Analyzing the French in Mad Men’s ‘New Business’

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Julia Ormond and Jessica Paré converse in French on Sunday night's episode of Mad Men. Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC

I’ve always been able to identify with Megan Calvet. She’s a Montrealer, French-Canadian, fluently bilingual, brunette. (The similarities end there, but I’ll take it.) From the moment she became a main character, I’ve been curious about the francophone world she inhabits. I was thrilled when Mad Men introduced her parents in “At the Codfish Ball,” but disappointed that Julia Ormond speaks broken French. Of course, she’s Julia Ormond, and she’s great in this role (when she speaks English), so I’m willing to overlook it.

Megan may be a Montrealer, but her parents are European (Émile is Belgian, or at least the actor is in real life; and Marie is “French”). It’s consistent: Calvet isn’t a common Québécois last name. That gives a small clue as to Megan’s somewhat patrician demeanor. Each time Megan interacts with her family in French, I listen closely to the dialogue, as that’s often where details slip through the cracks. I suspect there’s some back-and-forth-ing between Mad Men writers and Jessica Paré to get some of the lines right and reflect idiomatic speech as accurately as possible. It was a little stilted in “At the Codfish Ball,” but on Sunday night’s episode, “New Business,” they really nailed it.

French is used heavily throughout the episode, as Megan’s mother and sister help her move on from her life in New York. One conversation in particular stuck out to me. It’s the one between Megan, her mother Marie, and her sister Marie-France, when they’re at Don and Megan’s Manhattan apartment, packing up her boxes. It made me think about how Megan’s universe is this really big place — culturally, languages provide different ways to understand and reconcile the world. In that scene, she and her sister toggle between French and English like it’s nothing at all. At some point, Marie-France says, in French, “Mother, we’re here to support Megan, not make her feel ashamed of this failure.” Megan turns to her sister incredulously, taken aback by her slight.

The word for failure in French Canada could be two things: faillite, which literally means “bankruptcy,” and speaks to the American-English influence on our dialect; and échec, which is the correct word, both in Canada and in France.

Échec is also the word for the game of chess. So when you say “check,” you’d say “échec” in French, or “échec et mat” for “checkmate.”

In that line, Marie-France used échec. If it matters to me, it’s because failure and échec each have their own sets of connotations, which, more than anything, reveal our language’s relationships with those ideas.

Failure is a very personal word in English. It’s an insult to your abilities. As a verb, it’s passive, in that there’s no act of failing; it’s a state of being. If you fail, it implies that you are a failure. In French, échec has military qualities. It’s not just about coming up short on expectations or aspirations. It’s about losing everything.

Incidentally, when you conjugate échec, the verb échouer doesn't just communicate the idea of failure; it also has notions of a collapse or breakdown. A beached or grounded boat, for example, is an échouage.

Like Megan, I live in both languages all the time. And it constantly fascinates me that the same word in a different language will inevitably come with its own set of baggage.

Megan has different ways of looking at her failed marriage: It’s either a personal shortcoming, a total loss, or both. Maybe that’s why she’s so broken up about it.

This piece has been updated to clarify how échec can be conjugated.