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'Mad Men' recap: Zou bisou boohoo

On #MadMen, Megan guilt-trips Don to the tune of a million dollars

If there's one thing I learned from "New Business," it's that calling your ex an "aging, sloppy, selfish liar" is a pretty effective negotiating strategy -- or at least it is for Megan, who guilt-trips Don to the tune of $1 million. (Adjusted for inflation, that's more than $6 million.)

That's a lot of money, but it's nothing compared with everything else Don has lost. "New Business" is bookended with two starkly contrasting scenes that underscore this idea. It opens with Don making milkshakes for Bobby and Gene and sharing conversation with a glammed-up Betty, and ends with Don arriving home to an apartment empty of family or even a stick of furniture. The final scene is a callback to Season 1's "The Wheel," when Don returns to an empty home in Ossining after imagining Betty and the kids there to welcome him.

It's not the only self-conscious reference to "The Wheel" in this episode, which is similarly concerned with themes of love, loss and family. When Diana speaks of a "twinge" in her chest, it brings to mind Don describing nostalgia as "a twinge in your heart more powerful than memory alone" during his legendary Kodak pitch. And there's Betty pointedly telling Don that she's going back to school to pursue a master's degree in psychology. Her choice is both apt and deeply ironic, given her own painful experience in psychotherapy -- one that she ended in "The Wheel" after learning that Don was spying on her sessions.

A decade of fictional time later, the losses, financial and otherwise, have only increased for Don. "New Business" finds him looking back, literally and figuratively: As he leaves the Francis house, he glances over his shoulder at Betty, Henry, Gene and Bobby in a tableau of domestic bliss -- one that leaves no room for him. Later, Pete muses about his life after divorce but might as well be speaking for Don: "You think you're going to begin your life over and do it right, but what if you never get past the beginning again?"

The one thing Don has managed to retain over the years is his misery radar, which is more sensitive than ever. The guy really has a knack for finding people who, like him, are suffering indescribable pain. In this case, it's Diana, the waitress from the diner. Turns out she's not Rachel Menken's ghost or an angel of death or a figment of Don's imagination, as she seemed to be in "Severance." Instead, she's a divorced, grieving mother from Racine, Wis., seeking refuge in the anonymity of the Big Apple and atoning for her perceived sins with a life of self-imposed poverty. She and Don share a lot in common, not the least of which is their mutual desire to flee the heartland and forge new identities for themselves in the city, but her trajectory is the opposite of his. Diana has intentionally moved down the ladder, from a middle-class life in a ranch house where she bought shampoo from the Avon lady, while he's reached the pinnacle of success with an apartment like something out of Architectural Digest. Diana wants nothing from him, not even a guidebook and not even, as it turns out, a relationship. Being with Don helps her forget the pain in her past, and that is exactly the opposite of why she's come to New York.

The contrast between Megan and Diana is difficult to miss. The second Mrs. Draper entered her marriage as a wide-eyed romantic, but she leaves it as someone quite different. She justifiably resents Don for being a liar and a fraud, for encouraging her to move to California only to stay behind in New York for a job it turned out he didn't really have anymore. The Megan who happily wiped up Sally's spilled milkshakes and got engaged after a whirlwind weekend at Disneyland would be horrified at the Megan who readily accepts a million-dollar payout from her ex-husband. It's not that she is a gold digger -- if she were, she'd have happily taken Harry up on his offer -- only that she's angry and embittered enough to accept the blood money. "Megan is not Jane," Don tells Roger, though it would have been more accurate to use the past tense. Megan wasn't Jane but now, thanks to Don, she seethes with a brand of resentment that can only be tempered with cash.

The divorce negotiations highlight the episode's secondary theme: that of "hustling" and, more specifically, the use of costume and carefully manufactured appearances for professional gain. Pete, clad in a red sweater and garish plaid pants, gets mad at Don for showing up for a golf outing in office attire; he's in the wrong "disguise" for the task at hand.

Then there's Megan, who wears a plain peasant blouse, jeans and an understated bob in her off-duty hours but shows up to a business lunch with Harry in a powder blue micromini dress, tacky blue eye shadow, giant swirling earrings and an enormous bouffant hairdo suggesting that either her hair grows very, very quickly or she's spending all of Don's money on extensions. It's the same powder blue dress she wore to pick Don up from the airport in "Time Zones," only now it's a little wrinkled and sad-looking, an effect heightened by the garish makeup and tacky styling. Back then Megan exuded glamour and confidence, now she reeks of desperation. (Hats off as always to "Mad Men's" brilliant costume designer, Janie Bryant.)

Even Pima, the edgy photographer Peggy hires for the Cinzano ad, dresses in menswear-inspired looks that are central to her cultivated persona as a pioneering, avant-garde female artist. But as Peggy learns, for all her pretensions Pima is as phony as anyone in the ad biz. If Megan is the inadvertent gold digger in this episode, with her embittered mother and sister exploiting her divorce for a bit of vicarious justice, Pima is its real swindler.

If I have a quibble with "New Business," it's one of narrative priority. This late in the game -- with just five episodes and about 240 minutes left to go, not that I'm counting or anything -- I'd rather be spending time with Joan, Betty, Sally, Peggy, Roger or even Pete than with Megan and her mother and her Debbie Downer of a sister. Zou bisou boohoo.

Now, if you need me, please mark me down in your rolodex as "NAC": no afternoon calls.

Stray thoughts

--So far the '70s have been pretty unkind to Peggy's wardrobe. That green polyester number? Yikes.

--Once again, Meredith provides the comic relief in this episode, asking Harry how he can sleep at night in L.A. "knowing that the Manson brothers could be running around." Also hysterical: her dragging Don's golf clubs out of his office as Don and Harry both look on. Classy, guys!

--Yet another sign the '70s have arrived: Meredith is drinking Tab soda.

--Don genuinely seems excited to learn that Peter Pan peanut butter is planning to get in the cookie business. "Sounds delicious," he says. Who knew Don had a sweet tooth?

--I'm excited about Betty going back to school to study psychology, even if she has a warped sense of her own gifts. "People love to talk to me. They seek me out to share their confidences," she tells Don, though in truth it's more like Betty ferrets out people's secrets in order to manipulate them. (Exhibit A: Sarabeth and the guy at the stables.)

--It's possible I'm reading wayyyyy too much into this, but in "The Wheel," Don explains the original Greek meaning of the word nostalgia. In "New Business," he tracks Diana down through a man named Nicholas Constantinopolis "Probably Greek," notes Harry when Nicholas calls Don's office. "I'm sure that's a story." Indeed it is.

--Whether he knows about his wife's affair, Arnold Rosen no longer seems to be a fan of Don's. He also seems to have picked up a serious drinking habit. Don's bad habits always seem to rub off on the people he hurts.

--Megan looks back at the apartment she shared with Don in a shot almost identical to the one in which Don looks back at Betty, Henry and the boys.

--When she spots the red wine stain on Don's carpet, Marie wonders how Megan never got syphilis from her husband. I have to admit I've had the same thought re: Don's promiscuity.

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