In ‘Mad Men,’ Don’s melancholy brings a return to form

You didn’t think Don Draper was done with women after his marriage fail with Megan, did you?

Sunday night, the beginning of the end of “Mad Men” — the first episode of the remaining half-season — was essentially an hour of Don acting out his rather major issues regarding women. He moved from one lady to the next, including Tricia from TWA, whom he lays down over spilled wine that looks like blood in a bit of the show’s always powerful symbolism.

Ultimately though, Don is haunted by two women — the late Rachel Katz, who, when she was Rachel Menken was one of Don’s most promising flirtations, and the glum waitress, Diana, carrying John Dos Passos’s “The 42nd Parallel.”


Don’s fixation on Rachel seems to come out of nowhere, but she was one of the most compelling of his possibilities over the years. We met her in season one, and so Matthew Weiner is bringing his show full circle in a way. At Rachel’s shiva, Don feels the sadness of her loss, and of the loss of his potential with her, and existential sorrow about the transience of life. “She lived the life she wanted to live,” her sister tells him, and he stands looking like a lost child.

So we see that Don is still compelled to have sex with random women constantly, but he’s also feeling the emptiness of these hookups, feeling the lyrics of the song we hear twice in the episode, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” At the end of the hour, he sits in a diner — looking very Edward Hopper-esque — pondering the emptiness of his life and the road not taken with Rachel.

Is Diana, played by Elizabeth Reaser, his new Rachel, his new opportunity? When Don tells her about Rachel’s death, she asks him point blank, “Is that who you think I am?” She looks slightly like Rachel, and the fact that she feels she was paid for — “You got your hundred dollars’ worth,” she says to Don, “you can go” — only makes her more evocative to him, as the son of a prostitute. Knowing Weiner — remember Neve Campbell on the plane? — we may not even see her again.


Peggy is also at a crossroads. She has fallen into a rut of professional success and private loneliness, and initially she rejects the idea of a fix-up. But as soon as her lawyer date, Stevie, uses the words “fearless” and “funny,” she changes up and feels risk-taking and romantic. I’m hoping we see more of Stevie — he seems perfect for Peggy. How great was it to watch Elisabeth Moss let loose with giant smiles.

The most painful scenes found Peggy and Joan at odds over the role of women. They meet with three giggling, sexist department store guys, who act like teen boys. “Why aren’t you in the brassiere business?” one says to Joan, as the scene stretches on. Rather than connect over the insults, Peggy and Joan face off — where else? — in the elevator. “You can’t have it both ways,” Peggy says to Joan, noting that she’s “filthy rich.” Ouch. As much as this show is about Don, and the men in advertising, it is about women and their roles and rights.


Random thoughts:

■   Don has a vision of Rachel (a cameo by Maggie Siff) before he learns she is dead; he had a similar vision before he heard Anna Draper had died.

■   I love Weiner’s penchant for actors from 1990s TV shows — Linda Cardellini of “Freaks and Geeks,” Neve Campbell of “Party of Five,” and now Devon Gummersall of “My So-Called Life” as Stevie.

■   Was Ken’s firing and then return as Dow’s head of advertising too fast? Yes, but it ought to be fun to watch him exact revenge.

■   As Don auditions a fur model and gives her commands, he seems to be enacting the dom-sub play he engaged in with Sylvia Rosen. Don likes to be in control of women; when they start doing what they want, he gets ookie — that was why he rejected the self-empowered Faye Miller in favor of Megan. But the audition scene turns out to be more than just “Mad Men” group male objectification.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.