13th Apr2015

‘Mad Men 7×09: New Business’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Can’t you see I don’t want anything?”

Why do families blow up?  Why can’t we just love each other, live with each other, understand each other?  What happens if, in Pete Campbell’s frustrated words, “you never get past the beginning again?”  What if you never wanted to?

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The episode begins with Don in pastoral bliss with his sons, performing the quintessentially dadly task of making milkshakes.  Unfortunately he’s in his ex-wife’s house, the idyllic family he tried to build with her smoldering somewhere off the shoulder of life’s highway, and he scuttles away like a roach the second Betty and Henry walk in.  Henry ever saunters over to the blender to claim dessert for himself, drinking from a well that might have been Don’s in another world.

The characters of Mad Men are always trying to chop their lives up into neat little cubes, everything kept apart from everything else, nothing permitted to touch.  It’s built into the show’s focus on infidelity and secrets, and the ultimate dissolution of every attempt at this kind of partitioning has driven home again and again that living a double life is inherently unsustainable.  The fallout from every one of these flame-outs and failures is on full display in the weird, noir-ish wonderland of seven 7′s “New Business.”  Between the half-healed wound that is Don’s relationship to Betty, the Rosens’ naked scorn and hatred in the elevator, and his fast-dissolving connection to an embittered Megan, Don’s rear-view mirror is full of wreckage.

At least Don isn’t alone.  Pete is miserably trying to find a solution to his ol’ permanent wound with women he doesn’t even bother getting to know before dragging them along to business occasions so he can look successful and desirable (a tough sell with that hair).  Harry, his marriage on the rocks since near the show’s inception, is his slimy, gutless self in propositioning a vulnerable Megan and then hurrying to Don to get out ahead of anything she might say by claiming she’s unstable.  Roger laments the time he wasted on Jane and cautions Don about her ingratitude and viciousness before Megan, sounding like a quorum of TV critics proposing taglines for an essay about Don, takes a page from Jane’s playbook and calls him a “sloppy, aging liar.”  Divorce and dissolution pepper the enter landscape of “New Business.”

Elsewhere, the office plays host to talented artist Pima Ryan(Mimi Rogers) who substitutes outlandish guesses and serenely confident statements for actual human connection.  Even her art, glimpsed in an ad for vermouth, portrays human beings as identical and unremarkable, set dressing for high-concept work.  Pima’s calm and audacious approach wins over an initially reluctant Stan, but Peggy recoils from both Pima’s advances and her new-age soul-staring.  There’s a vatic quality to Mimi Rogers’ performance, an electricity to her character that successfully conveys her ability to make anyone think they’re the sole bright point in the universe at a given moment.  In reality she takes what she wants and moves on, careless of what she leaves behind, unconcerned with building anything permanent.  Peggy has her nailed when she calls her a huckster, even if she’s speaking from jealousy.

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Mad Men has always been a show full of people obsessed with their pasts, albeit to differing degrees and in different ways.  Think of Roger with his refusal to let go of Pearl Harbor, Joan with her mid-coital admonitions of “there is no before,” and Don with his faux-stalwart “this never happened” rush to forget everything that isn’t convenient to his personal legend.  In “New Business,” Don slams into an old rut hard enough to jar reality.  He spent last week’s “Severance” staring at ghosts, thinking about old flames and loose ends, and now he seeks out the waitress Diana (just “Di” in “Severance”) and attempts to use her as a blank slate to start over.  It looks pretty good for ol’ Don at first.  While Megan, her sad-sack sister, and the always incredible Julia Ormond as her mother Marie are fighting over moving companies, Megan’s failure to experience enough Catholic guilt, and whether or not Don’s carpet is covered in syphilitic escort blood, Don gets to live rent-free in the emotional void of his dalliance with Diana.

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It doesn’t last.  Don has to wake up from his fantasy world in which Diana is somehow the answer to his problems, an eyebrow-raisingly convenient solution to the issue of how Don Draper the character wraps up his arc and his myth.  The problem is that Diana’s a real person and, like Don, she knows how to hide her pain.  She claims she has no children, portraying herself as someone without baggage, someone with whom Don can move forward unfettered.  She wears a uniform, hearkening back to “Severance”‘s in-depth look at interchangeability in sexual and/or romantic partners, evinces few wants of any kind, and appears content to drift through Don’s apartment until she comes upon the kids’ room.  It unravels from there.

“I can’t sleep like this,” she tells him in the dead of night as they lie side by side, his arm draped over her.  “You were,” he says.  She pauses before answering: “I don’t want to.”  There’s a shelf-life on her ability to deceive herself.  Diana, it transpires, has two daughters.  One died, cut down anticlimactically by the flu, and the other lives with her father.  Diana, standing opposite Don in a barren apartment where the only libation is unmixed vodka, baldly asks him if he wants to know why she doesn’t go to her surviving daughter.  Don retreats, unable to stand the immediacy of Diana’s pain, her inability to leave the mental mausoleum she’s built not just for her daughter’s memory but for herself.  He fears what the truth might do to him if he were caught like that.

There are many ways to look at self-imposed suffering.  “Don’t you know it’s a sin to be a ghoul and feed on everybody’s pain?” Megan snaps at her weeping sister after hearing news of their mother’s decision to leave their father after decades of unhappiness.  (Marie, you horrible, beautiful tyrant: go forth and conquer).  Devoid of the depth of Diana’s pain, Megan’s judgmental sister provides a handy mirror for examining self-pity and a love of misery.  Marie-France Calvet craves drama and transgression so that she can make herself pure by disparaging it, just as Diana craves absolution for her daughter’s death through denial(her empty apartment, lack of connection to others, etc) and emotional self-flagellation(finding solace with Don, chastising herself for it later).  Don only wants to forget, to come around again on the carousel to a place where he knows he is loved.

Shaken and disturbed, Don returns that night from Diana’s barren cell to an apartment stripped of all his possessions.  His furniture is gone, his life with Megan literally uprooted and carted away. Now there’s only the void, a space without direction or depth, and Don hanging in it.

Also, Betty’s going to be a psychologist.  To quote Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “these are truly the last days.”

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