the show’s ability to digress. Mad Men tends to be at its best not in tone-setting premieres or finales and the plot-heavy episodes the precede them, but in expansive mid-season vignettes like “The Suitcase” and “The Crash.” Considering that the show also likes to fold in lightweight hodgepodges like “New Business,” and it’ll be a welcome surprise if we end up with even one more classic episode between now and the series finale.
If there was one theme that unified last night’s grab bag of storylines, it was women scheming and winning and holding all the power. The first hint of this comes in the very first scene of the episode, when Betty arrives home from a fancy dinner to find Don-as-babysitter blending chocolate shakes with the boys. She’s going back to school to get a Master’s in psychology. “People love to talk to me,” she tells Don. “They seek me out to share their confidences.” This may not be true, exactly, of the Betty we know (and, incidentally, aren’t seeing nearly enough of this season), but what’s important is the way the scene inverts their roles. For a moment, Don is the kids’ caretaker and Betty is the one seeking professional fulfillment.
Speaking of Don’s ex-wives — or, in this case, soon-to-be-ex-wives — “New Business” also saw the return of Megan. Their relationship has apparently grown tenser since the wistful phone call that ended their marriage in the half-season finale. She calls Don because she needs money to move her things out of his apartment, and is angry because he’s dragging his feet on finalizing their divorce, which would provide her with a reliable monthly alimony check.
As we learn via the reliably horrifying Harry Crane, Megan’s career has stalled out. Under the auspices of asking Don’s permission to have lunch with her, he throws their meeting in Don’s face, and Don responds with the particular brand of impatient indifference everyone reserves for Harry.
Of course, his meeting with Megan is a disaster — she shows up hoping to charm him into getting her a new agent with a floaty dress and half a pound of baby-blue eye makeup, but Harry is expecting a bit more than batted eyelashes. “Gimme the lay… you know, of the land,” he begins, like a predator who can’t hide its hunger from its prey. Then: “I can’t believe Don threw you away. He’s not a loyal person, but I am.” Oh, and he’s got a room upstairs where he’s happy to keep chatting, and maybe make some calls on her behalf.
Megan, perhaps the sanest character to ever get significant screen time on Mad Men, has too much self-respect to do anything but chug her wine and walk away. By the end of the episode, she’s told off not just Harry (who attempts to run damage control by reporting to Don that Megan’s “not stable”) but also Don. When they finally come face to face, she calls him an “aging, sloppy, selfish liar” — and walks away with a check for a million dollars. Seeing as her mother has already extorted enough extra money from Roger to clear every piece of furniture out of Don’s apartment, “New Business” marks a distinct victory for the Calvet clan.
Elsewhere in Don’s romantic life, which dominates the episode, we get to know Diana. Still haunted, he tracks her to a new restaurant and leaves her his number. She comes to his apartment at three in the morning, and though she’s the waitress and he’s the rich guy with a fancy place, she’s got his number. “Do you sleep like that?” Diana asks when he answers the door in a suit. “I’m vain,” he admits.
Last week, it seemed clear that Don was drawn to Diana because something about her physicality reminded him of all the other women he wasn’t supposed to fall for: Midge, Rachel, Sylvia. But there’s more to it. Diana is his first romantic partner who is also a sort of Don Draper figure, a woman who’s reinventing herself, whose past is full of dark secrets that are only gradually revealed. And that is precisely what seems to fascinate him about her. First she tells him that she has no children. The next morning, she confesses that she had one daughter, who died of the flu. (“You should go,” she says to Don in a telling exchange. “It’s my house,” he reminds her.) Finally, when he shows up at her bare room, it comes out that Diana has an older daughter, who she left to move to New York. The episode ends with Don leaving at her request, though I suspect we haven’t seen the last of such a promising character, and returning home to the symbolically transparent sight of his empty apartment.
Intriguing as this series of role reversals are, it might be impossible for Don’s love life to either surprise or captivate me at this point. Which is why I saved the night’s most wonderful storyline for last: the arrival of Mimi Rogers’ Pima Ryan! Dressed like Annie Hall and standing approximately eight feet tall, she’s the famous (female!) photographer Peggy insists on hiring for a shoot. From the moment she arrives, she seems to have it in for arrogant Stan. “He hates himself,” Pima tells Peggy. “Men like him don’t bother me, and they shouldn’t bother you, either.”
By the end of the episode, though, we learn what Pima’s up to. Not only does she seduce Stan by alternately building up and knocking down his ego, but she also makes a play for Peggy, having discerned that she’s unmarried. “I would love to take your picture,” she coos. But this isn’t Peggy’s first time being mistaken for a lesbian — plus, she’s also a whole lot smarter than Stan, and in her interactions with Joan we’ve seen how she responds to women using their sexuality to get ahead. So when it comes out that Sterling Cooper and Partners’ very first bisexual casanova is romancing both her and Stan, Peggy calls Pima a hustler and tries to shut the whole thing down.
I would love to see more of Pima, though I’m not sure we will. If anything, she seems meant to be an avatar for the pure power of women like Megan, Diana, and even Peggy. Over and over in “New Business,” we see women use men’s weaknesses to manipulate, conquer, and shame them. Meanwhile, in conversations like Pete’s long whine to Don on the way to a golf game with clients, the men’s own aimless unhappiness comes to the fore. This is an interesting theme for Mad Men to raise, particularly as it enters the feminist ’70s. Whether it will go anywhere in the next five episodes remains, as always, to be seen.