Mad Men, “New Business”

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This episode gives us a pretty slow burn, but allows us to really hone in again on just a few storylines. The thematic link across all? Sex and the ways it shapes and destroys our expectations of our wants and needs. The main characters this affects – Don, Megan, Stan (and to a lesser degree Peggy) – we lay bare the anxieties of these characters at this stage in their life, whether outwardly or symbolically. The conclusion for all is still a level of emptiness, which only leads me to wonder if the ad man life is in any way fulfilling to these people who at this point know nothing else.

Let’s start with Stan.

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In a very interesting C story exploration of his character, we find Stan in a place of insecurity about his own artistic integrity, even though he is the artistic director for the agency. Peggy assures him that for this particular account for Vermouth she needed to hire a true photographer instead of him, making him feel undermined. The photographer she hires is this mysterious but prestigious photographer Sam Ryan, who goes by the name of Pima. Her reputation precedes her as this sensual figure, this sensual character. She almost seems like a dream figure – one to falsely awaken the hopes of Stan in a way. Pima immediately reads this and confronts Stan in his office, mainly to confront the fact that now she has lost her own creative control to the agency since they won’t allow her to develop the films she took. She invites him to show her his work. He expresses the frustrations and the threat of her reputation to his girlfriend, and his fear to show her something that isn’t worthy. He is clearly missing out on pursuing his own art on the side. His girlfriend offers to model in some photographs for him in her underwear. He uses her sexuality as a gateway to reinvigorate his inner artiste, and wants to believe the work is good. As he develops the photos, Pima instead confronts him in the very dark room he tries to push her out of. Though of course the sex makes him feel better, or at least fools him into being OK with her presence in the office, Peggy sees right through it, even if it does prove tempting and sensual in her own encounter picking a print with Pima. Now that Stan is pushing for her to continue working with them, Peggy says they’re no longer using her, and tries to drop a hint that Pima’s interest swings both ways. Stan returns home feeling a little empty and disappointed – sex got him no closer to any sort of artistic approval or any further artistic pursuit, especially since Pima basically shot down his sexy photos of his girlfriend. Stan remains the frustrated artist, simply selling things.

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Megan is coordinating her final move out of NYC and in LA with Don, with the help of her Catholic-guilt ridden sister and her conniving mother (guest star Julia Ormond). Things start friendly enough on the phone, even with Megan asking for additional money over the phone. As she packs her things in Don’s place, her mother grows increasingly upset, especially since Megan is only taking the bare minimum. There’s tons of envy and tension in Megan’s family, and her divorce isn’t helping either. Her sister clearly resents her freedom, beauty, and success, and walks out on helping with the move out, basically since Megan is asking them to stick around while she takes lunch with Harry about signing a new agent. She instead entrusts her mother, who keeps muttering about that she hates Don and what he did to her, pointing out that there’s probably more that’s Megan’s and commenting with disgust the wine stain on the floor from the last episode (the hint here being he’s continued to sleep with other women without her around). We have to assume she’s a little drunk and not in the right, especially since in a brief moment of bonding the sisters joke about who’ll get drunk first – them or their mother. By leaving the move out of Don’s in her mother’s hands, it becomes an avenue for her mother to unleash her own inner tensions and desires. She makes the movers take out all the furniture in the living room, insisting Megan is walking away with “what she deserves.” But the $200 Megan gave her barely covers the labor for ALL of the stuff she’s taken. In a fit, Megan’s mother calls Roger to the rescue to bring money in cash, and she also proceeds to seduce him in the home of the man she now hates. Talk about some wacky revenge sex fantasy. This act, plus the implication of another, totally disrupts the peace in Megan’s family.

Megan’s lunch with Harry takes a very quick turn to the skeezy when Harry jumps right to the point and invites her up to a hotel room to “make some phone calls.” Of course, Megan is someone who wants to demand a certain respect from people, and she understands she’s usually been seen, especially in the SC&P world, as a sexual object. This just adds a further sting that the only way she’d get help in her acting career is to sleep with other powerful people. The disappointment surrounding this moment is riddled with sex she doesn’t want (sex that won’t solve her problems) and she only gets confronted again by more. For Megan, the promise of sex becomes the promise of pain – Don is the source now of both sex and pain. Sex continues to bring a source of pain with Megan uncovering this affair her mother is having with Roger, enough so that she doesn’t have the energy to fight the fact that her mother did way more than was asked by stripping away Don of his possessions. The meeting at the lawyer’s office is, then, cathartic for Megan, to finally dispel any last hope of expectation from Don. Of course, she is shocked when Don writes her a check for a million dollars. You can read it in her eyes that she wonders what is she supposed to give in return before she tacitly accepts and pockets the money. Her payback to Don? Anna Draper’s ring.

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The most powerful imagery – and the most powerful of messages – lies, of course, with Don. We open on him in the Francis residence making milkshakes for his sons. I almost wondered if this was a dream – we haven’t seen Don in such a nuclear family setting in so long, that it’s almost a shock, it almost doesn’t fit that he’s there. He’s clearly dropping off the boys after their hang out time while Betty and Henry come back from a date. Betty walks in and undoes her fancy gloves – again, hearkening to an old-fashioned time of yesteryear. This is a vision of what Don’s past was, what he probably really needs and secretly longs for – that traditional, happy American family image he sells every single day. Of course, Henry comes in and Don makes a swift enough exit, but not without looking back at the “perfect” family image of the poster wife, her two boys, and her husband in an old fashioned kitchen.

We then follow his monogamous romantic pursuit of the waitress Diana, who he’s taken a liking – or maybe obsessions – to. She’s not like the other women he’s pursued – stiffer, more humble. It’s almost like he’s going for someone who may be closer to his roots, like he’s trying to reconnect with the lower middle class, with the working woman his mother was, the working man he used to be. He enlists the diner owner to let him know where Diana has been since he last saw her, and he sits for dinner at the new restaurant she works at. His approach is more understated, even if still stalker-ish, by saying he just simply wants to have dinner with her. He gets a phone call from her after his shift and their brush with sex and romance begins over this brief period of a few days. He invites her into his home, and the intimacy levels step up rather quickly when Diana walks into Sally’s bedroom and shares with Don her story. But in these moments, we find both people are hiding a little bit of truth from the other. Don hasn’t fully disclosed that his second divorce isn’t fully executed, and Diana keeps a secret about her past from Don. There’s a little bit of an immediate understanding on her part that Don is a lothario, especially when they bump into the Rosens in the elevator of his building, tension filling the air. It’s interesting that the first two nights they spend together, it’s almost like Don’s apartment becomes this haven of fantasy. So long as they’re in the bedroom, it’s almost irrelevant what the other’s past is, it almost doesn’t matter what the truth is. And of course every morning after, the expectations of romance are shattered by one thing or another – after the second night, it’s Megan’s return to the apartment to gather her things that pushes out Diana. So when he steps down to reality to visit Diana’s apartment, she instead turns it on Don and gives him a taste of his own medicine: in her own space, she tells him the truth that she herself is running away from her past and her hurt, and that she doesn’t necessarily want to keep playing this escapist fantasy with Don. In a way, she almost is a perfect match for Don because his whole life has been a life of escaping or running away from pain, pain that is all associated with sex (born of a prostitute and abandoned, hello!). Don’s expectations of maybe starting anew are crushed, for now, and he returns to his “home” in a completely contrasting image to what we open the show with – completely empty. In reality, Don is a man with nothing. If not sex, what will fulfill him now?

The moodiness and slowness of this episode really works for letting the sadness of everyone’s storylines creep in. There were lovely moments throughout, and even for such a serious episode, they find great ways to pepper just the right amount of humor (i.e. Roger’s assistant has enlisted Shirley to help arrange his schedule and it looks pretty useless and ridiculous, Pete’s obsessive frustration over Don not showing that he owns a set of golf clubs). This is a classic episode in the style that makes Mad Men work best. Even though we still haven’t fully caught up with everyone quite yet, we’ve set up some major ideas and some closing thoughts on what this life has done to our characters.

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