In which you think you’re going to begin your life over. But what if you never get past the beginning again?
One of my all-time favorite episodes of The Sopranos is “The Ride”, which takes place just before the halfway point of the epic sprawl that is the two-part final Season 6. (SPOILERS ahead) For a show that deals so heavily in characters who, despite their best efforts, never really seem to change, this episode serves as one of its most direct (and powerful) statements on the subject. At its heart is Christopher Moltisanti (the great Michael Imperioli), the tortured prince of the Soprano kingdom, the wayward son who despite his dalliances in heroin and general self-destruction still seems to be the heir apparent to Tony’s throne. Following the accidental pregnancy of his girlfriend Kelli (Cara Buono, who would later appear as Dr. Faye Miller in Season 4 of Mad Men), he tries to make amends by marrying her in Atlantic City. In a lifetime of attempts at redemption, this seems to him to be a real step toward getting it together. His moment of glory in telling the Soprano crew about his marriage, the purchase of a new house, the promise of starting a family…all the trappings are there.
But of course, the indomitable sadness that rules Christopher’s heart is still there. He may try to embrace a new and better life, but he’s forever haunted by the guilt of having given up his true love Adriana as a FBI-pressured snitch (at the end of Season 4), choosing loyalty to Tony over the possibility of a new life with her outside of la cosa nostra. Her murder is one of the most horrifying moments in the show’s history; while she’s definitely an accessory to crime, she’s also one of the few somewhat innocent characters in the Sopranos universe. The moment that Christopher signs her death warrant is finally depicted here in flashback, during a petty crime spree/road trip in which he and Tony reminisce about the good old days. The irony of the sequence is that those memories are seemingly all they have; trying to follow them up just results in awkward small talk. And the uncomfortable realization that part of Christopher died out in the New Jersey woods when Silvio Dante put a bullet in Adriana’s head.
The stylistic and emotional centerpiece of “The Ride” occurs when Christopher lapses back into heroin use while paying off an associate with smack. In a stunning sequence set to Fred Neil’s elegiac “The Dolphins”, he shoots up once again, drifting into the background of the midway for the Feast of Elzear of Sabran, staring into the sky, into nothingness. Neil’s lyrics portray frustration with war and love in the ‘60s, but they also perfectly frame the shattering regret that eats away at Christopher. The next to last shot of the scene (pictured above), as the midway lights turn off one by one around his nodding silhouette, is a haunting evocation of the loneliness and despair that have enveloped him. (You can check out the entire scene here.) Like all of the characters in the episode, he desperately wants a new path, but the thrill of the old bad ways (and the guilt that often comes with them) is too hard to escape. (End Soprano-rific SPOILERS)
I was reminded of this episode, and this scene, during “New Business”, last night’s episode of Mad Men. We’ve discussed Matt Weiner’s time in the Sopranos writers’ room extensively, but with this entry it seems like he may have created his own version of “The Ride”, a microcosmic portrait of the world we’ve followed for six plus seasons, in which the past repeats itself again and again. And in which even fresh starts are ultimately dead ends.
Some of the callbacks to the past are fairly minor and entertaining. Roger engages in a bit of slapstick with his two secretaries, in which he mentions Secor Laxatives as the old home of one of his appointments (Secor was famously Pete’s account in Season 1, which he manipulated to block out JFK ad buys in key election swing states.) Roger also, once again, shares a drink in Don’s office, while mentioning that he won’t meet with Nabisco because Burt Peterson is their account man (Sterling ousted him from the agency at the beginning of Season 3.) And of course, there’s yet another tryst between he and Marie Calvet (and the implication that she leaves her husband for him at episode’s end…although we’ll have to see about that.)
While on their way to a golf outing with the Nabisco reps, Pete and Don discuss the difficulties of divorce, climaxing in Pete’s utterance of the quote that opens this essay. It’s almost a throwaway line, but it’s a marker for most of the new beginnings on display here. The Annie Leibovitz-esque Pima Ryan (Mimi Rogers) seems to offer both Stan and Peggy new career and sexual opportunities, but as Peggy notes to Stan “she’s more advertising than art.” Harry offers to advise Megan on changing agents, but it’s all a pretext for his hitting on her (the other day I noted to a friend that aside from Don, and sometimes Roger, almost all of the come-ons displayed by male characters in Mad Men are cringe-inducing.) Marie tells Roger that Don signed off on she and Megan taking all of the Draper apartment’s furniture in the divorce settlement, but that turns out to be a lie. There’s even a can of Tab prominently featured on Meredith’s desk with the word NEW emblazoned on it (a result of a ban on cyclamate in 1969…and a foreshadowing of the disaster that would be New Coke…and a reminder that NEW Tab is still Tab.) Perhaps the only example of a legitimate new beginning that the episode offers if Betty’s revelation to Don that she’s pursuing an MA in psychology (which itself is a callback to the past, specifically her sessions with Dr. Wayne in Season 1.)
But of course, the merger of potentially pyrrhic restarts and the iron grip of the past ultimately focuses on Don, who continues his existential wandering amidst the finalization of his divorce from Megan. And it’s here, once again, that we see his fixation on Diana the waitress (finally given a proper name after last week’s anonymity.) As always, Matt Weiner refuses to play the easy narrative game with the Mad Men wrap up; this plot thread has been one of the most puzzling and enigmatic in the show’s run, literally introducing a character from out of nowhere to play a major part in the Don’s final storyline. But maybe that’s the point.
I’m going to go out on a limb here…and I could be reading way too much into this…but I think there’s a distinct possibility that Diana doesn’t exist. That’s she’s possibly a projection of all Don’s preoccupations and lingering guilt over the life he’s built. Aside from Roger and the models (in “Severance”) no character other than Don has had any interaction with her. She plays into his long-standing interest in brunette outsiders, prostitutes (their first real encounter in the previous episode has her mistaking Roger’s $100 tip for a down payment for sex with Don), and the unreachable (in last week’s “Severance” essay, I mentioned how Ted’s throwaway line about the three women in your life might be a marker for Diana’s purpose.) She’s new to New York. She mentions that her shampoo is Avon, the account for which Joan and Peggy pursued in Season 6. And when she and Don embrace in the apartment, she mentions that “I have a twinge in my chest”, to which Don responds “an old pain?” (In another callback a Sopranos obsession, Don notes that she arrives at his apartment at 3am.)
It’s a moving reference to “The Wheel” that most famous of Mad Men episodes from Season 1 (my essay for which you can read here), in which Don’s masterful Kodak pitch centers around the Greek concept of nostalgia and it’s connotations of a pain from an old wound, a twinge in your heart. And it’s here that my thoughts of “The Ride” come….yeah I’ll bite, full circle. The stated appeal of the carnival ride in that Sopranos episode is that it provides a vicarious thrill while returning the rider to safety after three minutes. Don’s pitch for the Carousel Slide Projector centers around its time machine qualities, how it “takes us to a place we ache to go again…lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.” In both cases, the promised end result is idealized. But the Sopranoland characters just keep returning back to their own cycle of destruction. And Don’s Kodak pitch is as much to himself as it is to the execs; he ultimately returns home to an empty house.
And it’s here that Diana refutes Don’s nostalgia-bound theory, later telling him that the twinge she feels is both for her dead daughter and the second daughter that she abandoned in Racine, Wisconsin. During his visit to her spartan apartment (which mildly resembles a room from the whorehouse in which Dick Whitman was raised), she rejects his affection, affirming that when she’s with him she forgets the pain of her absent children. And that’s something she wants to hang onto. This could be what makes her intriguing to Don, but it could also be another projection of the guilt that drives him (especially in an episode where he obviously feels responsible for the breakup of his marriage to Megan.)
What really sent me down this line of thinking was the somewhat odd elevator scene midway through the episode, in which Don and Diana meet Arnold and Sylvia Rosen. The neighbors haven’t appeared since Don ended his affair with Sylvia at the conclusion of Season 6, so their brief cameo here must be more than a mere reminder of their presence in the building. That Inferno-themed season featured many meetings between these characters in that same elevator (elevators on Mad Men have been described by Weiner as midway grounds, almost purgatorial experiences), so on the surface this one is obviously another reminder to Don of the cost of his past (following Rachel Menken’s death in “Severance.”)
So is Don actually experiencing this elevator ride? Or are the final seven episodes of the show turning into his descent back into his own personal Inferno, one last journey through his self-constructed circles of Hell, one last attempt at redemption? (Diana asks him “How many girls have you had in this elevator?” to which Don replies “That’s not what that was.”) A popular theory about the final run of The Sopranos involves the opening montage for the last season (check it out here), set to William Burroughs’s “Seven Souls” (in which he describes the Egyptian theory that at death, the seven souls of human existence depart one by one.) Some have viewed those final episodes as the gradual shedding of these souls by Tony Soprano, ending in either his literal or figurative death. Could Mad Men be following a similar path in climax? In a lifetime of doomed attempts to find himself, to really change, is the aging Don making one last leap into the abyss? And are we, at least in part, witnessing his subjective view of reality (much as we often experienced Tony Soprano’s waking dreams, just as we’ve seen Don’s visions in the past)?
All of this is speculation for the moment. But a poet’s soul has always driven Don, so an attempt at a poetic resolution to the mess of his life wouldn’t be out of the question. In this context, maybe the scene in which he and Megan finalize their divorce is the most telling. Driven by guilt and the desire to make things right, he writes her a check for $1 million, telling her “I want you to have the life you deserve.” It’s one more reference to the past, and a chilling one at that: his words are a direct echo of when he pays his brother Adam $5,000 to leave his life forever in Season 1, advising him to “make your own life.” That original sin is Don’s attempt to destroy his past, which ultimately leads to Adam’s suicide (which continues to haunt Don.) Is his payment to Megan an attempt to get it right this time, to let someone go while truly giving them the deliverance they want? The final five episodes will fill in some of these blanks, but at the end of “New Business”, Don is once again left alone, in an apartment stripped bare of all its furniture. And the couch and chairs might not be the only part of his life vanishing before the story of Don Draper comes to an end.