New Business

This week I had the privilege of joining the terrific Mad Men podcast Not Great, Pod! Find the episode here, and subscribe on iTunes here.

 

The promo for “New Business” ends with a clip from S6E9, “The Better Half,” in which Don looks at Betty and Henry from his table-for-one the morning after his and Betty’s summer camp sex. Mr. and Mrs. Francis laughing in daylight is a conspicuous foil to the humid, consensually destructive night before, and though Don’s anguish in watching is palpable, its source–what he sees–is unclear. Is it Betty specifically, or a flash of what he once had in marriage, or, still more elusive, someone to (want to) eat breakfast with? Regardless of its exact nature, the look gives good epigraph and reverberates throughout the episode.

We open on Don making milkshakes for his sons as Betty and Henry return from dinner, and recall the look from camp as Don pauses while leaving to watch Henry help himself–this is not subtle–to his leftovers. Given how readily Don found or built exits from the rooms of both his marriages, it’s unlikely that this is pure regret.

And it’s different from the look Megan casts back on the partially boxed New York apartment before leaving for her disastrous lunch with Harry Crane. This apartment is haunted by Megan’s sexy surprise party and so much uneaten spaghetti. She sees the effort she exerted toward being Don’s one true wife reduced to a few boxes and one chair. “Where’s everybody going?” asks the mover/asks the episode. Though not as explicitly surreal as “Severance,” “New Business” highlights the oneiric logic of characters speaking across scenes at or about one another. Frustrated with assembling a portfolio for Pima Ryan’s critique, Stan complains to his girlfriend, “Everything good I have is from a long time ago.”

The more we live through, the harder it is to see the best still ahead, not behind. As in a partners’ meeting, most of “New Business” is old or ongoing, and things take a turn exactly halfway through when Don and Diana are joined in the elevator by Arnold and Sylvia: another married couple in black tie. Nothing really ‘happens’ here, because the notion that Diana-the-waitress is simply takeout or exercise isn’t to blame for Don’s eventual rejection. But formally, Arnold and Sylvia are one strand crossing another as the episode’s braiding picks up.

It’s apt, then, that Megan meets Harry in the baby blue mini she once wore to pick up Don from LAX, since he envisions himself moving into a space that Don emptied, or picking up a toy he threw away. Clearly, if delusionally–and like Pima seducing Stan in the darkroom–he “expected more,” and Megan carries the through line of failed expectation into her second meeting, with Don.

I realized in thinking about Megan’s ire–here emphasized by the close-up in which she explicates her insult: Aging, sloppy, selfish liar–that if its intensity surprises me, it’s because we never knew her. We stayed with Don and Sylvia or with Don and the accounts, only dipping into Megan’s intellect, her ambition, her instability. The fact that she’s much younger than Don doesn’t temper her disappointed sense that everything good expired a long time ago.

Both Megan and Diana claim to want nothing. For Megan, rejecting Don is a last gasp of long-desired agency that she ultimately can’t afford. For Diana, gesturing around at the readability of her shitty apartment, it’s a refusal to take the guidebook, to vacate her pain. And even if you do, Pete wonders, what happens if you never get past the new beginning? No one seems invulnerable to worrying where they stand; even Stan’s eyes flicker as he draws Elaine close.

My friend Jonathan used to “joke” that most anxiety is encompassed by three increasingly desperate temporalities: What are we doing? What have we done? and, What are we going to do? Maybe the better echo of Don’s look back at the Francis family is not Megan’s glance upon leaving Marie to her various devices, but Betty’s survey of the apartment in S5E9 (“Dark Shadows”). Visiting Don’s new space, Weight Watchers-era Betty not only stumbles on Megan getting dressed, she’s faced with her taste in furniture. It’s not so much a den of sin as a sleek, urbane update, and what’s more, it’s a world in which Don is a participant:

We now know Don never repaired the light bulb, so to speak–never saw much of Megan, blinded as he was by the fantasy of getting past a new beginning. But for Betty, the view is devastating. It’s not just Megan’s youth or figure or even her new last name, but the material proof of a life that continues without her. This is the moment Betty retrieves when she fucks Don at camp, remembering that she too can have a life in the dark.

Last week I wrote that the show’s use of Peggy Lee was a little on the nose, and it’s tempting to read this week’s final frame the same way. Thanks to Marie’s retaliatory handiwork, Don comes home to find his apartment completely unfurnished. We leave him standing in the center of beige carpeted nothing: another meaningful shot of someone looking at a home. Only this one asks, what’s worse: seeing what we’ve done, or asking what we’re going to do? Looking at a fullness of which you're no longer part, or at the emptiness left by what you can’t keep?

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Thanks to Jonathan Ade and the hosts of Not Great, Pod!

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