Mad Men: Severance, or Is That All There Is?

photo severence

“Is that all there is? Is that all there is to life?”

Those questions, from Peggy Lee’s weirdly popular existential 1969 hit, are the very ones that Mad Men has been asking from the beginning of the series. Given that the show has always been about how you live your life, the choices you make, and what you do to move forward in light of life’s inevitable disappointments, you have to wonder whether the whole arc of the series was leading to the moment when Matt Weiner could play this song. And not just once, but twice – an unprecedented use of a single song. For seven seasons now, the activities described in the lyrics (“If that’s all there my friends, then let’s keep dancing, and break out the booze and have a ball. If that’s all, there is”) have been a coping mechanism for the show’s characters.

Sunday’s episode – “Severance” – was all about paths not taken and the circular behaviors by which we repeat the same patterns again and again. The question at the end of last season was whether Don had changed in light of the excruciating and humbling lesson he’d been taught by his partners, which culminated in Bert singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” But the very first scene in “Severance” implies that Don has fallen back into his old behaviors and it’s soon clear that last season might as well not even have even happened – sure, Sterling Cooper is owned by McCann now but no one is any different, least of all Don. It’s almost like the first half of Season 7, with Don’s suspension, the opening of the California office, the hiring of Lou Avery, etc., was like Bobby Ewing’s dream in “Dallas,” something that never happened.

We open on Don talking suggestively to a women wearing a fur coat and little else – he’s dominant and she’s submissive, just like he and Sylvia were in Season Six, when he got her to strip down to her underwear in the hotel room. But just as we reach the climax of this seduction scene, the camera pulls back and we see that it’s just a casting call, not a Don Draper power play.

In a surreal episode with lots of surprises, nothing was quite as surreal and disorienting as that shot of those four men on the casting couch, one of whom is Ted with a bushy mustache and groovy hair. Wait – where are we? The last we saw these guys was in July 1969 and we had been led to believe that the series would close out the Sixties, but clearly we are somewhere in the Seventies and just how far we’ve gone into the Seventies doesn’t become apparent until the last five minutes of the show.

The next scene is also disorienting: Don and a mustachioed Roger, wearing tuxes and squiring models, are in a diner that could have been painted by Edward Hopper; it’s such a throwback to the Forties that Roger calls the waitress “Mildred Piece,” the title character from a James Cain novel that was made into a Joan Crawford movie. Even more surprising, Don, who once hid his background, is forthrightly regaling the ladies with stories of his “uncle” Mack and stepmother Abigail – stories that he once would have considered shameful.

This outing, with Roger squiring two women, is a call-back to Season One, when he brought a pair of party girl twins to the Sterling Cooper offices to celebrate Labor Day and ended up with a heart attack. And so it goes – one reminder after another of bad behaviors from previous seasons. Don’s stewardess friend spills wine on the white carpet in his apartment and starts to clean it up in her underwear, just as Megan cleaned the carpet in her underwear after Don’s 40th birthday party. When Peggy proposes that she and Stevie fly to Paris, it recalls Don trying to get his beatnik mistress Midge to go to Paris with him after he got his big bonus.

The biggest throwback of all is his dream about Rachel Menken, with whom he had a passionate affair in Season One. Don has frequently had visions of the recently departed (Bert Cooper, Anna Draper, his brother Adam) and when tries to set up a business meeting with her the next day, he discovers that she just died, which temporarily shakes him out of his spiral of drinking and catting about.

Instead of going to a pre-Vogue party at Ted’s Greenwich Village pad (remember that Don lived in Greenwich Village after his own divorce), he goes to Rachel’s apartment, where the family is sitting Shiva.   He is confronted by Rachel’s sister Barbara, who apparently still bears a grudge against him for an affair that took place ten years earlier. “How is your family?” she asks, sticking the knife in, reminding him that he dared to seduce her sister while still married. She then twists the knife by pronouncing that Rachel “lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.”

This is probably the most important line in the show because it implies that you actually can live the live you want to live – which is something that everyone else on the show is struggling to achieve. Consider these examples:

  • Ken hates his job and is encouraged by his wife to quit and follow his passion for writing so he doesn’t end up like her father. She begs him to write a novel that is “sad and sweet for all the people who don’t have the guts to live their dreams.” He’s about to do it, but is fired by a vindictive ex-boss at McCann, and rather than take the severance, which would have funded his novel-writing, gets the head advertising job at his father-in-law’s old firm – Dow Chemical – so he can torture Pete and Roger as their client. It’s sweet revenge, but also sad because it probably means now he’ll never write that novel. Getting fired, Ken tells Don, was a sign – a sign of the life not lived.
  • Peggy has never been to Paris. In fact, she’s never had a vacation at all. Impulsively she hooks up with Mathis’ brother-in-law and suggests that they fly off to Paris, but then can’t find her passport, which is in the office, her real home. The next morning, hung-over and probably embarrassed by letting her guard down, she says she won’t get on an airplane with a man she barely knows. It sounds like fun, Stan says. Nothing that a couple of aspirin won’t fix, she replies.
  • Pete, back in New York after the buy-out from McCann, tells Ken that he thought he was changing his life by going to California, but now it seems like a dream. He’s also as dissatisfied as ever, complaining that his $3 million pay-out doesn’t make him feel rich because he’s getting it in increments to avoid the high tax rates.
  • Nothing much has changed with Joan either. Despite getting her own pay-out, better title, and more responsibility. She’s still getting demeaned by men because of her looks, and rather than rethinking her attitude she decides to address her hurt feelings with a shopping spree, at Bonwit Teller, where her salesgirl kills her buzz by reminding her that she used to work there herself – and not in the distant past either.

I wonder, though, if Barbara is right that Rachel really did live the life she wanted to live. It’s clearly the life that Barbara wanted her to live – married with children to a Jewish man. Utterly conventional. Is it true that Rachel never dreamed of a more exiting life with a more dashing man? Did she never ask “Is that all there is?” We’ll never know for sure now, but one thing we do know is that it’s devilishly difficult to decide how to live, given our conflicting ambitions, fears, and abilities.

I can’t really blame Ken for not quitting to write a novel. I know lots of people who have written novels, some published and some not, and none can support themselves – or more importantly, their families – on their writing alone. As the sole support for his family, he has to worry about their well-being; his wife’s suggestion that they buy a farm so he can write is completely unfeasible. The severance, though, might have seen him through it, but his ego and desire for revenge turned out to be more powerful than his dream.   There are only six episodes of Mad Men left – we will see if any of these other characters are able to break free of the mind-chains that keep them in lives of quiet desperation.

Some other thoughts:

  • This episode takes place during the last week of April 1970. It was torture for Matt Weiner to withhold this information until the end, when we see Don watching President Nixon’s speech about the Cambodian invasion, which occurred on Thursday April 30, 1970. At this point, Nixon had been President for 15 months and the war in Vietnam had become massively unpopular. Nixon was starting to withdraw troops (a process that wouldn’t end until April 1975 with the evacuation of Saigon) but he decided to invade neighboring Cambodia, where the Viet Cong were hiding arms and launching strikes against the American-backed South Vietnamese government, hoping to gain some time for the South Vietnamese to get their act together. This speech set off huge demonstrations on college campuses across the U.S. culminated in the Kent State shootings on May 5, when four students were shot by National Guard troops. Then on May 8, construction workers in Manhattan converged upon and beat-up anti-war demonstrators, in a counter-revolt by the Great Silent Majority.  After that most colleges shut down for the year and few even had graduations in 1970. This is not a criticism, but you’d never guess that from this episode that this was one of the most convulsive and divisive periods in American history. Instead this is one of these episodes that takes place completely divorced from historical context.

  • The appalling scene where Peggy and Joan go to McCann Erickson to try to get them to set up a meeting between Topaz and Macy’s did more to illustrate the way men demeaned women in the workplace than even those office scenes back in the 1960’s, when the flirtation seemed to be at least partly two-way. The only thing that comes out of those assholes’ mouths are double entendres, and instead of bantering back with them, Peggy and Joan have to respond professionally until they get what they want. But the confrontation in the elevator afterward is classic – another call-back to the confrontations between Joan and Peggy in Season One, when Peggy failed to follow Joan’s fashion advice and still got promoted. Joan has always resented Peggy for getting ahead without using her sexuality — and I’m not sure that Joan telling Peggy she’s not attractive enough to be sexually harassed is all that much better than what the McCann assholes said. This elevator ride was as uncomfortable as the one in Season Four after Peggy fired Joey for posting demeaning pictures of Joan in the office. Instead of being grateful Joan excoriated her (“So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.”) Of course Peggy set Joan off by pointing out that she dresses provocatively, which I suppose can be construed as blaming the victim, although I think she has a point that Joan is trying to have it both ways, by using sexuality when it suits her but trying to pretend she’s only being professional.
  • Interesting the characters who weren’t in the episode. Very few of the women: no Betty, Megan, Sally or Trudy. Also, no sign of Lou Avery, who’s office Don is now occupying again, nor Jim Cutler. The show is slowly phasing out the characters: Bob Benson to Oldsmobile; Bert Cooper to his heavenly reward; and now Ken to Dow Chemical. I had thought we’d seen the past of Megan too, but then she showed up in the promos for this year, so I’m not so sure. In any event, with six episodes left, I don’t think there’s time to give a final send-off to everyone.
  • Just a reminder of another call-back to early seasons – Topaz was the client that Peggy landed back at the end of Season four, when Don was off at Disneyland proposing to Megan. She claimed that winning the account saved the firm (almost but not quite) but that all anyone wanted to talk about was Don’s impending marriage.
  • There’s obviously resentment between those who got the big pay-out from the McCann deal and those who didn’t. Both Peggy and Ken express bitterness about this to Joan and Pete respectively.
  • What was going on between Don and the waitress was difficult to understand, but what happened is that when he came back to see her, she thought he had come to collect the benefits from the $100 tip that Roger had left. After their encounter in the alley the waitress (Di – nice name in a episode consumed with death) tells him that he got his $100 worth.
  • Funniest line on Twitter last night: “There should be an old guy in the diner saying, ‘I’ll have what he’s having.’”
  • Many comments on Twitter last night about Ted coming to Don with binders of women, an apparent on Mitt Romney’s debate faux pas.
  • Not satisfied with discriminating against just blacks and Jews, the Sterling Cooper folks apparently have a thing about the Irish too. Ken says that he didn’t fit in at McCann because “I’m not Irish, I’m not Catholic, and I can read.” And Roger observes that as his father would say, Ferg Donnelly “really puts the Mick in McCann.” Not that those guys don’t deserve it.
  • Peggy’s date Stevie seems OK, but I have to say, if he never thought about the implications of his brother-in-law being named Johnny Mathis, he’s not very imaginative.
  • Peggy gets drunk on Galliano – there’s a bottle of it there on the table at the restaurant. That really brings me back – it’s a sweet Italian liqueur and in the early 70’s my mother had a big bottle of it in the house. If Peggy had more than one glass, it’s no wonder she’s hung over.

Next week’s episode is called “New Business,” which what every agency dreams of. The coming attractions were notoriously opaque as ever but I did glimpse a scene of Don in Betty’s kitchen with Bobby and a friend. What that will entail is anyone’s guess.



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