In which it’s a sign of the life not lived.
(C’mon now, you didn’t think that you’d be rid of my personal Mad Men odyssey/vision quest this easily did you? So yeah, hot on the heels of my award-winning Season 1 literary hoedown, I’ve decided to jump ahead ten years and chronicle the final seven episodes of the show as they air. There’ll be a few changes, of course. Probably far less teaching anecdotes, although who knows what connections might pop up. I don’t have DVR…yeah, I know….get with the 21st century and all….so if I intend to post each new essay the day after its episode airs, I might be a bit limited in terms of granular specifics. Although if something warrants enough attention, I could always wait and use the on demand version of the episode. And I’m currently rewatching Season 3 as well, so pardon me if some confusion sets in. Anyway, you get the point. Some of these essays will involve a bit more of me flying blind. But I hope you dig them anyway.)
Some of the most indelible moments in the history of Mad Men are those which are seemingly the most un-Mad Men like. For a show that trades in glossy realism, it’s those moments in which a sense of the uncanny creeps around the edges, in which a profound sense of chaos and fluidity lurks underneath the cool logic of ’60s New York…those are the snapshots out of time that really take up residence underneath your skin. It’s a tack that Matt Weiner borrowed from his old stomping grounds at The Sopranos, which often took the conceit to episode-swallowing dreamscape lengths. And it’s why “Severance”, the first of the final seven episodes of the show, has stuck with me since last night.
The later seasons of Mad Men remind me very much of the deep run of The Sopranos. In their early going, both shows establish fairly solid chains of causality, gradually crafting plot threads that pay off in some way or another (or at least leave the audience hanging.) It’s a fairly standard method for a new show, a way to immerse viewers in the world without too much confusion (David Simon famously disagreed, as witnessed in his “throw ‘em in the deep end and make ‘em swim” approach to plotting in Season 1 of The Wire.) But as time marches on, the narrative flow in both shows becomes much more diffuse. Motivations are more muddled, and the payoffs often come without a clear setup provided to the viewer. In The Sopranos, this chaotic element reflected the free-ranging uncertainty of a mobster’s life, as death might lay wait around any corner. The chaos and sense of the uncanny that haunts later seasons of Mad Men can be directly connected to the cultural tumult of the ‘60s, as previously sacrosanct ideologies and logical structures began to fray and crumble. But on a philosophical level, each show also breaks things apart as a reflection of its main character’s journey into the self, and all the dark and unpredictable corners that reside within.
“Severance” is a prime example of this sense of a collapsing center, especially in its narrative thrust. The events of the episode seem to be slightly disjointed, as we’re thrown into a world almost a year removed from the events of “Waterloo”, and presented with plot threads that seem to be more a series of happenings than a tightly constructed assemblage of scenes working together to set up the last hours of this fictional world. Don and Roger are both back to hanging and banging with models. The moment of growth, revelation, and sacrifice that Roger experienced after Bert Cooper’s death seems to have passed, as he gladly plays the hatchet man in following the McCann Erickson directive to fire Ken Cosgrove (as payback for his abandonment of McCann for SCDP long after the PPL purchase.) Ted, such an integral character to the past few seasons, is now relegated to a few minor bits of business (although, granted, he did want to scale back his involvement with the biz at the end of “Waterloo.”)
And even amidst the jump cut logic of the narrative, it all seems like business as usual. But there again is that creeping sense that it’s not. The title of the episode might directly refer to the offer given to Ken upon his firing (and his father-in-law’s retirement), but so many of the characters in this April 1970 world are coming to an end of some sort or another. Take Joan, whose rise to partner status has finally given her the wealth, security, and power (especially in the wake of the McCann buyout) that she’s yearned for all these years. And yet, when she and Peggy meet with three McCann reps to discuss financial support for Topaz pantyhose, they’re literally treated as pieces of meat (a mirroring of the Wilkinson Fur casting call that opens the episode, in which the line between genuine seduction, advertising, objectification, fantasy, and about a hundred other different things is blurred.) It’s a shocking display of overt misogyny; Joan has always garnered her share of flirtations from men in the office, but the nasty directness of these three schlubs lacks any of the vintage bawdiness that the show has so often playfully critiqued.
In the early days of the show, Joan’s power came from how skillfully she manipulated the sexist instincts of the men around her, even if she inflated the heft of some of that power for her own survival. But ten years on, she’s in her early 40’s, and clearly growing tired of her sex symbol status (and still dealing with the emotional scars of being raped by her one-time fiancée, and sleeping with a Jaguar executive to secure the account and her partnership.) In a telling (and perhaps long-coming) reversal, Peggy is the one who rebukes her laments about the male gaze by telling her that “You can’t dress the way you do.” In 1960, it was Joan breaking Peggy in to the Sterling Cooper culture by advising her to play up her sexuality, but now the pupil has turned on the teacher. Christina Hendricks’s hyper-sexualized physique has always been an icon of the show’s gender politics, but as the narrative cycle draws to a close, it’s become as much of a trap as Don’s carefully maintained cool.
And speaking of our brooding anti-hero, despite his ascendance back to the throne of Creative Director and partner, he’s experiencing his own series of severances. His marriage to Megan, which slowly dissolved over the previous season and a half, is in the midst of its official divorce. And when an attempt to reconnect with Rachel Menken nee Katz unexpectedly results in his learning of her death from Leukemia the week before, it’s a shattering moment for Don. In my essay for Season 1’s “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, I noted the tragedy of Rachel reducing her affair with Don to nothing more than a fling, as even back then it was obvious that a deeper spiritual connection existed between these star-crossed lovers. Through six subsequent seasons, Don has tried and failed to match that connection to a fellow outsider, but there’s been nothing to match the searing emotions he felt when with her. When he visits her wake and sees her young children, it’s a knockout blow to his psyche, almost equaling the breakdown he experienced in Season 1 when he tried to convince her to run away with him to a new life.
And here’s where that world just beyond our view. lurking around the edges, really comes into play. As Ken says when telling Don about the seeming coincidence of his firing directly following his father-in-law’s retirement and his wife’s pleading with him to finally return to his writing career, it’s “a sign of the life not lived.” Regret has always played a major role in Mad Men, but at the end of its cycle we see characters seemingly at the peak of their professional lives looking back on what could’ve been. As Ken briefs him on the accounts that he’ll assume, Pete laments his time in California, how it seemed like a perfect reinvention of his frustrated existence (which stemmed, in part, from his doomed romance with Beth in Season 6.) Peggy laments the life she sacrificed for advancement in the ad world by spontaneously asking blind date Stevie to fly to Paris with her, but by the next morning she’s regretting that decision as a drunken folly, an alternate life to be discarded (it’s notable that she delayed their trip because of a lost passport, which she finds in her desk at SCP.)
And the life that Don might’ve had with Rachel, the one that he’s shoved into the back of his consciousness all of these years, the one that clearly haunts him to this day. Early in the episode, he dreams that she’s the next model auditioning for the Wilkinson campaign (Maggie Siff makes a surprise cameo). Dreamworld Ted says to him “this is another girl”, and even as this Rachel tells Don that “you’ve missed your flight”, all he can muster in return is “You’re not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth.” When Ted morphs into Pete (who tells him “Back to work”) it shocks Don awake, and when he eventually learns of her death, he’s convinced that his dream somehow prefigured it. And fearful that, as his dream was warning, he convinced himself that Rachel was just another in a long line of conquests, when she was really something so much more.
Which introduces the most enigmatic plot point of “Severance”: the mysterious waitress, played by Elizabeth Reaser. When Don first meets her at the diner, during his afterhours meal with Roger and the models, he’s struck by a nagging sense of familiarity; it’s that tugging at the boundaries of consciousness, previously symbolized in mostly flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations, that eats away at him in his more private moments. But his reaction to the waitress is like that of someone seeing a ghost, or some of their existential concerns from the dream world taking physical form. His return to see her a second time results in the two of them copulating in the alley behind the diner, while a third visit (in search of some enlightenment after Rachel’s death) entails her warning Don to bring a date the next time.
Ted might not have a lot to do in this episode, but one of his seemingly throwaway lines has stuck with me: “There are three women in every man’s life.” He says it in an attempt to avoid picking one fur model from the final three. But it might be the key to Don’s meetings with the waitress, and to his life. You could say that he’s had three true loves in Betty, Rachel, and Megan (the wife, the mistress, and the dream.) His three visits to the waitress can be seen to symbolize the three standard stages of his romantic life: fascination, lust, and rejection. (And much like the other women who truly fascinate Don, the waitress is both a brunette and an outsider.) In The Sopranos, David Chase showed a fascination with the number three (especially in how 3am is supposed to be the hour of ghosts), so maybe Matt Weiner is picking up that thread as well (there are also three McCann reps to sexually harass Joan and Peggy.) Or maybe I’m overthinking all of this.
The other symbolic significance of the waitress might be in her reading of John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel, one third of his famed U.S.A. Trilogy. That metafictional triptych uses the impact of World War I to offer a pointed critique of capitalism, offering up characters whose financial success only lead to dehumanization. (Note: I’ve never read any Dos Passos, so my knowledge of all of this is somewhat limited to some rudimentary research.) It’s somewhat of an obvious signifier (Roger pointedly references her book during their first meeting), but it also lends a sense of the uncanny to her presence in this episode, one which has yet to be explained. Don clearly sees her (just as he’s seen previous outsider women, just as many of us see complete strangers) as an outlet for his emotions. And when she tells him that “when people die, everything gets mixed up” and that “maybe you dreamed about her (Rachel) all the time”, she takes on a shamanistic importance for him. She’s the profundity that can be found in the mundane, or maybe, much like Don himself, someone hiding behind more easily stereotyped veneer. Her presence is a glimpse for Don, out of the corner of his eye, of something he’s been ignoring for a long time.
In the end, just as so many times before, Don is left alone and shaken, sitting in the diner to contemplate his existence, to the strains of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” (which also opens the episode as an ironic counterpoint to the erotic stylings of the Wilkinson fur auditions.) As that lyric opines “I’m in no hurry for the final disappointment.” But maybe the most instructive line of the episode comes from Ken’s wife, who when trying to convince him to return to writing (although he ultimately even rejects that life not lived to become Dow Chemical’s Head of Advertising) says his book should be “something sad and sweet, for all those people who don’t have the guts to follow their dream.” In the end, we’re left with Don once again in a state of deep melancholy, his sadness tempering the sweet smell of his success, his dreams of another life so far away.