In the office Fainy found a man sitting at the second rolltop desk. “Well, what’s your business?” he yelled out in a rasping voice.
—John Dos Passos, U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel
Following an episode titled “Severance”—a title that threatens our own impending separation from Mad Men after seven seasons—we might not now expect “New Business.” Even if Sterling Cooper & Partners, now operating as a subsidiary of McCann-Erickson (which itself bought Putnam, Powell, and Lowe …), is thriving, shouldn’t things be shutting down rather than expanding? Who has time for anything new, including new characters, when we should begin packing up and moving on? “Good news—it’s almost over,” Don declares (although referring to his divorce). And while there are indeed hints of new clients and accounts at Sterling Cooper (or whatever it’s called now), it’s the new or renewed, um, “mergers” between characters that receive the most attention throughout this unusually fragmentary and elliptical episode.
“New Business” is also notably detached from the specific referents that have allowed us to precisely locate other episodes, such as Nixon’s nationwide broadcast on April 30, 1970, seen on Don’s TV last week in episode 8 of this final season, or of course the televised July 24 moon landing that was central to episode 7, “Waterloo,” broadcast almost a year ago. Only a brief, comic exchange with Don’s secretary about the “Manson brothers” (“Family,” Harry notes) running loose in California and a few other vaguely topical references (celebrities like Ali McGraw and Marlin Perkins) loosely ground this episode in the latter half of 1970, presumably during the trial of the Manson “family” that took place between June and early 1971. Otherwise, the episode emphasizes a poetic, rhyming structure rather than tracing a narrative that unfolds in pointed relation to or juxtaposition with the historical backdrop often crucial to the series.
The “new business” that the episode traces is therefore less financial than emotional, more sexual “monkey business” than the economic seduction of advertising. As iconic businessman Don Draper tells Harry after the latter frantically attempts to inform Don about his awkward lunch meeting with Don’s soon-to-be ex-wife Megan, “You know what? It’s none of my business.” (Mad Men of course depends to some extent on its audience’s historical interest in American business, but obviously relies much more on our prurient fascination with private matters that should be “none of our business.”)
Bruce Robbins noted that last week’s episode, supported by its persistent (rather than merely concluding) use of Peggy Lee’s 1969 hit record “Is That All There Is?” sustained a theme of disillusionment, the English translation of Thomas Mann’s story (Enttäuschung) from 1896 that improbably inspired the pop song in the 1960s. This episode may have similar deep and displaced European roots in Arthur Schnitzler’s scandalous play Reigen, written in 1897 but only first performed in 1920: the play is now perhaps best known via its brilliant film adaptation as La Ronde directed by Max Ophuls in 1950. (It has been adapted many times since, officially and unofficially, including in 1964 by Roger Vadim, featuring Jane Fonda in the cast.)
Moving in interlocking patterns (or “rounds,” as the German and French titles suggest) of serially swapped sexual partners, the play notoriously demonstrates that erotic pairings are fickle rather than stable and cannot be confined by class barriers. (Indeed, as this episode of Mad Men demonstrates, slumming has an erotic charge as much as class rise via selective partnering.) But the fragmentary arrangement of “New Business,” with cuts that momentarily disorient us as often as they provide continuity, was also slyly announced last week via the remarked-upon paperback copy of a volume of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. (1930–1936) in the pocket of a waitress—now identified as Diana, but earlier mocked as “Mildred Pierce,” after James M. Cain’s hard-boiled heroine from 1941, famously embodied by Joan Crawford in the 1945 film of Cain’s novel. If the two citations of pre-WWII novels initially linked Diana to a strain of American proletarian fiction that engaged with mass culture, “New Business” more fully draws upon the high modernist formal experimentation—especially via montage and collage techniques—of Dos Passos’ American epic (although, again, with the inheritance of the historically grounded “Newsreels” and “Biographies” of U.S.A. largely set aside for this episode).
“New Business” therefore arranges its many parts (something like 33 scenes) into intricate patterns of contrast, repetition, rhyme, and echo. After the spectral reappearance of Rachel Menken (Katz) last week, we might not be too surprised to find the waitress Diana returning this week, though a week ago it seemed she would be one of the many minor characters in Mad Men to briefly appear and disappear as the series progresses. Structurally, however, she comes to the fore, weaving through this entire episode, serving as a counterpoint to what appears to be Megan’s final departure from Don’s life and perhaps the series.
Compounding these arrivals and departures, it’s especially appropriate that Don’s ex-wife Betty (here surprisingly happy with her family, including Don’s two sons, and planning her own future with a degree in psychology) briefly appears in order to fully trace the major pattern of women who displace one another in Don’s life across the series. Likewise, Don’s neighbor and former lover Sylvia makes a brief appearance with her still oblivious husband. Across the series, wife Betty and lover Sylvia were replaced by wife Megan and lover Diana, but as this episode concludes, the latter pair also seem to be departing Don’s life and perhaps the series itself. At the same time as these major substitutions are being summarized across the episode, Roger Sterling renews his earlier sexual liaison with Megan’s mother, Marie, who (we learn) is now finally leaving her husband, and Peggy seems to be again the potential object of the attention of a female lover, the art photographer Pima Ryan, although this ambiguous possibility is quashed when Peggy learns that Pima has had sex with Stan, whose relationship with his “overdeveloped” girlfriend Elaine is first threatened and then restored within this single episode. At one point, Megan’s sister, suffering from a hangover, lays on a bed until the world stops spinning, and we know just how she feels watching the shifting relationships across the episode.
Again, whatever new business is taking place within the advertising agency (client Peter Pan Peanut Butter has a new cookie that may rankle client Nabisco, and Peggy is supervising a classy Cinzano ad) seems obviously secondary to this series of new romantic and sexual arrangements and rearrangements, although there are failed deals as well: Harry’s crude attempt to seduce Megan ends their business options before they really begin, and Pete voices a hapless and typically self-centered complaint that without a “steady” partner he is at a disadvantage when attending dinners with clients. (Pete does, however, articulate the episode’s underlying Nietzschean fear: “What if you never get past the beginning again?”)
If played or pitched differently, the episode could work as a bedroom farce: half of its scenes seem to begin or end with someone opening a door to enter or leave a room, and some characters are almost caught in flagrante delicto: “We’ve got to get out of here,” Don tells Diana on the morning Megan is set to arrive with a moving van, and later that day Megan arrives just in time to find her mother and Roger en déshabillé. (Roger, alone, seems to glimpse the comic potential in the moment.) But rather than exploit these comings and goings for laughs, the episode begins and ends with moments that portend final departure, closure, often captured in the melancholic backward glance.
In the opening sequence, leaving Betty and Henry’s cozy kitchen, Don looks back at his two sons as if it could be for the last time, a moment echoed later by Megan’s final look at the New York apartment she once shared with Don, now stripped bare by her mother ordering everything in it hauled away by movers. (As Roger asks Marie when she becomes amorous, “You already emptied the place out, you want to defile it as well?”) Don also makes what one assumes is his final payment—severance pay?—to Megan (the episode began with them bickering about her “allowance” and Don sending her $500) with a check for a million dollars, despite his earlier claim that his finances are currently a mess in the wake of the company’s reorganization.
The dogged pursuit of the waitress Diana (here hunted rather than huntress: “Are you a private detective?” she asks Don), while successful in the first half of the episode, also seems doomed by the episode’s end, when Diana seems to decisively reject Don, whose presence distracts her from the loss of her (finally revealed) surviving child. In the middle of the episode, after sleeping over at Don’s apartment, she wanders in a daze into the room he keeps for his children when they visit: the troubling absence of children from the child’s room elicits her partial confession that she has herself lost a child. (In another rhyme scheme, the episode begins and ends by reminding us of the emotional ties if not the social responsibilities of two flawed parents, while placing Diana and Don on a child’s bed in a child’s room—but without children—in near the central fulcrum of the episode.)
While we may see Betty and Megan, and perhaps even Diana and Sylvia, again in the remaining episodes of the series, the last moments when Don sees each woman in this episode could effectively serve as their final appearances in the series altogether: what more needs to be said or shown—what “new business” is necessary now—to conclude any of these relationships? In an elegant double parallel, Don leaves Betty and Diana in, respectively, their nice and shabby living quarters, whereas Megan and Sylvia walk away from Don, in the more public spaces of a lawyer’s office and an apartment elevator. While it seems improbable, might the series as a whole conclude with Don alone, unmarried and even without lovers, the bachelor stripped bare?
That possibility—grim even if probably deserved by the man Megan summarizes as an “aging, sloppy, selfish liar” (he agrees)—seems equally threatened for Peggy, who has often served as Don’s odd double, as the series nears its end. Her possible giddy affair and romantic trip to Paris from the last episode seem to have vanished, and even the women’s liberation-era solidarity that she might have felt with Joan when they were both subjected to blatant, sniggering sexism in the previous episode seems now to have shifted and been reconfigured in the support she receives from successful, independent (suit-wearing) woman and star photographer Pima Ryan (guest star Mimi Rogers). While Peggy seems a bit thrown by Pima’s flirtation and stated desire to photograph her, her eventual recognition that Pima has had sex with a preening Stan severs that possible alliance, much like her turning on Joan (rather than on their shared target of sexist men) for wearing provocative clothing did last week. Mad Men has rather sadistically seemed determined to prolong Peggy’s unhappiness and loneliness for some time now, and to dramatize moments that elicit her pettiness, often directed at other women who, again, could have been allies or mentors. In such ways, the series has often incisively dramatized the working of sexism—including, most painfully, between women—in the period it portrays, moments that run the risk of being viewed as themselves sexist rather than critical commentary on the time and cultures depicted.
Peggy’s landing of Pima – who has resisted advertising work until now—for the Cinzano account (for an ad that seems modeled on those viewed in Antonioni’s Blow-Up) allows the women, who are paired through matched shots that isolate them on screen during the photo shoot, to figure another pair in this episode, relevant to the series as a whole. Pima, we are told, represents art in contrast to the blatant commercialism of advertising, and her shooting the ad is viewed as the “classy” elevation of an ad to artistic stature rather than the descent of true art into mere art direction. Her charismatic presence and artistic standards briefly lead Peggy to view her own keen business acumen as aesthetic, while she leads art director Stan to doubt his artistic credentials (his girlfriend asks him if he is in a “creative mood or bad mood,” and we suspect there’s no difference). While this new business arrangement, bringing art into the ad agency, will apparently be broken off because Peggy cannot tolerate Pima’s sexual indiscretions, the lure of artistic legitimation has often tempted the “creatives” working on Mad Men, much as the critical reception of the show as “quality television” perhaps downplays its actual status as a television program interrupted by and dependent upon commercials. (It’s worth noting that in 1970, when this episode takes place, PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, was launched, with the promise of a noncommercial use of the medium. A recent exhibit and catalog, “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television,” recall the promise of a bygone era when the merger of avant-garde art and television seemed possible.)
If “New Business” is one of the more artistically ambitious episodes of Mad Men, insofar as it subjects our investment in its narrative momentum and intrigues to the foregrounded formal structures prominent in possible precursors like Schnitzler’s play (cleverly, Don and Pete play a “round” of golf during the episode) or Dos Passos’ novels, it also subjects that pretense to harsh criticism, with Peggy concluding that Pima is, after all, a fraud: “It’s Pima’s business, which turns out to be more advertising than art. She’s a hustler.” (Megan’s mother, learning that Don has given her $500, calls her own daughter a “whore.” In Mad Men, both sex and art never remain far from money.) The “new business” of “New Business” is then perhaps old business—even the “oldest profession”—after all. Perhaps in a tribute to the French dialog spoken by Megan and her mother and sister, the episode ends with Yves Montand singing “C’est si bon,” in typical Mad Men ironic contrast as Don surveys the wasteland of his gutted apartment (and life): I was, however, half expecting a rendition of another upbeat song that summarizes the deep American imbrication of art and commerce so central to Mad Men, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”