all images courtesy of AMC
“New Business” (Season 7, Ep. 9)
At first, I didn’t like “New Business.” It left me feeling unsettled and deflated. I didn’t care about Pima or Marie-France, and I didn’t connect with Don and Diana. I’m such a disciple of this show, I didn’t want to write about being underwhelmed by this episode. I didn’t want to join the Megan dismiss-ers. I didn’t want to keep tabs on how much screen time my favorite characters got with just five episodes to go. I wanted to believe: there is a plan, and if I’m not seeing it right now, it’s because I’m not supposed to yet.
Happily, after watching the episode twice more, I can report that with repeated viewings it gets better: funnier, sadder, and more contemplative. As comedy duos go, Roger and Marie are in fine form, as are Pete and Don. Peggy and Stan both have some nice, if subtle, character moments. Megan gets to say what she needs to say. Harry doesn’t get what he wants. Jiminy Christmas, Betty’s going to study psychology! These are not the hallmarks of a throwaway episode.
Despite its charms, “New Business” feels off. But at the risk of sounding thoroughly brainwashed, I can’t help but think this stutter step of a ninth episode serves an important purpose. If last week was a dreamy, luxurious introduction to the idea that the world of Mad Men is going to go out stubbornly loyal to its pessimistic heart, then this week was the natural extension: the harsher, more perfunctory side of the same coin. Things don’t feel good, but the truth is they aren’t good, so why should they feel so? This episode, much more than last week’s, really made us feel: is that all there is?
Something disturbing is happening with Don. In the aftermath of the shock of Rachel’s death, he is detached and inscrutable, empty in a new and unsettling way. His pursuit and embrace of Diana and his treatment of Megan are relatively positive actions (the bar is set pretty low here). But in practice, these scenes don’t crackle in the way they might. In “Waterloo,” the last time we saw Don and Megan interact, they ended their marriage over the phone. Don was painfully present then, interpreting Megan’s silence correctly and experiencing the moment fully. In contrast, this week, as their separation becomes permanent, he seems hollow, automatic. It’s as if he’s drifting through his life having already decided to stop living it.
There are moments that interrupt Don’s haze. The episode opens with him making milkshakes, apparently having been hanging out at the Francis house with Bobby and Gene while Betty and Henry are out schmoozing. (Incidentally, this is a pretty spot-on depiction of the surreal scenes that can emerge from divorce.) When Betty and Henry return, Don beats a hasty retreat. As he leaves the room, he turns to look back into the kitchen. Henry fusses with the blender. Betty asks the boys if they had fun; she touches Bobby tenderly (evidently having finally gotten over that lost sandwich). They are unaware of Don watching. They’re just a family, nearing bed time, having milkshakes in the kitchen. And he doesn’t belong there. They aren’t his. We see that realization land on him.
Later, Harry (who is, at long last, officially the worst) bluntly tells Don that Megan was “dumb” to leave her soap opera and move to Los Angeles. Don has been largely indifferent to Harry’s hints about meeting with Megan up until now, but that observation rattles him. It was Don’s doing, after all, not Megan’s, that prompted her move to L.A. When Megan later tells Don that he ruined her life, she’s speaking from a place of despair, having gone through her own set of shocks that day, but she’s not wrong. Remember the Megan who went to Disneyland with the Drapers? Who stunned the entire family when she didn’t let a spilt milkshake ruin her day? Who was so not Betty? And now here she is, wearing the same trendy blue mini she wore to dine with her agent back in L.A., but this time wearing it for Harry Crane. (Meanwhile, the milkshakes, and the children, are back in Betty’s home.) This change in Megan has never been lost on Don, and he’s always seemed to harbor guilt about it. By the time he meets her to finalize the divorce and she finally calls him an “aging, sloppy, selfish liar,“ he offers no defense or acrimony. He just agrees with her and gives her a million dollars.
This is the same Don who coached Peggy, Lane, and Ted to get it together and start over. To grab the chance to move on. To change the conversation. “It will shock you how much this never happened.” He just doesn’t seem to believe it himself anymore. As Pete grumbles, “You think you’re going to start your life over and do it right, but what if you never get past the beginning again?” Don seems done.
Will someone please call Freddy Rumsen? Don needs a cold shower.
Speaking of Freddy Rumsen: I’m not thrilled to be writing primarily about Don for the second week in a row, given how smitten I am with all of the characters on this show. But “New Business,” focused so intently on Don, doesn’t really draw from Mad Men’s ridiculously deep bench. There are some insights into Roger and Pete, to be sure (at this point, Pete Campbell manages to fascinate no matter how little screen time he has) and meanwhile, Peggy and Stan are dealing with Pima the Hustler. Other than that, we spend most of our time with characters we just met or ones we didn’t expect to see again.
As an added treat, the Calvets are in town, in case we had any unanswered questions about them. We meet Megan’s sister Marie-France, who is of that classic variety: “mid-century French Canadian Debbie Downer.” Megan calls her a ghoul, which rings true. Marie comes back to rail against Don and “what he’s done to this family,” clearly projecting an awful lot of her own marital problems onto the situation.
Add a cold splash of Sylvia and a too-stingy pinch of Betty (“People love to talk to me. They seek me out to share their confidences”), and you’ve got a veritable cocktail of women haunting Don’s life.
And the current woman in Don’s life? Diana still seems like a dream to me—her backstory is just a little too convenient, a little too relevant to Don’s psyche. Her stunned, numb demeanor matches his strange affect. They are both traumatized and looking for a distraction, and Don stays close to her, approaching her less like a lover than as an essential part of his own being, a part that needs tending. When she says, “There’s a twinge in my chest,” Don suggests, “A pain.” Is that what he sees in her? “The pain from an old wound”? A fellow sufferer? By comforting her, is he comforting himself? In an interview with Vulture, actress Elizabeth Reaser nails Diana’s singularity: “I think that Diana, she has real courage. It’s how she moves through the world, and she doesn’t need Don. I mean, she wants him, but she’s fiercely independent in a way, in her grief.” It’s Diana who eventually breaks the spell, saying she doesn’t “want to feel anything else” but her sorrow and guilt. Don leaves her then, alone.
Why is this all okay? I’m not sure it is, really (I’m also sure, once I finish writing this, that I’ll read what all of my favorite writers have to say about “New Business” and will realize I missed a few things or got a few things wrong), but there’s no doubt that something important is happening in this episode.
Don’s life, at this point, is fractured by his own doing, his heart scattered and faded. When you get divorced, it’s never a clean break. There are one million complications, complex feelings, unintended consequences. And you don’t get to just never deal with all of the peripheral people again. The sisters, the mothers, the exes, the cuckolds—they all still exist, even after you’ve decided to move on. Trudy is out there, and Jimmy Barrett, and Henry Francis, and Jaguar, and Mrs. Pryce, and the Calvets, and Burt Peterson, and Midge, and Glen, and Julio. They will come back into your life, unexpected, unwelcomed, and unchanged. They will interrupt you, demanding explanation, definition, money. It won’t always be dramatic or resonant, profound or even meaningful. Sometimes it will just be tiresome and hard. Like it or not, deem it intentional or not, but “New Business” makes us feel that.
I hope Marie really left her husband, that she “did something about” being “very unhappy for a very long time.” I hope she started something new. That’s the Don Draper way of doing things. But I hope she doesn’t think running away with Roger will solve everything.
Because, Don, there has to be some internal work going on, too. Otherwise the nostalgia will get you in the end.
Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.