Mad Men episode titles may leave you guessing at first, but usually by the time it’s over, the title’s meaning has revealed itself and often in a subtly clever way. But
a week has two weeks have now passed, and I still don’t know what “Severance” is supposed to mean, though it could easily refer to the way the show cut all ties with the 1960s, leaving some of the most juicy events of post-moon landing 1969 untouched in order to fast forward to April, 1970.
This move was a brilliant piece of stagecraft by Matthew Weiner. Everybody was trying to guess what he was going to do with Manson, Woodstock, Altamont, and Don’s New York Mets. But Weiner just skipped it altogether, taking the great leap forward to the last days of April 1970. There are only seven shows left; why not use that time to resolve characters’ story arcs rather than replaying highlight reels of one the 20th Century’s already most familiar eras?
“Severance” has a specific meaning in the workplace context, and one of the original Season One cast members was indeed fired this week. He was offered a generous severance package as a reward for falling on his own sword without making a scene, but his severance per se was never really a plot point.
Severance also has a more visceral context. Severed limbs, severed arteries, severed connections. These ideas are present in the episode, but the real title of this mini-season debut should be “Is That All There Is.” This 1969 Peggy Lee recording dominates the show, opening it, closing it, and featuring as background music during a scene. No other song has started and finished an episode of Mad Men before.
This song is so quintessentially Mad Men that it’s no surprise to learn that Matthew Weiner had intended to use it as the show’s theme song at some point. Indeed, “Is That All There Is” is the perfect question for us and the main characters to ask ourselves as the series starts its final run.
The song is from late 1969, which places us in the correct timeline, but more than that, “Is That All There Is” is a 1969 song that sounds nothing like 1969. It already seemed dated when it came out. There’s nothing heavy or groovy about this song. It would sound completely in place for a Season One episode of Mad Men.
A lot of things felt like Season One in this episode, starting with Don Draper himself. The action opens in what appears to be an intimate moment between Don and a young woman rubbing a fur playfully over her body.
“That’s chinchilla. It costs $15,000. How does that make you feel?” Don prods her in his bedroom voice.
“You’re not supposed to talk,” he shushes her when she tries to respond. “Show me how you feel.” The camera pulls back to reveal they’re in a boardroom, not a bedroom. A gaggle of other executives are present. It’s a casting call for a pantyhose ad, and there is a roomful of hopeful models each waiting their turn.
In the next scene, Don, Roger and three of the casting call models are slumming it over late night breakfast in an all-night diner. This is our first look at Roger, and frankly it’s a shocker. It’s amazing how much a mustache can transform a face. It’s transformed Roger from a silver fox like Timothy Leary into Oliver Wendell Holmes or Mark Twain, or maybe even Mister Moneybags from the Monopoly board.
Although Don just got through telling the table about his days growing up in a “boarding house,” it is their retreating 40-ish waitress with a paperback copy of John Dos Passos peeking out of her apron pocket that is the real focus of Don’s attention.
“Do I know you??” he asks imploringly.
“No, you don’t,” she answers, and goes back behind the counter to read her book.
Don is still trying to place her, until…”Hey Mildred Pierce!” Roger barks to get the waitress’ attention, demonstrating the entitled alpha male’s penchant for coming up with the perfect nickname at the right time no matter how cruel and demeaning. Roger ruined Don’s moment and mugged the waitress of her dignity, turning out her carefully guarded emotions like picked pockets solely for the amusement of his dining companions.
After chiding the models over how much the group breakfast cost (eleven dollars) and how they should split the bill five ways, Roger drops a hundred dollar bill on the table to pay off the waitress now that he’s done with her. This crude parlor trick accomplishes two things: It shows Roger’s dates that he is so powerful he can humiliate people with impunity, and so rich he can toss around hundred dollar bills like Kleenex to wipe up whatever mess he makes.
Wait, did I just imply that Roger was an alpha male even though Don was in the room? Perhaps I did. The difference is, Roger has to constantly work for it, to draw attention to himself by demeaning others, whereas Don’s natural charisma automatically draws people to him. We missed the story of his poverty-stricken youth Don had been telling his table companions, but it was probably a good one, without being cruel to the boardinghouse characters of his childhood. We can imagine that in an intimate diner like the one they’re in, whatever story Don is telling can be easily overheard by the waitress.
The Dick Whitman story is basically a John Dos Passos novel in itself. Is Don playing to the back of the room, telling his childhood story so that the waitress will hear? He certainly spends the rest of the episode trying to get her attention and make her like him. But to her, Don is just another Roger, and that smarts.
That little vignette at the diner confirms something the previous season finale suggested: The merger went through and the partners are all filthy rich. Don and Roger are so rich, in fact, that money has no meaning to them anymore. They pay ten-dollar tabs with $100 bills because it’s easier than asking for change. With their net worth, money doesn’t just buy things, it buys privilege. At the diner Don pulled out a flask there at the table and topped off his date’s coffee. That’s a move for people who don’t have to worry what anyone thinks, as is the “f-you” mustache Roger decided to grow.
Back at the firm, all the (male) partners seem to feel it. Remember Ted Chaough, who dropped his burgeoning affair with Peggy because he felt guilty about abandoning his family, and who so hated his canned life as an advertising executive that he was taking clients up in his plane and cutting the engines in mid-flight to feel alive?
Well, that Ted Chaough has gone AWOL. The new Ted Chaough sports the Moneybags mustache and has as much fun, if not more, with the casting calls (they might as well call them casting couches) as Don and Roger. The first time we see Ted he’s entering the daily casting call carrying binders full of women all vying for the part, and announces to Don and Roger that there will be another model party at his place that night, adding strangely that “hemlines are going up!”
When Mad Men kicks off a new season, they keep whatever time jump and character development has taken place between the seasons purposefully vague, letting the reveal unfold as part of the viewer experience. In this episode, we don’t get our first anchor date until near the end, when Don sits in front of the TV and watches the speech Nixon gave on April 30, 1970. Beyond that, our only hints as to the timeline are that L’eggs pantyhose are making impressive sales gains and mustaches seem to be in.
Another way Mad Men likes to keep us guessing is by presenting Don in a fugue state. We never quite know whether he’s dreaming, fantasizing, hallucinating, or having another real-life experience we mere mortals can only imagine. Sometimes when he snaps out of these experiences he finds himself face down in a swimming pool or staring into the abyss of an elevator shaft. Sometimes he’s at work or in a motel room.
Really, this whole episode is nothing but a fugue state for Don. He’s present in the real world for parts of the show, but barely. For the whole hour we walk the fine line with Don Draper between reality and surreality, never certain if there’s a safety net below.
The show quickly establishes that, on the surface level, Don Draper has everything. He’s got the merger money. Women continue to throw themselves at him at such a high rate that he’s now got an answering service just for booty calls, and for the first time, he’s a legitimate bachelor. There’s no wife to hide from. At work, he’s still got the Draper magic. We see this when Joan is already waiting for Don with an urgent problem to discuss when he arrives at his office. The bottom has fallen out of the pantyhose market, and their client, Topaz, is hemorrhaging profits to the upstart L’eggs.
Don has an instant solution: Brand Topaz pantyhose with a department store like Macy’s. Et voila. What is an urgent crisis for Joan, something she has to wait all day to see Don about, he manages to solve between the time he enters his office and the time he grabs a seat at his desk, without even breaking stride.
Don Draper is at the peak of his game. This is a man who has it all. He’s not even afraid to talk about his secret past anymore, as his diner anecdote showed. But, once you have everything, the inevitable next question becomes: ‘Is That All There Is?’
Don’s fugue state begins right there in the diner. The whole scene is eerily time-travelly. They’re sitting in an old-fashioned booth, being served by an old-fashioned waitress, Roger’s got an 1890s mustache, but they’re cavorting with these modern day lingerie models.
The girl with Don tells him, “freshen up my drink, will ya?” He wordlessly pulls out a flask and Irishes her coffee. That right there is a scene straight out of a 1930s novella, and yet nobody arches a brow over how improbable the scene seems in 1970 Manhattan. When it opens Don is telling Dick Whitman stories, regaling the group with tales about the deprivation and squalor of the Depression-era “boarding house” family he grew up with. Don is such a made man now that having his secret past revealed can’t do him any harm.
The next scene is a hard cut from the ‘30s diner to Don opening the door on his modern penthouse bachelor pad, which he takes in with an expression on his face that so clearly says, “this is not my beautiful house.” But just for an instant. Don then calls his answering service to see who’s been trying to reach him that day. Three (or is it four?) women. Don opts for the stewardess, whom we briefly met when Don was bicoastal last season. In a nice trick of the camera, the skimpily clad stewardess instantly shows up at Don’s door the moment he hangs up the phone, just like a Playboy fantasy.
“This is not my beautiful wife.”
Inside his bedroom, Don grabs the stewardess around the waist from behind, causing her glass of burgundy wine to splatter like blood across his plush white carpet. In response, Don tears the expensive-looking bedspread off his bed and throws it down over the wet rug, where he proceeds to ravish the stewardess.
At some point, she reaches down to see what’s poking her in the back and finds a glitzy earring. “That belongs to my second ex-wife,” Don more or less says, before they toss it aside with a laugh. A year ago at this time, Don was grabbing Megan around the waist and she was serving him breakfast on the penthouse balcony. A few years before that, she was on all fours in her underwear just like the stewardess, cleaning up a spill in fact, and saving their marriage for the first of many times. Now, Megan is reduced to an earring that got left on the floor.
That placement is interesting. It suggests that Don didn’t mark the end of his marriage with Megan by changing the furniture and washing her out of his carpet. There’s no burning of sage or symbolic cleansing. It’s still the Draper bachelor pad just like it was before Megan showed up. He keeps bringing home new women to leave their mark on his floor, and just keeps throwing down a fresh sheet for the next one, like one of those disposable toilet liners. The bedpost ran out of room for new notches years ago.
Later that night, Don receives a visit from Rachel Menken, his long lost fling of Season One. She does the same thing with the fur that he had the model do in the opening scene. That time, we panned out to reveal that Don’s intimate moment was actually a casting call in an executive boardroom. This time, we realize that the scene takes place within Don’s head. He’s having a dream.
“I’m supposed to tell you, you missed your flight,” Rachel says enigmatically.
“You’re not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth!” Don says back, as sincerely as he possibly can. Pete is there to see Rachel out, after which he turns to Don and leers, “Back to work.” Pete looks amazing in this scene, glinty-eyed and fiendish, channeling Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I never realized before what a great zombie or vampire Pete Campbell would make.
Don’s through line has been decidedly surrealistic throughout the whole episode, but this is the first time we’re certain he’s dreaming. It gets weirder when he shows up at work the next morning and asks his secretary Meredith to put him in touch with the Menken Department Store people. Don initially takes his dream of Rachel as a signal that he should reach out to Menken’s for the proposed pantyhose merger, the idea he suggests to Joan. But Don soon learns that Rachel has in fact died, probably on the night he dreamt of her.
With that revelation, “I’m supposed to tell you, you missed your flight” takes on a whole new significance. Searching for answers, we see Don skulking into another dimly lit room of uncertain time or place. It turns out to be the home where the Menken family is sitting shiva for Rachel.
Rachel’s sister Barbara meets him at the door. The look on her face when she realizes who Don is lets us know the effect he had on Rachel. In no mood to console him, Barbara tells Don that Rachel lived the life she wanted to live. “She had everything.” No thanks to you, the tone implies. Don sees two young children and asks if they are Rachel’s. Yes, the sister says, before telling him there’s nothing more for him to see there.
THE WHORE’S SON
Still searching for answers, Don shows up at the retro diner again. The waitress Di is there. She remembers Don but is not particularly excited about his return. Nonetheless, she loosens her apron string, walks out back, leans up against a brick wall, lights up a cigarette, and waits impatiently for him to come out so they can have a quickie.
This may be the most unexpected scene in the episode. Is it a dream? Is it real? It’s real enough for Don Draper, that’s for sure. His fugue state wanderings end in sex as often as not. The whole thing feels more romantic than sleazy, but that’s because we’re seeing it from Don’s point of view, and for Don this is life itself. Only when Di treats him contemptuously afterward, like a john, do we realize that to her this was nothing but the completion of a financial transaction that began when she found Roger’s $100 bill on the table the other night and assumed Don must have been the one who left it (he of the “Say, don’t I know you from somewhere” routine), with the intent of coming back when he was alone.
After this scene, I’m even more convinced that the diner is some sort of magic time portal. The way Di hastily adjusts her hair and apron is pure 1930s bordello, like the kind Don grew up in. The way Don follows Di in afterward and combs his well-pomaded hair is also a retro move from another decade. She’s probably wearing a girdle underneath it all, and you know he’s got a hip flask. It may be 1970 Manhattan out there, but in this diner it’s another world entirely.
There is no Don Draper in there, only Dick Whitman, whore’s son, the boy brought up in Uncle Mack’s bordello. Those were the terms on which he learned to deal with the world, and those are the terms with which he plies his trade in Manhattan. It starts in scene one with him coaching the model on how to disrobe sexily from her $15,000 fur, telling her not to talk because that ruins it. It’s a lot like the relationship between the strippers and the club owner on Showgirls.
Later, when he talks to the woman in charge of his answering service, he asks her who’s on the menu tonight and jokes about hitting her up for a date later, treating her more like a madam than a phone operator. He sounds an awful lot like someone who knows his way around bordello society, which is why it’s a surprise that he was so blindsided by the reason Di led him out back for a quickie. He thought he was having another one of his steamy Draper affairs, while she thought of it as a purely financial transaction.
Of course, we have our reasons to think of Di as something other than a lady of the evening. A real bordello pro would have pocketed that first hundred and made Don pay again if he came back. Or, conversely, if she was trying to turn him into a regular she wouldn’t have told him to beat it afterwards. She’d tell him to come back and see her again sometime. But Di is not like the others. The John Dos Passos book in her apron pocket tells us that.
Why did Di do it then? Was she so caught up in the classist struggle of the Dos Passos novel that she saw Roger, Don, and herself as characters in it? They, the two domineering tyrants, she the marginalized prole?
Roger was certainly playing his part. What hurts Don is that Di thought of him that way too, when all he really wanted was to bond with her and find out why she seemed so familiar to him.
MUSES AND MOTHER FIGURES
By now, we’re well aware of the Don Draper blonde/brunette dichotomy. The brunettes are his muse, and the blondes are his sex objects. The brunettes represent his biological and adoptive mother, and the blondes represent Aimee, the sex worker who took his virginity at the bordello. The exception is Dr. Faye and Megan. Dr. Faye was fair-haired, but she was the woman who Don respected, and Megan was the babysitter he left her for.
In this episode, the models and stewardesses he sleeps with are blondes, while the apparition of Rachel Menken and the apparition-like waitress Di, both brunettes, are clearly his mother figures.
I had a much easier time with Rachel appearing in a dream than I did with Di dropping her apron for Don, then trying to shoo him out of the diner, before finally turning into some sort of oracle who reads his fortune. Her character on this show creates more questions than it answers, and we should be wrapping it up at this point, not creating new storylines.
IS THAT ALL THERE IS?
At this point a lot of people are asking if Rachel’s ominous words about missing his flight were meant to tell us and Don that she, Rachel, was the one he shouldn’t have let get away.
I don’t think so. If Don had married her, he would be a widower now. The fact that Rachel died of leukemia at age 40 and left two young children seems to mean “Is That All There Is” works just as well as a theme song for the people who choose the straight and narrow as it does for the Mad Men themselves.
Instead, Rachel is a symbol for all of Don’s ephemeral brunettes. She is the ghost of Draper past, showing him what he threw away. She works well in this particular storyline because of the pantyhose tie-in and because it’s always nice to bookend a Season One character in the final stretch when you can.
It’s notable that after telling him he missed his flight, there was a point in Don’s dream when he had one moment of Rachel’s undivided attention, and all he could do was blurt out, “You’re not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth!” in his account-pitching voice. This is how Don thinks she sees him, as just a pitch man with a pretty face. This is probably how he sees himself.
On the surface, Don’s never had it better. He’s rolling in dough, success, and blondes, but he’s all alone in this episode, and he fails to win the respect of the only women he reaches out to, Di and Rachel (and Rachel’s sister).
After Don’s dream of Rachel, the action hard cuts to an eggshell being cracked open on a hard surface. But this isn’t breakfast at a sleazy diner. The egg is plastic, and its contents are a pair of shriveled nylons that spill out limply like a burnt omelet onto the boardroom table.
The L’eggs storyline presents an interesting milestone in the annals of marketing. The secret to L’eggs success is that they have taken an upscale department store item and begun targeting it to women in supermarkets and drugstores, using the catchy eggshell packaging as bait.
1970 is a watershed year. Not a lot of milestones happened in it, like in 1968 and 1969, but it is the year historians use to mark the end of an era: The Post-WW2 economic boom. No group of people was as symbolic of that postwar prosperity as the Mad Men, the real Madison Avenue advertisers who inspired the characters of Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Peggy Olson.
These real life Mad Men were seen as the gurus of the 1950s and 60s, when the American economy went through twenty-five years of postwar expansion, when that curious thing called the American Middle Class was born. What defined this middle class was an economic confidence, a discretionary income that allowed them to finally dare to live the American Dream the way it was supposed to be lived. The Mad Men did more than just package and sell them that dream. The Mad Men invented the language and taught them how to speak it.
1970 is the year they say this boom reached its high water mark and began to recede. From the 1970s onward, advertising men would not be the rock stars they once were. They would be ad men, not Mad Men. 1970 also serves as the marker for the death of the American city. We are entering an era when downtown department stores aren’t glamorous anymore, but museum-like curiosities in the hearts of the post-apocalyptic cities that people who live in suburbs are afraid to enter now.
Those times have now arrived on this series as the firm is forced to contend with selling cheap hosiery from revolving racks in supermarkets. The golden era of the Mad Men is over.
GOLF CLUBS AND POP TARTS (IS THAT REALLY ALL THERE IS?)
Speaking of revisiting Season One storylines, our old pal Ken Cosgrove and his wife Cynthia are back. For the first time in a long time, we get a look at his home life. Ken and Cynthia are celebrating the retirement of her father, Ed Baxter, a longtime account man for Dow Corning who is finally hanging up his hat after a lifetime in business.
Ed Baxter is played by the inimitable Ray Wise, best known as Leland from Twin Peaks. Like Leland, Ed Baxter is wound tight and about to blow a gasket at any moment. Ed is a guy who’s getting ready to go off into his golden years, but his twitchiness, tics, dead eyes, and barely contained rage suggest anything but contentment.
Ken clumsily plops a bag of golf clubs at Ed’s feet as a retirement present, the most expensive and therefore best golf clubs money can buy. But the clubs look and sound clunky, rattling around in their bag like small change in a coffee can. The clubs will almost certainly be assigned to a dark corner of the garage and forgotten about until Ed dies and they cart all his stuff off to Goodwill.
Ed assures his daughter and son-in-law that he’s developing plenty of new interests in anticipation of his retirement–cooking for example. Why, he made a Pop Tart just the other day.
Pop Tarts are always a fun reference because they are shorthand for the empty calories of the American Dream. But from the perspective of the Mad Men, Pop Tarts are a textbook example of a marketing triumph. Every one of us knows exactly what a Pop Tart is and what you’re supposed to do with it. We know this even if we never ate a Pop Tart. This is because kids’ TV was saturated with ads for the product, and they were good ads.
It wasn’t the Pop Tarts we liked so much as Milton the Toaster. Whether we knew it or not, Milton was the medium between the cartoon world we were watching and the kitchen we were watching it in. We wanted badly to jump through the TV and into cartoonland. That wasn’t possible, but according to Milton the animated toaster, cartoonland could jump through to our world via the Pop Tart. And he made a strong case. Just look at how happy those kids are in the TV commercial with him.
When you take away Milton, the happy kids, and the festive packaging, what you’re left with is a dull leaden foil packet containing a pair of starch shingles with a thin smear of colored sugar paste on top. The Pop Tart filling is a napalm-like substance that, once activated by the toaster, stays molten for much more time than you actually have to eat breakfast. You’re better off just eating them at room temp, making Milton the Toaster entirely redundant. Pop Tarts probably started out as surplus rations from the backyard bomb shelter era that people like Peggy and Don figured out how to market to children. And boy did they ever figure out how to.
THE LOVE OF THE GAME
“My dad’s so old,” Cynthia laments once she and Ken are alone. Her father’s act fooled no one. He’s now taking sum of his life, trying to convince his family and himself that he’s finally getting the coveted chance to live out his dreams rather than being put out to pasture.
Cynthia is worried about the same thing happening to Ken. She encourages him to quit the firm. “You gave them your eye,” she says. “Don’t give them the rest of your life.” Cynthia adds that her family has plenty of money; they can go live in the country and he can take up being a writer again.
But Ken objects, saying that her father worked for Dow, of all places, which was very unpopular at the time for supplying the U.S. military with napalm to be used against people in Southeast Asia. What Ken does is something much less sinister, you see. He just writes Dow’s pitches. Besides Ken wants to stick around the firm long enough to see if he gets a bonus.
Instead of a bonus, Ken gets fired. It turns out the people from McCann Erickson had been holding a grudge against Cosgrove since he worked for them between Sterling-Cooper gigs in the mid-60s. The moment Ken’s father in law retired from Dow (one of Ken’s biggest accounts), they fired him. But after the encounter with his father-in-law and wife the night before, Ken chose to see his firing as serendipity. The universe was telling him to get out of the rat race and go write his book after all (probably a strong social trend in 1970, with the age of anti-materialism just beginning).
Ken decided to cooperate with his firing and turn all his accounts over to Pete, for which he will collect a generous severance package. As Ken is handing off the files to Pete, he talks excitedly about restarting his writing career, adding that his life and times in advertising will give him plenty of material. “No. This world is boring,” Pete says with an implied wink to the camera.
It’s something else Pete says that makes Ken’s blood curdle, a seemingly innocuous comment about hoping Ken knows he can always use Pete as a reference and that Pete had nothing to do with his firing and no hard feelings whatsoever. Cosgrove takes that as a shot across the bow, a reminder of the time many seasons ago when they were both up for the same job and Pete, the lesser man, beat out Ken by being more devious. Now Pete is a partner, and Ken, who literally gave his eye for the company, is being shown the door.
We next encounter Ken crouching in a phone booth in the lobby as Don gets off the elevator to find him there. Ken explains to Don that he’s been fired, but that it’s kismet because he had just been talking about leaving his position and restarting his writing career anyway.
In what turns out to be the plot twist of the episode, Ken later informs Pete and Roger that he won’t be needing their severance package after all, because he’s got a new job, and that job is replacing his father-in-law Ed Baxter as the Dow Corning account rep, and that as a client of Sterling-Cooper he plans on making their lives hell.
Ken had his moment to walk away, but he can’t because he loves the game too much. Even if we don’t see Ken much anymore for the rest of the season, he will have served his purpose by being an example of what they, the Mad Men, are all going to become. The money hasn’t made them any happier, just like the golf clubs didn’t make Ed Baxter any happier.
The love of the game is what makes them who they are. Joan keeps showing up for work even though it means being the butt of T&A jokes (more on that later). Even Ted Chaough, who was as checked out of the game as anyone could be at the end of last year is now growing out his Moneybags mustache, womanizing, and saying, “party at my house tonight!”
Our initial reaction is to pity Ken for letting jealous competition get in the way of his dream life. But who’s to say he would be any happier as a writer, exiling himself in the country with a wife and a screaming baby, and dealing with writer’s block? We’ve seen The Shining, we know how that can work out. It’s only when he’s abruptly fired that Ken pictures it as a blessing in disguise. Upon further consideration, he’ll take the first chance he can to get dealt back into the game. He’s a Mad Man, after all.
THE DOUBLE STANDARD
In the most uncomfortable scene of the episode, Peggy and Joan get sexually harassed by the young McCann execs they’re working on the Topaz pantyhose account with. These guys are so over the top they would make a great Saturday Night Live skit: The Aging Date-Rape Fratboys.
In the elevator afterwards, Joan tells Peggy she wants to burn the whole building down. Peggy says it could have been worse, and besides, Joan, what do you expect with the way you dress?
The fact is, what Joan’s wearing isn’t all that risqué or revealing. It’s about as buttoned up as you can get for late spring in the Atlantic Seaboard. She’s wearing 1950s hemlines in the skimpy 1970s. Compared to what the other women are wearing on this episode, Joan’s practically in a body cast.
No, what Peggy really meant was ‘what do you expect with the way you look?’ And Joan drives home that point, telling Peggy that the two of them look absolutely nothing alike. Ab-solutely nothing.
In other words Peggy, you’re plain and I’m not. And if we’re going to get catty about it, Peggy has slept with more of the partners than Joan has.
The fight has a strong effect on each of them. Joan goes shopping to make herself feel empowered, and Peggy goes on a blind date to make herself feel attractive. Joan could have gone shopping at any department store, but she went back to the one she used to work for. She tries on a lot of clothes and says she’ll take them all, owning her look.
When the sales clerk tells Joan she can probably still get an employee discount from her time working there, Joan says “you must have me confused with another girl.” Joan’s asserting herself as a successful executive, but she still has to prove it to herself and the world, not just the McCann fratboys. It was perfectly symbolic that in order to see Don about the pantyhose account issue, she had to wait for him amongst all the models who were there for a casting call. Joan is still in that dubious zone between sexpot and legitimate partner.
It’s notable just how rigidly Joan hangs onto her look. She was the ideal woman in the Marilyn Monroe era, and in 1970 she hasn’t changed a bit, even though Marilyn’s been dead for almost ten years and the whole world has changed around her.
Is she afraid to evolve? Is she holding onto the look that first made her so desirable all those years ago? You can ask Don Draper the same thing. Other than a different colored dress shirt early in the episode, his look hasn’t changed a bit either.
Peggy’s blind date is named Stevie. A little boy’s name, appropriately enough. Stevie is totally her type, which is to say a beta male in need of a strong female lead. There was Abe, the neighbor kid Julio, and even Ginsberg was preternaturally attracted to Peggy. The difference is, Stevie gives her sincere compliments and makes her feel good about herself.
Last year was rough on Peggy in the man department, so it’s nice to finally see her getting lucky. The two hit it off so well in fact that they decide on the spot to go to Paris, right there and then. But, in a development dripping with symbolism, Peggy’s passport is in her desk at work, where the rest of her life is locked up as well.
Peggy wakes up alone in her bed the next morning, hung over. As she puts on her dowdy dress and rushes off to work, we get the feeling that perhaps she missed her flight, too, like Rachel Menken said.
Don and Peggy are parallel characters at many times throughout the series. In the first season, it was Don’s turn to impulsively ask Rachel Menken to run away to Paris with him. In the final season, it’s Peggy’s turn to ask her date.
DON SEES DEAD PEOPLE
And, since Rachel is back in the plot this episode, remember that time Don asked her to run away with him way back in Season One? Even we in the audience picked up on the whiff of desperation Don gave off then. Until that moment, Don had been presented to us in heroic terms, able to easily pull off living two separate lives, each of which is exponentially better than ours could ever be. But then, the moment Don’s secret past threatened to erupt, his first move is to ask Rachel to run away with him. She looked at him like he was crazy, having begun to see him as just a lost soul with a pretty face rather than a debonaire executive wunderkind.
Frankly, we don’t know what to make of Don after this episode. 1960 has become 1970, yet he’s still the same in so many ways, still chasing the elusive brunette mother figure. The Draper charm doesn’t work on these mysterious brunettes the way it works on blonde models, stewardesses and secretaries.
Don’s fugue state continues throughout the length of the episode. There is that moment when, still foggy from his late night dreams and diner hopping, he gets off the elevator and finds Ken Cosgrove looking dazed and confused on the phone booth floor. Like Di the waitress, Cosgrove imparts some Delphic advice to Don by telling him that getting fired from this job may be the greatest break he’s ever gotten.
In another scene, Don goes straight from a dream to a close-up of his secretary Meredith’s face affixing him with a concerned gaze. “You’re late,” she says through pursed lips and narrow eyes. We’re not used to Meredith taking such a harsh tone with Don, so it first seems like another Rachel Menken dream-message. “You missed your flight.” “You’re late.” But it turns out he’s only five minutes late, it’s just another morning at work, and Meredith is only being play angry with him. After connoitering with Meredith, Don retires into his office and goes straight to sleep, showing that he’s still in a fugue state, very much sleepwalking through life.
The show’s first anchor date doesn’t come until near the end of the episode, when Don, in his fugue state, sees Nixon on TV giving his (in)famous April 30 speech announcing the bombing of Cambodia. Don seems to be having a bad reaction to this speech. A Korean vet facing Vietnam; the ambitious Nixon who skulked unsuccessfully around the margins of early ’60s politics finally becoming president. Life has come full circle and gone nowhere.
This episode does a lot of paralleling of then and now. For one thing, Don looks and dresses exactly the same as he did in 1960. For another thing, 1960 saw Don pitching Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign strategy, and there Nixon is on TV in 1970, president at last.
Don started off selling ladies furs when Roger first plucked him from obscurity and turned him into a Mad Man. This season, Draper is again draping women in furs. Emotionally he’s right back where he started, as if the last dozen years never happened. For people like Don, that’s probably how life feels. Everything is meaningless except for the next new thrill you’re chasing.
The death symbolism remains on high alert for Don Draper all episode long. The waitress’ name is Di; Rachel Menken has died; and that spilled glass of cabernet on his carpet looks like the blood splatter from a headshot or a slashing, a suicide or a murder. The episode’s name is “Severance,” and that carpet stain looks an awful lot like the result of a severed artery. And lest we forget, Don very convincingly dreamed that he strangled a woman to death right there on that spot a few seasons back.
The whole episode has an undercurrent of unexplained mystery. It feels like there’s going to be an M. Night Shyamalan reveal before the season is through. Don sees dead people. Don may already be dead.
CATCHING UP WITH OTHER CHARACTERS
This could be the moment we realize that Meredith has blossomed into a legendary secretary. She handles Don’s business like a pro, anticipating his needs, mothering him just the right amount, and she’s earned the right to be sassy with Don because she can keep him in line and out of trouble. Meredith is the closest thing Don has to a wife now. She’s better at it than Betty or Megan were, because those two had lives of their own, but for Meredith taking care of Don is her life.
Meredith plays an interesting role as Don’s straight man in the Menken affair. After Don dreams of Rachel, he asks Meredith to contact Menken’s Department Store, ostensibly to talk to them about pantyhose, but really because he wants to see Rachel again. Meredith, who came to the firm well after the Rachel Menken era, is oblivious to any of this, and she is the one who inadvertently informs Don that Rachel has died. Although Don’s heart is no longer in the Menken/pantyhose pitch once he learns of Rachel’s death, Meredith still treats it like a normal business prospect. She takes the liberty of compiling a dossier of information for Don to read over the weekend before the Monday meeting she has scheduled for him with Rachel’s replacement at Menken’s. We see the file with the plainly typed ‘MENKEN’ on the tab being lifelessly plopped down onto the table, as if Rachel’s ashes are in there ready to be filed away, just one more binder of women in the archives of Mad Men.
Stan’s metamorphosis is complete. He went from looking like Ron Ziegler in 1964, to rocking the Mod Squad look in 1968, and finally he becomes end stage Jim Morrison. It’s 1970, and Stan is Mr. Mojo Risin.
Harry Crane’s only scene is when the pantyhose account people call him “Mister Potatohead,” and he doesn’t even wince. A ghost from the future tells me we’ll be seeing a lot more of Harry in the next episode.
THE 1970S BEGIN ON MAD MEN
Portentously, the first and only anchor date for this episode is Nixon’s April 30, 1970 televised speech authorizing bombing in Cambodia. In real life, that announcement kicked off an angry round of antiwar protests across the nation’s campuses, and led to the incident four days later at Kent State in Ohio, where national guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of students, killing four and wounding nine.
This was shocking, because until that date, Vietnam War protests had gotten violent, but never deadly. For the rest of the school year, campuses were placed under curfew, and by the time they reopened in the fall, the student protest movement, and antiwar protests in general, had largely petered out. For this reason, the Kent State shootings are often considered the end of the Sixties.
1970 represented the fulfillment of the 1960s in other ways as well. When Mad Men started, Roger and Don would still go out with models from the auditions for the purpose of having sex, but the models would have worn sweaters and heavy-duty brassieres. There would have been a lot of “I’m not that kind of girl” and “I’d better be careful. One sip of champagne positively makes my head spin!”
But the Mad Men girls of 1970 are completely liberated, in the sense that they wear skimpy clothes, go braless, and have no interest in acting coy when Don and Roger make overtures of bedding them. There are no buttoned up sweaters or girdle-like support bras, just low-cut articles that zip up and down for easy access. These girls are ready to go. There’s no more pretense of prudery in 1970. It’s the age of free love.
As previously mentioned, 1970 also marks a new era in the way big cities are increasingly seen by the American public as crime-ridden no-go zones and dysfunctional wastelands. Cinematically, the Seventies will mark a dramatically different time for New York City’s portrayal on film. It’s the era of Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, and Dog Day Afternoon, films in which the city is seedy and unflatteringly lit. The next real-life events on New York’s timeline are Attica, the city’s filing for bankruptcy, the Son of Sam killings, and the blackout of 1977. The city is just beginning a long, slow decline in 1970, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it starts to get better.
By 1970, the confrontationalism of the Sixties had already hit its high water mark. But as the Seventies unfolded, the politics of gender equality in the workplace was just getting started. We had a shocking example of that when Peggy and Joan, the creative director and a partner of the new firm respectively, are treated like meat by a pack of junior McCann executives. It’s hard to imagine Don and Roger being treated that way.
Given the graphic sexual harassment that occurs inside the firm this episode, the racism may have been low-key enough to go under the radar. But it’s there. Ken Cosgrove was fired for his treachery and superior attitude during his previous employ at McCann Erickson several seasons ago. When McCann Erickson executive “Ferg” fires Ken as Roger looks on, Ferg relishes the chance to tell off Cosgrove for looking down on the McCann Erickson people as a bunch of “black Irish boors,” among other things.
“Well it’s true, that’s what they are!” Ken turns and explains to Roger.
In Roger’s very next scene, he jokes that that Ferg fella “puts the Mick in McCann Erickson,” leveling the very slur that Cosgrove was accused of, and indicating that that kind of racism is still au courant in Ken and Roger’s circles.
Season 7A ended with a merger that made the partners all rich, and the friendly ghost of Bert Cooper telling Don that the best things in life are free as Don watches with a look of horror on his face. Sure enough, Season 7B picks up nine months later with the partners all filthy rich but not really any happier. The most obvious effect the money has had is to sow resentment between the haves and have-nots–the partners and their unvested colleagues at the firm.
Throughout the last few seasons, McCann Erickson has been portrayed as the consummately evil firm. They ruthlessly pursue the various Mad Men trying to lure them away from Sterling Cooper by offering money and cajolery until they get what they want, and once they have you they treat you like garbage…the way we’ve seen them treat Cosgrove, or Peggy, or Joan this week.
So maybe that’s how Don’s dread at Bert’s prediction plays out in these remaining episodes. They have all the money, but they’ve signed a deal with the devil, and the devil may have been thinking two moves ahead of Roger and Don and their Hail Mary merger at the end of last season, with consequences that have yet to unfold.
If there’s anything this episode has shown us about Mad Men, it’s that they hate to lose. They are miserable when they are out of the game, no matter how golden their parachute is. With the onset of the Seventies, the real life era of the Madison Avenue Men is over, and with the villainous predilections of McCann Erickson, who now own a majority of the former Sterling Cooper firm, the worst could be yet to come.