Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "New Business" (season 7, episode 9)

Mad Men - "New Business" (season 7, episode 9)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 12, 2015/written by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): Three women circle Don, and he ends up on the outs with all of them. The woman from Don's past (now distant), Betty Francis, finds him with his sleeves rolled up in her kitchen, making milkshakes for the boys he babysat while she and Henry attended a posh event. She tells him she's decided to get her Master's in psychology at Fairfield University - that people like to come to her to share their problems. Don, however, cannot do this and so as the fancy couple returns, he leaves his own family behind in their cozy kitchen. He and Betty are at peace but they severed their connection long ago and it looks like she wound up with the bigger half of the wishbone. The woman from Don's present (soon-to-be), Megan Draper, comes to New York to make some final moves toward divorce so Don casts the lawyers aside and signs over a check for a cool million after she berates him for being an "aging, sloppy, selfish liar." She is also scheduled to get her last things from his apartment. Her mother, in town to help (and of course judge) her wayward daughter, takes this to mean literally every single item but the carpet, emptying the place completely while Megan attends a disastrous meeting with Harry Crane (she's looking for an agent but he'd rather take her upstairs to the hotel room he's already booked). Worse, Marie invites Roger over to pay the movers' bill and then takes him to bed - defiling as well as robbing Don's abode, as Roger puts it (not that he refuses). By episode's end, Megan's blubbering sister Marie-France (Kim Bubbs), a sad housewife trying to enjoy her momentary escape to the city, informs Megan that their mother is now going to leave their father. "She's been very unhappy for a very long time," Megan scolds. "At least she did something about it."

Finally, the woman from Don's future (he hopes), Diana Baur, is tracked down by Don at another restaurant and invited to his apartment. They spend the night - several in fact - and she spills the beans. She came to New York from Racine, Wisconsin, after flipping a coin (it was Manhattan or San Francisco, and the east won). She was married for twelve years, no children. Well, actually, come morning and her discovery of Sally's empty room, she confesses that she did have a daughter who passed away. And, as a matter of fact, come evening and Don's visit to her own shabby apartment, she reveals that she also does have a second daughter, whom she abandoned in her grief. "I know you think you deserve this," Don insists, realizing that Diana is trying to punish herself. But it isn't clear that Diana views this fate as punishment. She does not want to forget about her dead child in Don's embrace. And so he exits the room and leaves a woman behind for the second time in the ironically-titled "New Business". (Megan, on the other hand, left him alone at the table with her engagement ring, or rather Anna Draper's...which is about all she left him with, as Don will discover when he finally gets home after a long day.) Of course, the episode title is literal as well as ironic, given the more light-hearted subplot about Peggy bringing legendary art photographer Pima Ryan (Mimi Rogers) onto a project. Pima ends up seducing the vulnerable Stan, who attempts and fails to impress the older woman with his own photos of girlfriend Elaine (Erica Piccininni). Pima then proceeds to flirt heavily with an uncomfortable Peggy. The scene in which Peggy and Stan find out they've both been hustled is exquisitely timed and delivered, with copywriter Ed (Kit Williamson) sealing the deal by his bemused reaction. Here we have a wacky threesome (with, perhaps, some important implications) to complement the three-way split that Don encounters in his own lonely odyssey.

My Response: For an episode with many serious aspects, "New Business" is kind of a hoot. I was laughing hysterically during the farcical sequence between Megan and her mother in Don's stripped-down apartment, with walrus-faced Roger caught with his pants down (almost literally) in the middle. The Stan/Pima/Peggy triangle is also pretty uproarious, as is - speaking of triangles - Roger's bewildering exchange with two secretaries and a roster of clients; even Don's final moment of discovering that all of his possessions have been taken is quite funny, coming right on the heels of a downer scene between himself and Diana. (Harry's attempt to proposition Megan ends up being as humorous as it is horrifying only because he's such a hamhanded hack - aside from brief gestures like helping Paul a few seasons back, he's emerged as this series' George Costanza except with even less of a conscience or sense of dignity.) Smuts' only previous episode was the MLK assassination - a story with very little humor. Uppendahl, on the other hand, has a history of staging ridiculous scenarios in a manner that maximizes their comic potential and also shuffles cast members in high-energy, entertaining fashion. His last couple entries were "A Day's Work" and "The Crash" which took this approach to a chaotic Valentine's Day and an amphetamine-infused work weekend, respectively.

As with "Severance," this episode's most serious streak comes courtesy of Don's sad slump into a lonely middle age. Diana is an intriguingly enigmatic character - a bit of a blank slate whose odd behavior and elusive expression are slowly filled in as the episode wears on. Initially I shuffled between wondering if she was a hallucination or a hustler. In the first case, we almost never see other familiar faces in her presence after that first diner encounter - plus Don's borderline (okay, blatant) stalking attempts are unusually desperate for him, making more sense as a fantasy. The fact that Diana is almost always in her odd Pilgrim-style waitress uniform also further adds to this sense of irreality. Of course, once the Rosens pop up in the elevator, this theory bursts (I love Diana's response, by the way, as well as the continuation of the previous episodes' "let's feature cameos from the past six and a half seasons" approach). In the second case, Diana's initial presumption that Don was paying her that $100 for a quickie, and her slow realization that his loneliness is making him vulnerable, could have been setting up a more calculated plot (similar to the young joyriding couple in season three who knocked him out, stole his money, and left him on the floor of a motel room).

Neither suspicion turned out to be true, of course; instead Diana is a deeply wounded person who does not want to be healed. If Megan and other (once-upon-a-time) optimists illuminated the self-destructively reckless side of Don's personality, Diana reveals his tendency toward evasive escapism (these two qualities, in some ways contradictory, can also be complementary, keeping Don restlessly unhappy). Contrasted with both of these tendencies instead of just one, Don comes across as someone caught in the middle, unable to commit to either a haunted past or a bright future, always on the run from himself. Ironically, the literal runaway Diana appears more committed to her own path. Above all, Don is deeply afraid, yet that fear drives him toward wanderlust rather than withdrawal. I quite like the "Stories in the City" approach that "The End of an Era" arc has taken so far and hope to see it continue even if it's not what I was initially expecting. There's a real bittersweet quality to this material, allowing Mad Men to indulge in a short story episodic approach rather than the more novelistic sweep it often employs for Don's long-term relationships. Perhaps we'll see Diana again, but perhaps she'll be allowed to dwell on in Don's memory as a portrait of permanent, authentic grief, as uncompromising in its way as others' pursuits of happiness.

Next (active on February 7, 8am): "The Forecast"Previous: (Season 7 Part 2: The End of an Era premiere) "Severance"

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