Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 9: New Business: Punishments and New Beginnings

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by Linda Beail and Lilly Goren

As an audience, we have become used to Don Draper/Dick Whitman punishing himself. We have seen it over the course of quite a few seasons. Last night’s episode is about punishment—and while Don is punished by others, he does not punish himself. Thematically, we hear and even see how divorce is a form of punishment, especially by wives. Roger makes cutting remarks early in the episode, about Jane, his second wife, who cost him so much to divorce because she wanted to punish him. Pete, who has also recently experienced divorce, says the same thing—that divorce is a form of punishment. This episode is also about “New Business,” as the title indicates. Lots of things start: Don and Diana’s dating relationship, a new photographer named Pima working on an account for Peggy, life after their marriage for Don and Megan (who comes to New York to retrieve the last of her things from Don’s apartment), Betty going back to school for a graduate degree in psychology, an attempt to get a new agent and revitalize her career for Megan. But as Pete says in the car as he complains about his punishing divorce and lack of a date for client dinners to Don: “ You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?” All Don can do is sigh, “Keep your eyes on the road.” Life is zooming past, perhaps not allowing him to start over and get it right.

Don has had a lot of new beginnings: life after Dick Whitman, marriage after Betty with Megan, a resurrection of his career after being put on leave. But the “new business” of this episode is not a rebirth. These beginnings are transactional in nature, and as Pete observes, sometimes you don’t get the opportunity to start over and do it right. Don is left wondering if he might be stuck back at the beginning again—though, at the same time, we had learned in season five, from Dr. Faye Miller, that Don often only likes the beginnings of things. The episode opens with Don making milkshakes for his sons in Betty and Henry Francis’ kitchen. When they return from an evening out and it’s time for Don to end his evening with his children, he pauses in the doorway. Henry and Betty are already engaged in ordinary banter with the children, as Henry remarks that he’ll make a milkshake of his own. Don blinks, seeming to realize all at once that he has given up his place in this family, but home life goes on; the “new business” of making a family is happening, but without Don in the picture. He is shut out, back at the beginning, having to start over – but can he?

Marie Calvet, Megan Draper’s mother, is punishing her philandering husband by taking up with Roger, while trying to make sure that Don is punished (even if Megan won’t do it herself) by taking all of his furniture and cleaning out his apartment of all his possessions. Megan’s sister, who we discern to be quite Catholic and positions herself as superior to her sister because she is a mother, is also punishing of Megan—noting that Megan’s situation is a failure. Megan herself doesn’t view it that way until after she catches her mother and Roger in the aftermath of their illicit liaison at Don’s apartment. After seeing both their willingness to use each other, and her mother’s effort to give Megan all Don’s possessions because that’s what she deserves after Don “ruined” her, Megan seems to change and enter into this new business of exacting revenge and satisfaction. She castigates Don, accepts a large sum of money from him (in addition to keeping his furniture), and even praises her mother for leaving her father for an assignation with Roger: “She’s been unhappy for years. At least she finally did something about it.” Roger’s attraction to Marie Calvet, it should be noted, has to do with business – of revenge against Don and of commodities. “Bring cash!” Marie hisses to Roger when she summons him to Don’s empty apartment. She needs to pay the movers for filling up their truck; she pays Roger back in sexual favors.

Pima, the new and avant-garde photographer Peggy hires for a shoot, makes a sexual play for Stan and then later, for Peggy as well. Under the guise of creative acumen and erotic desire, Pima attempts to secure further employment. Peggy is the first to come out from under her thrall, noting that Pima was less about art, and more about advertising – the business of commodifying desire, not consummating it.

Harry Crane also tries to use sex as a commodity and to punish Don—by swooping in, and saving Megan, but Megan turns down his attempt to get her on the proverbial casting couch. Harry then goes to Don and, trying to save himself before Don hears anything from Megan, goes on to try to punish Megan for not accepting his advances. Harry explains that Megan is crazy and hysterical and should never have quit her job on the soap opera in New York and moved to L.A. Don mostly ignores Harry, except for the final remark about Megan’s choice to quit and move to L.A. – of course Harry does not know that Megan quit the soap opera because she and Don were going to move to California together. Don seems to recognize he has potentially undermined Megan’s career, recalling Roger’s earlier ironic comments about Jane, but understanding the reality of the situation for Megan.

In an effort to no longer fight with Megan and abide by his commitment to provide her with the life she deserves, sitting at the lawyer’s office, Don writes a check for one million dollars and passes it to Megan. Her reaction is in keeping with what we know about Don Draper, “I know this is not real, nothing about you is.” This second marriage ends with echoes of the same accusations and disillusionment on his wife’s part as his first marriage did. Don is trying to do the right thing—but is stuck beginning again, and can only offer cash to Megan to start the business of rebuilding her life.

Megan is angry at Harry and angry at Don, and spitefully tells him that he is an “aging, sloppy, selfish liar.” Don seems aware of this critique and might even think it is true, but this is not an episode where he punishes himself. Megan’s accusation raises the question, though, if Don can ever change for the better.

There is also call back to the final episode of season one, The Wheel, in the midst of the growing intimacy between Don and Diana. It is from Don’s most famous pitch, to Kodak, and his explaining what nostalgia means as he narrates the function of Kodak’s slide wheel to take us back home again, in our emotions and memories. Di notes that she has a feeling, a pain in her chest—Don asks her if it is a twinge, almost word for word the beginning of his pitch to Kodak. We learn later, from Di, that it was that feeling that made her decide she could not continue with Don, she had briefly felt something beyond the tragedy of losing her daughter to the flu and abandoning her other daughter. She could not allow herself to feel emotions that weren’t punishing her, or making her feel guilty. She lives in a small, dingy room, which calls back to the rooms that we see in Don’s flashbacks to his life in the whorehouse, with reddish wallpaper and the omnipresent and somewhat ornate bed in the midst of the room. Unlike the promise of the “The Wheel” to use that twinge to take us back to the place we long to go, though, Diana resists that circling back to begin again. She refuses the feelings she has with Don, feelings that push her forward out of numbness and grief, ending her relationship with him before it can get past its beginning.

The final scene of the episode is Don, standing in sunken center of he empty living room, adrift in the middle of his apartment. No furniture, no lovers, no wives, no booze. His life and his apartment are empty, ready for a new beginning. But can he start over and do it right? Or is it too late for rebirth – and merely time to keep his eyes on the road as his life passes by, and begin the transactions again?

Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.

“You Missed Your Flight”: Scholarly perspective on last night’s ‘Mad Men’

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by Linda Beail and Lilly J. Goren

The first of the final seven episodes of Mad Men opens by noting that it is in memory of Mike Nichols, most famous for the film The Graduate—itself a rendering of American life and its meaning set during the same period in which Mad Men takes place. And most of the visions of Don Draper within this episode are of him casting about, having fairly anonymous sex, or confusing his dreams with reality, only to be faced with the choices he made, the paths he choose, and what he might have missed. Don doesn’t like the emptiness of his massive apartment, so he turns off the lights. He keeps thinking he is seeing women whom he once knew. Occasionally he does some work, but mostly Don inhabits a seemingly liminal space where he might encounter an equally disconnected Benjamin Braddock, Dustin Hoffman’s defining role in The Graduate.

Don’s story in “Severance” is seen in bits and pieces, brief and bracketed by Joan Holloway Harris and Peggy Olson trying to save the Topaz hosiery account as they face the threat from the famous L’eggs’s egg, and as they fend off overt sexual harassment from their business partners at the McCann-Erickson advertising agency that now owns Sterling Cooper as a subsidiary. Don’s narrative in this episode is also seen in contrast to Ken Cosgrove and his (and his wife’s) dissatisfaction with his life as an account man, not as a writer and novelist. Don seems to move between consciousness and perhaps not—and within that space he thinks he keeps recognizing women from his past, most poignantly, Rachel Menken Katz from Season One. Cosgrove’s story is more firmly positioned within the episode than is Don’s. Ken’s frustration with being fired from Sterling Cooper, ironically after deciding he wants to quit to focus on his fiction writing, leads him to “double down” on advertising and take an even more powerful job with Dow Chemical as one of the clients SCP will now have to keep happy. This mirrors the historical events happening in the background of the episode, as President Nixon is seen on television in April 1970 giving a speech about increasing American troops in Southeast Asia after recently promising a draw-down. This “upping the ante,” personally and politically, may also resonate with 21st century viewers weary of a dozen years of war and its “surges” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Joan leaves the meeting with the offensive McCann men declaring to Peggy that she “would like to burn the place down.” Peggy admonishes her to dress differently if she wants to be respected by the men with whom they work. This dynamic has references back to the very first episode of the series, when Joan admonished Peggy to consider how she looked and what her “assets” might be. Joan responds by sneering back at Peggy that she doesn’t dress like Peggy because she doesn’t look like Peggy – “that’s very, very true.”   We have seen Peggy and Joan contend with this kind of sexism before, and they are often at odds about how to respond. Peggy is outraged but insecure and jealous of the sexual attention, while Joan is humiliated but refuses to downplay her sexuality. The feminist debate over how women can best handle their own femininity in ways that gets them both respect and power continues to play out, as Joan chooses to spend the afternoon in “retail therapy”—given that she is, as Peggy notes, “filthy rich” because of the new business arrangement that Sterling Cooper made with McCann-Erickson. She does this to spite both the men at McCann and Peggy. Joan chooses to do something she enjoys, and has the autonomy and capacity to do, luxuriating in couture fashion at Bonwit Teller. Peggy, meanwhile, goes on a blind date and spontaneously agrees to a rendezvous in Paris. Her romantic tryst is cut short, however, when she cannot find her passport and misses the opportunity to catch the flight. Her seemingly promising romance may already be fizzling out even as the Alka Seltzer fizzes in her glass to cure her hangover the next morning: “Nothing that aspirin can’t cure.”

Meanwhile, Don is casting about for solace from a stewardess he knows (who spills blood-red wine on that beautiful white carpeting in his condo), and a familiar-looking waitress at a diner, all while thinking about Rachel Menken as part of putting together the Topaz hosiery account. But then Don learns that Rachel Menken Katz passed away the week before. Don tries to pay a Shiva call to the Menken Katz house, only to be confronted by Rachel’s sister who knows “exactly who Don is” and asks him what it is he wants from coming to the house in mourning. She tells him Rachel lived the life she wanted; in his dream, Rachel tells Don “you’ve missed your flight,” and Don’s regretful face in Katz’s foyer tells us that he’s well aware of his missed connection with Rachel.

Don can’t quite make sense out of any of this. He is looking for connection, as he has over the entire course of this series. Don Draper/Dick Whitman has long been in need of friends and he has rarely known how to cultivate intimate relationships. This episode brings us, the audience, back to the conclusion that Don is lonely; he is in search of the classical connection that friendship provides, an intimate bond between equals charged with both eros and trust. But we know that Don rarely trusts others, or feels comfortable with his vulnerability, but he is desperate for human connection—this is what he explains to Menken in season one, episode ten, Long Weekend. Similar to Benjamin Braddock or Jay Gatsby, Don is often surrounded by attentive people but achingly lonely. This is the tantalizing image of the American dream (just like the model in the fur coat at the beginning of the episode, who is only supposed to show a bit of her leg under the chinchilla)—the promise of intimacy and friendship without the burdens of class or position. But in Don’s case, we also see the inherent emptiness of that dream, especially as it swirls through the wealthy and elite, who have much, but are also often shown as being untethered and alone. Recall that Bert Cooper sang to Don at the very end of season seven, episode seven that the “best things in life are free;” As Don ends this episode alone at the diner counter, Peggy Lee hauntingly asks, “Is That All There Is?”

Oh, and it seems that everyone has ridiculously large mustaches. Except Don.

Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.

The Daily Show and Political Culture: Skepticism or Cynicism?

By Meredith Conroy

About a month ago, Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s premiere fake news program, The Daily Show (TDS), announced he would be leaving in a heartfelt “Moment of Zen.”

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Once the announcement of his departure spread, speculation around who would take over for Stewart began. But before we start talking about what’s next for TDS, I think the announcement of Stewart’s departure warrants a survey of what in particular academics have uncovered, regarding the political and cultural significance of Jon Stewart’s tenure with TDS.

Over the course of its 17 years on air, TDS has evolved in scope, popularity, and political relevance. A fact not gone unnoticed from political science, and media and communication scholars. The Daily Show has been at the center of studies interested in the changing nature of political news television programs and evolving notions of journalism, in this new age of technology, where production, consumption, and distribution of information no longer rely on an antenna and electromagnetic waves. For example, Aaron McKain explores what makes TDS different from conventional newsGeoffrey Baym tackles the meaning of TDS for broadcast journalismJamie Warner argues that TDS’s dissident humor disrupts the dominant political cultureLauren Feldman finds TDS to prompt journalists to reconsider the hard and fast convention of separating news from entertainmentAcademics in political science have also been interested in the demographic features of TDS audience. TDS audience tends to be younger, smarter, and more liberal than audiences for other cable news programs, such as The Rachel Maddow Show, O’Reilly Factor, and Hardball. Yet what is the political impact, if any, of TDS on its audience? To speculate on the effect, its important to establish what TDS brings that is distinct from other cable shows. 

What Jon Stewart does best on his show is not necessarily his takedown of political foes, or even his ongoing war with Fox News, though this is related, but instead his consistent critique of modern political journalism and news. Night after night, using carefully crafted montage after montage, Stewart lambasts the cable news networks CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, and uses their foibles to bemoan the general state of political news reporting in the US. He famously took his critique to the source, when in 2004 Stewart appeared as a guest on the now canceled CNN show, Crossfire, to plead with hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to “stop hurting America.” In this Crossfire appearance, and increasingly on episodes of TDS, Stewart is critical of our political news as “partisan,” “theater,” “hackery,” and “not honest.” 

And while this takedown of Crossfire and his other attacks on the media are hilarious and entertaining, the effect, it is speculated, may be detrimental to our democratic system, which rests on a participatory citizenry. Communication scholars aptly refer to the theory that news media hinder civic engagement (political knowledge, trust, and participation), as the media malaise. Although Pippa Norris handily debunks the media malaise, her assessment does not consider the likes of TDS, in all its mocking, satirical, sneering glory. 

In particular, given the snarky delivery, and sarcastic tone, the presumption that TDS contributes to cynicism from its viewers toward government and mainstream media seems rightly founded. Soon after the announcement that Stewart was leaving, Jamelle Boiue, a Slate staff writer, wrote a thoughtful piece, as a liberal who has enjoyed the show, but is unapologetically “thrilled” to see Stewart’s tenure end, because, 

“in the world of The Daily Show, the only politics is cable politics, where venality rules, serious disputes are obscured, and cynicism is the only response that works. Not only does this discourage people who want to make a difference–like the earnest young viewers of Stewart’s audience–but it blurs the picture and makes it hard to see when those arguments really matter.” 

Boiue goes on to note, that Stewart’s “chief influence has been to make outrage, cynicism, and condescension the language of the left.” 

Political scientists of American politics, primarily interested in the democratic health of our politics, have also speculated on the cynicism impact of TDS, and have explored this effect. Using an experimental design, Baumgartner and Norris (2006) find that TDS viewers have less faith in the electoral system and less trust in media, than viewers of CBS Evening News. The authors use perceptions of trust as a means of assessing cynicism, and conclude that TDS leads to cynical attitudes about government and media. 

Moreover, In a 2007 Critical Forum published in the journal, Critical Studies in Media Communication (v. 24, 3), the cynicism effect of TDS was put on trial. Roderick P. Hart and E. Johanna Hartelius take Stewart to task for the way in which Stewart “evades critical interrogation, thereby making him an anti-political creature” (264). Indeed, by presenting the news solo, TDS enables Stewart to dismantle his enemies and take down his opponents without any contestation or debate. Furthermore, by hiding behind his title as a comedian, Stewart shields himself from those who would criticize him for also shirking his journalistic duty. 

In this same Critical Forum, Stewart’s defense was represented by Robert Hariman and W. Lance Bennett. Hariman defends Stewart by questioning whether Stewart is in fact a cynic, and furthermore, whether cynicism is dangerous to democracy. Granting Stewart is a cynic, Hariman argues that TDS humorous cynicism is a welcome relief in a political climate that is often too serious and depressing. But it is Bennett’s defense that wins me over. Bennett suggests that it may not be cynicism that is bred from TDS and Stewart’s approach to the news. Bennett concludes his essay by noting, “people exposed to Jon Stewart do not retreat behind a smug veil of cynicism, but, instead, employ cynicism as a perspective-building took to engage with politics and civic life” (283). While Bennett doesn’t explicitly say so, what I interpret Bennett to be describing in this last passage is skepticism. Skepticism breeds doubt, whereas cynicism breeds contempt. In response to feelings of doubt or questions they may have, skeptics are likely to seek out answers. In this manner, skepticism leads to learning. In response to feelings of contempt, the cynic does nothing, but harbors negative feelings toward an object or idea. And while I may be splitting hairs, I think the key to understanding the impact of TDS, and Stewart’s time as host is whether his show encourages skepticism (of government and media), or cynicism.

Measuring political cynicism has been largely commonplace in political science scholarship. It usually takes the form of questions about trust in government; questions measuring political efficacy are also considered an effective means of capturing cynicism, where low levels of efficacy are tantamount to political cynicism. To capture internal efficacy, the ANES asks respondents to agree or disagree with these statements:

“I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing our country,” “I consider myself well-qualified to participate in politics,” “I feel that I could do as good a job in public office as most other people,” “I think that I am better informed about politics and government than most people”

To capture external efficacy the ANES asks respondents to agree or disagree with these statements:

 “Public officials don’t care much what people like me think,” “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does,” “Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on”

 Of the external efficacy questions, 2 of the 3 presume support for government as a necessary condition for efficacy. In particular, question 1 assumes that people who want to influence politics care that elected officials recognize them. Yet this is counter to skeptics belief system, especially those who watch TDS, who are asked to question the validity of our media and government, through its persistent mocking of those institutions. In other words, a skeptic may not grant the necessity of attention from public officials or government to have an impact on politics. Instead, those who watch TDS may be more prone to participate in government through unconventional means. And this participatory element is a far cry from cynicism. Instead, it is motivated skepticism, and crucial to our democratic system.

Night after night Stewart sits at his desk and attacks government and media, without allowing them to respond to his criticism. Furthermore, he shields himself from any obligation by reminding us he’s *just* a comedian. And yet, I would argue that he does his audience, and our political culture, a service, because his audience is asked to question, and be skeptical of our system, and to not accept it, as a cynic would.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of Political Science at California State University San Bernardino.