“You think you’re going to start your life over and get it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?”
After last week’s understated study in gloom, this week Mad Men felt decidedly lighter, in one of its periodic sidetrips into farce and comedy. That’s not to say there weren’t some pretty serious themes in here; divorce, family breakups and dead children do not usually a recipe for comedy make. But Mad Men has shown before that, even in the midst of its ever-present darkness, it can make episodes through which you can’t help chuckling.
This week’s offering, co-scripted by Tom Smuts and Matthew Weiner, was one of those, in no small part due to the involvement of the characters who usually cause a laugh or two. Yes, Roger Sterling, Harry Crane, and even Megan’s bitchy Quebecois mother Marie all popped up to take part in the action, though as supporting players. However, their involvement guaranteed plenty of chuckles, despite the serious nature of the plots on display.
In a more conventional narrative structure than usual for Mad Men, this ep had the traditional ‘A Plot’ – Don dealing with his divorce while getting cosy with Diana – alongside a more trivial ‘B Plot’ – Stan Rizzo and Peggy suffering crises of artistic confidence when confronted with a trendy photographer. Of the two, Don’s was the more substantial; I was glad we got to see Megan again, even though this may be the last time.
As is often the case with Mad Men episodes, the title – New Business – had multiple layers of meaning. Beyond the obvious reference to the clients McCann Erickson was bringing to SC&P, it was all about ‘new business’ for Don too; though paradoxically, his new business intersected with his old business throughout. That’s right, this ep was a virtual greatest hits of the Draper love life Rolodex, with Betty, Sylvia and Megan all putting in appearances while Don continued his inexplicable quest to win the heart of enigmatic waitress Diana.
As he creepily stalked Diana to her new job in a fancy restaurant, it was obvious that the old Draper magic was still there; anyone else trying this would probably have had the cops called on him. Not Don, though – after her reticence last week, this week Diana was happy to follow the ageing lothario home for some fun. As the ep unfolded though, it became clear that she’s a haunted woman with, if possible, even more emotional baggage than Don. Perhaps that’s why she seemed so familiar to him – it was like looking in a mirror.
Elizabeth Reaser is shaping up well as Diana, particularly since she too shares Jon Hamm’s ability to stare mournfully into the middle distance while looking faintly distraught. She has more reason to be distraught than Don though; his existential angst, and his divorces, are all of his own making, but Diana is haunted by the death of one child and the abandonment of another, for reasons as yet unspecified. She too has just gone through a divorce, and seems burdened with depression and a desire to punish herself. She could be the most perfect soul mate Don Draper has ever found.
Certainly the ep spent a lot of time comparing her with his previous efforts. It was good to see Betty again, in the very first scene. She seems to have reached a stage where she is at ease with herself (insofar as anyone in this show ever is), and is even signing up to do a Masters degree in psychology. That’s logical enough, I suppose; spending years with Don Draper is enough to make anyone feel like they’ve plumbed the depths of the human psyche already. I’m not sure how much more we’ll see of Betty. It felt like her character’s journey was at a point where it could end, though logically she’ll have to figure in any later plotlines about the still-absent Sally.
I was surprised to see Sylvia Rosen again, though with Betty and Megan having already popped up I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Is it just me, or is this final ‘half-season’ increasingly nodding to the show’s convoluted past? After the surprise dream-cameo of Rachel Menken last week, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Sylvia, whose relationship with Don ended with his unhealthy obsession with her, clearly still lives in one of the neighbouring apartments with her husband Arnold.
As they stepped into the elevator alongside Don and Diana, it was another of those supremely awkward scenes that Mad Men does so well. Arnold is plainly still unaware of his wife’s dalliance with Don, while the lady herself was stonily silent throughout. As if that wasn’t awkward enough, the plainly tipsy Arnold seemed to be disparaging Don’s current choice of company – “Did you bring the whole restaurant with you?” No wonder Don spikily enquired as to whether he was on call that night. You could almost feel the tension lift as the Rosens got out, but Diana’s sarcastic enquiry – “How many girls have you had in this elevator?” – showed that she’s plainly got Don’s number already.
As has Megan, who wince-makingly referred to him this week as “an ageing, sloppy selfish liar”, before going on to comment of his million dollar olive branch, “I know it’s not real, nothing about you is”. Ouch. Megan had breezed back into NYC with her flighty mother and sombrely religious sister to collect the last remnants of her possessions from the Draper penthouse, which surprisingly led to some of the funniest scenes in the show for a while.
Julia Ormond was as magnificent as ever as Marie Calvet, full of pent up rage at what Don had done to her little girl. Not to mention New York City itself, which was reckoned to have “ruined” her. So she did what any loving mother would do in such a situation – arranged for the removal men to take literally everything from the unsuspecting Don’s apartment. Only to discover she hadn’t enough money to pay them. Cue a hilarious phone call to old flame Roger Sterling, with the words “I need you right now”. No wonder Roger was off at quite a lick, the old horndog.
And it was indeed more than his cash she was after. “Please, take advantage of me,” she purred seductively. Roger being Roger, how could he resist? John Slattery was at his comic best this week, particularly when Megan unexpectedly returned to the apartment to discover him and her mother hastily rearranging their clothes.
Megan herself had a comic scene with the ever-amusing Harry Crane, who had taken her to lunch to “help” her in her failing TV career. As any longtime fan of the show will know, any time the characters go to a restaurant is virtually guaranteed to lead to a moment of supreme social awkwardness, and this was no exception. But the humour turned dark indeed when, having rejected Harry’s less than subtle, clumsy advances, he as good as told her that her career had stalled because she wouldn’t sleep with men who could help her whenever it was required. It was a nasty reminder that the worst excesses of misogyny and sexism the 70s had to offer are still to come.
Outside of Don Draper’s intimate circle, the B Plot had Peggy and Stan fretting over their artistic skills when having to work with ultra-trendy photographer Pima Ryan. Mimi Rogers chewed the scenery in the part, oozing bohemian self-confidence as she seduced the insecure Stan in his darkroom, before going on to make a pass at Peggy too. How daringly unconventional!
Still, it looks like this might have driven a wedge between these two longtime friends, as Peggy sniffily dismissed Pima as a hack rather than an artist, while Stan refused to believe that he hadn’t been the only object of her advances. It was a very slight, almost throwaway plot that delivered a lot of laughs, but I wonder if this rift will have longer term consequences for Peggy and Stan?
Very little this week, perhaps because outside of Don’s relationship history, this ep didn’t really have a whole lot of substance. Ditzy Meredith was fretting about going to LA, because of the “Manson Brothers”; a flabbergasted Harry told her it was actually the Manson Family.
A couple of years ago, there was all sorts of fan speculation as to whether Megan, now based in LA, was fated to become one of their victims. That’s plainly off the cards now, and Meredith can rest easy; Manson himself was arrested in late 1969, and the trials of his “Family” began on 15 June 1970. It wasn’t clear how much time had passed between the previous ep and this one, but it was long enough for Diana to have left her old job, gone back to Wisconsin for a while, then returned to NYC and find a new job. I’d reckon Manson’s trial is either in full swing or just beginning. As of today, he still languishes in California’s Corcoran Prison, his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1972.
In pop culture, the LP that Megan disdainfully refused to take from Don’s apartment was Martin Denny’s debut album Exotica, released in 1957; yet another indicator of Don’s obsolescence in music as in everything else.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Once again, it was the women who dressed interestingly this week, while the men were fairly restrained. Well, obviously Pete’s golf outfit was an offence against the eyes, but to be fair, golf outfits still are today:
Betty’s formal dress for the university social was colourful without being too horrific:
And Megan looked great (as always) in a short blue chiffony thing with translucent sleeves:
However, this week’s gold star has to go to Mimi Rogers as the deliberately bohemian Pima Ryan, who was flaunting not one but two flamboyant, gender-bending trouser suits complete with tailored vests. Unconventional even for 1970!
This was a satisfyingly light and comic episode, but it didn’t feel slight. On the contrary, beneath the humour was some very perceptive meditation on the endings of relationships, as Don’s divorce brought advice from all the others at the agency who’d been through the same thing. Roger’s predictable “don’t give her a cent more than you have to” approach was blackly amusing, but unexpectedly it was the forlorn Pete who delivered the most affecting analysis, once more that divorce gave him the chance to revisit “the road not taken”. Only to find his car broken down on it.
With only five more eps to go, I’m guessing the show won’t be this overtly humorous again, so I’m glad it had the chance for one last episode that kept me chuckling all the way through.