Monday, April 27, 2015

Mad Men Recap: Sit Down, Don

Jim Hobart, the chief of McCann Erickson, quietly gives Don Draper this directive just as Don is winding up for one of his patented Hail Mary pitches to save SCDP from oblivion. The look that crosses Don’s face is almost one of confusion, because few, if any, people in the 10 year run of Mad Men has ever addressed him in this openly dismissive manner. But sit down he does, joining the other partners at the McCann conference table to hear of the demise of their company. McCann is absorbing them lock stock and barrel, rewarding each partner (except Joan) with a monster account as compensation. Don’s, is, of course, the jewel in the crown, Coca Cola. Stop struggling, Jim Hobart finishes with, you’ve won.
But this is not a table of winners by the looks on their faces and when next we see them they’re commiserating at a bar, drinking to the Titanic of their company. All of this has been precipitated by the discovery that the lease hasn’t been paid for the SCDP space in the Time-Life building which leads to the back door discovery that Mc Cann hasn’t paid it because they’re going to absorb SCDP within 30 days. Don receives a call from Lou Avery in the SCDP LA office telling him that he’s moving to Tokyo because a Japanese animation company is making a cartoon out of his comic “Scout’s Honor”. Lou calls to gleefully say goodbye to his New York nemesis, ending their relationship with: “Well, sayonara my friend. Enjoy the rest of your miserable life!
After Don hangs up he begins to conceive a plan to save SCDP from McCann’s great sucking machine. Now that the LA outpost will be empty, and with enough in loyal billings to make McCann pay attention, a handful of them can relocate to LA and save the company. It makes sense to Roger and Pete and Joan but Ted has just re-met the love of his life, an old college sweetheart, and she wants to stay in New York. Roger and Pete begin the hard sell with Ken Cosgrove, to get the biggest prize, Dow Chemical, to commit to the move. Armed with Ken’s favorite very expensive wine, Roger and Pete pitch the idea and are shot down in short order by a vengeful Ken who, although he hates McCann, he hates Roger and Pete even more. It’s a big blow to the plan but not a deal breaker, so with just enough in billings to make McCann pay attention, the partners head over to the pitch meeting to sell Jim Hobart on the idea.
Don begins slowly and we’re reminded of his tone in “The Wheel”, but where that story began on a slow note but built to a masterfully emotional crescendo, this one ends shortly after it begins. Jim Hobart tells Don to sit down, it’s over; these guys are going to “advertising heaven”. They are beaten; once chiefs of all they surveyed, they are now just employees and their faces reflect that shocking change. Joan voices her fear that, at McCann she won’t be taken seriously and her fear is justified, since Jim Hobart glossed over her as he named the prestige accounts that will be cherry-picked for the SCDP leadership team. One by one they each leave the bar, everyone having somewhere to be and someone to be with, except Don. Roger is the last to go and finally confesses to Don that he’s been seeing Megan’s mother Marie. At first aghast, “She’s crazy, you know”, Don finally figuratively throws up his hands and, for the second time that day, admits defeat.
There follows a genuinely affecting scene between Roger and Don where Roger tells the younger man, “You’re OK”. These two have always had kind of a big brother/little brother relationship, but with Bert Cooper gone Roger is now the elder statesman of the group and we sense an almost father/son shift in his affection for Don, affection which is clearly sincere on both sides.
Again Don finds himself alone and goes in search of Diana, who has called his service twice but left no message and, in fact, even requested that the operator not tell Don that she has even called. Don heads over to her apartment and finds that Diana is gone, her apartment now occupied by a gay couple who have no idea where she might be. Homeless, alone and now faced with having to relinquish captaincy of his career ship, Don continues to drift, each week losing another mooring that previously anchored his life.
Perhaps the most poignant scene in this week’s episode, however, goes to Peggy and Stan. Peggy slowly reveals to Stan the story of the little boy she carried and gave up for adoption. As I watched Peggy speak of the ache that never really completely disappears I was reminded of what Don told her at her bedside after the baby had been taken away. “You will be surprised at how much this didn’t happen.” Apparently he was very wrong, because, although not driven by the memory and its attendant regret, Peggy tells Stan that, although she hasn’t forgotten about her son, she’s had to build a wall around her feelings out of self-preservation. “I’m here. And he’s with a family, somewhere. I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t go on with your life.” A beautiful piece of writing and an Emmy-worthy reading by Elizabeth Moss. Peggy also intones what may be the first feminist manifesto of the 1970s, wondering aloud why men get to escape unscathed from emotional entanglements and how women should be equally able to get on with the lives in the face of such drama. Peggy is a survivor and someone who has fought for, and earned, every inch of success she has achieved. I hope the Mad Men writers reward Peggy with good stuff before the series ends.The episode closes out the next day as the partners gather the SCDP troops to deliver the news about the McCann merger. In seasons past we’ve seen these kinds of calls to action before and Don always serves as the general mustering the soldiers to fall in behind the leadership line. This time nobody is buying the false patina that Don tries to paint on the news, “This is the beginning of something, not the end,” Don shouts over the growing din created by staff panic. Nobody can hear him and nobody is listening. How the mighty have fallen.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Mad Men Recap: Now We Have To Find A Place For You

Don is drifting.  We've seen him go from sadly dismissive, handing Megan a check for a million dollars to "finally end it", to tonight's closing shot.  As the dolly slowly pans away, Don is left alone, outside of his own apartment, which is being sold as he stands in the hallway and Roberta Flack sings "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", a song that is a coin with two sides, one side a dreamy paen to deep love and memory, the other side deeply sorrowful regret of remembered, but lost, love.  Don looks bereft and again, the lighting around him, so dark and shadowed, only emphasizes that visual cue.  Don is in a dark place and is drfiting farther from the light with each episode of this final seven.  Just that morning his realtor, worrying that she won't be able to sell his apartment, tells him that it "reeks of failure".  Don insists that "alot of wonderful things happened here" and we get the feeling that he's trying more to convince himself than her.  In spite of her pessimistic outlook she manages to convince a young stockbroker and his wife, with a small child and a baby on the way, to start a new life in the ruins of what had been Don's home with Megan.

Don arrives back at the apartment just as the deal is closing and catches a glimpse of the young couple, the wife clearly pregnant, before being quickly ushered out into that dark hallway by his realtor, as if his presence will somehow spook the couple and screw the deal.  As he stands, hat in hand alone shut out of his home, he is clearly reminded of the new beginnings represented by the young couple, which stands in stark contrast to his growing despair.  I'm sure it was no coincidence that the casting director chose a brunette actor and blonde actress, so like Don and Betty, adding to his sad regret for things lost and years of his life that are gone

At the top of the hour Roger gives Don an assignment: to write his "Gettysburg Address" for Roger to deliver at an upcoming McCann retreat in the Bahamas.  Don needs to write 2500 words on the future of Sterling Cooper, an assignment that the old Don would have slapped out with ease and panache.  Struggling, we see Don scanning popular magazines of the day for clues of what other visionaries see for the coming decade.  He tries to sneak some assistance from Ted Chaugh, who is quick to realize what Don's real mission is and calls him on it, telling Don that Roger had already tried to get Ted to write the speech but that he told Roger he was too busy with staff reviews.  Plus, Ted tells Don, "you're way better at this kind of stuff anyway."  Indeed.  Peggy comes into Don's office asking him to review her past year's work and Don sees an opportunity to pump another unsuspecting staffer for the inspiration for his assignment.  Under the guise of questioning her about her performance, Don begins to ask Peggy guided questions to lead her to ostensibly think about her future, trying to get Peggy's fresh take on what the future holds.  With each wide-ranging question such as, what do you see in the future (Peggy wants to be the first woman creative director in the agency), Don seems more and more derisive of her answers, as if he's trying to warn her that his growing hopelessness is a signpost to her, warning of the ultimate emptiness of goals based in achievement at work.  Peggy becomes increasingly annoyed as Don continues to ask:  "then what?" until she erupts with, "why don't you tell me your dreams and I'll shit all over them!" and storms out of his office.  We see him speaking to a dictaphone, prone on his office couch, telling no-one in particular, "it's supposed to get better."  Don is drifting downward.

When Mathis, a copywriter on Peggy's team, following up on Don's alpha male advice on how to fix the fallout of an outburst in a client meeting fails miserably, (Don tells him the story of how he verbally battered Lucky Strike scion  Lee Garner Jr only to have Garner Jr apologize to him) he furiously accuses Don and his poor advice of being the cause of his removal from the account (we see the squirm enducing scene wherein Mathis tries and fails to "pull a Don Draper" telling the Peter Pan cients: "I'm surprised you had the balls to show back up here").  An angry exchage ensues with Don firing Mathis.  However, not before Mathis tells Don that Roger also regales people with the same story Don told him, only in Roger's telling, Lee Garner Jr played along with Don because he was fantasizing of engaging in gay sex with Don.  "You only get away with things because you're handsome!" Mathis shouts before storming out of Don's office, leaving him looking oddly chagrined.  This is Don getting some serious comeuppance from those close to him as well as the Mathis' in his life.

A quick check in with Joan finds her enjoying a business trip to the Sterling Cooper LA outpost, staying at the Beverly Wilshire and ordering room service.  Clearly Joan, as Account Executive and Partner, has reached her career goal and is reveling in her new-found status.  Through a mix-up at the office she meets a man in the suite looking for his optometrist.  Older, divorced, with grown children, and a lucrative building empire, Richard is exactly the kind of man that Joan finds attractive and they immediately begin sleeping together.  She tells him that she is not married but withholds information about her son Kevin.  When Joan receives a call back in the New York office she is delighted to hear that Richard is in New York and they plan to meet for dinner that night.  Dinner goes well and Richard presses Joan again about being married since she insisted on meeting him at the restaurant.  Joan confesses that she is not married but that she does have a four-year-old son.  Back in Richard's suite he confesses, somewhat angrily, that he can't have a relationship with the mother of a young child, telling Joan that he's already raised his kids and can't do it again; that he wants to be free to go at a moment's notice.  Joan leaves, telling Richard that he's "such a disappointment".  The next day, as she hurries to leave for work, late because the babysitter arrives late, Joan shouts at her and Kevin, "you're ruining my life!"  Later that day a contrite Richard shows up at Sterling Cooper, flowers in hand, and apologizes to Joan, telling her that he's going to invest in property in New York and that he wants a relationship with Joan and her son.  When he asks if he can call her Joan says "yes".

The episode revisits the Sally/Betty/Glen triangle, bringing Glen back to tell them that he's decided to enlist in the Army and is shipping out to Vietnam.  A furious Sally demands to know why, considering how committed Glen had been to the antiwar movement.  He makes up a reason, but reveals later to Betty (in an uncomfortable reminder of that icky relationship) that the true reason is that he was flunking out of college and enlisted in order to avoid his stepfather's ire and disappoinment.  Betty bids him farewell and we see a tearful Sally leaving a sad message for Glen before she leaves on a 12 state 12 day trip for school.  I have a feeling that's the last we'll see of Glen Bishop, which, frankly, for this recapper is for the best.

As Sally and her friends prepare to board the Greyhound for their trip Don treats them all to a Chinese dinner,  He asks the girls what they want to do with their lives and two of them give an appropriately lofty answer: senator, UN translator.  He advises them that, whatever they dream of doing they should write it down as they might forget as they get older.  Again, a pretty clear hint as to what's preying on Don's mind these days.  One of the girls begins to openly flirt with Don, calling him by his first hame and asking for a cigarette and where he lives.  Sally is clearly angry with her father as she perceives that Don is responding inappropriately to the girl's clumsy flirtation.  As she prepares to board the bus Sally confronts Don, telling him "you just can't help yourselves, you and Mom.  Whenever anyone pays attention to you, and they always do, you just ooze everywhere."  Pretty acid stuff, but it's something that Sally, now a teenager, has been observing her whole life and is now finally able to put words to.  Don responds angrily, telling Sally that she's just like her parents, "you're a very beautiful girl, you can do more with your life."  Sally looks at her father for a few moments and then boards the bus, leaving Don standing alone, offering a wan wave as the bus doors close, his expression distressed.  It's the second time in the episode that Don has been presented with an ugly truth about himself and whereas the old Don would have shaken off such truth arrows with nary a blink, this Don is clearly now suffering the wounds of those arrows, the troubled pain clear on his face.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this post, as Don retreats back to his apartment which is no longer his home, to a giddy realtor who, as she adjusts his tie, tells Don: "now we have to find a place for you."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mad Men Recap: A Twinge in the Heart

So I’m saying it right up front: I’m going to miss Megan. She of the much maligned lovely and abundant mouth full of teeth and crazy-ass mane of black hair (doesn’t anyone remember the chic, shoulder length bob that she wore?). She embodied an innocent yearning to stand alone, outside of Don’s enormous shadow, and be someone. I’m going to miss her because I liked the character of Megan, in spite of the fact that she was not all that well defined by the Mad Men writers, especially in comparison to other women on the series (I’m thinking of you Peggy and Joanie). I think the character was the only genuine, good person on the show and, not unlike in real life, she got eaten alive for it. Megan was trusting and loyal and devoted to her husband and, at least from what little we saw, a good friend to her fellow fledgling actresses.
In this respect I am in a very small community amongst Mad Men viewers. Week after week Megan was excoriated in discussion forums and even in editorial recaps. But I liked her because she was wholesome and radiated optimism in a dark cynical world. So, now that I’ve outed myself as a Megan Calvet-Draper Booster, let’s move on to this week’s episode: “New Business”. Don is now officially stalking the waitress who we learn is named Diana, employing a PI with a long Greek name, mangled by Don’s secretary as she delivers the message of his return call. He’s got the PI working the case because Diana has left the Twilight Zone diner and moved on to a slightly less seedy (but no less dark) Bavarian-themed restaurant. Don appears at her table one evening and wants to know when she gets off of work; he wants to buy her a drink. When next we see Don he’s fast asleep and his bedside phone is ringing…loudly. As a child of the sixties so much of Mad Men is one big trip down memory lane for me, and that screaming, jangling phone ringer, so unlike our quiet digital versions of today, reminded me of the particular startle reaction of having one ring in the middle of the night. Don, however, casually answers and its Diana, she’s off work and already kinda drunk, wanting to know what he wants. What he wants is what Don always wants: to sleep with her, so he invites her over…at three in the morning…for a drink and even more bizarrely, answers the door…at three in the morning…in a full suit and white shirt and tie ensemble. She asks him if he sleeps like that and he responds: “No, just vain.” They almost immediately hit the bed and for some reason, we are treated to another view of the wine stain on Don’s bedroom carpet. Now I know that Mad Men loves its symbolism, but other than the obvious comparison to blood I think that this wine stain schtick might be a, pardon the pun, red herring ala Megan’s red star T-shirt. We’ll see; but if it is some kind of foreshadowing it’s awfully heavy-handed for a show as sly as Mad Men.
Post sex Diana can’t sleep but doesn’t want to leave, either, so they just lay in the dark and as Don buries his face in her hair, commenting on its wonderful fragrance, she tells him it’s just shampoo, from Avon, that she bought in the living room of her ranch house with the two car garage and Diana’s backstory begins to emerge. Later, as Don is coming out of his morning shower, Diana has found her way into the room that Bobby and Gene share every other weekend when they visit, Sally being away at boarding school. Diana is creeping into the room in kind of a dazed state and as Don finds her there and inquires if she’s all right, she sits down on one of the twin beds and tells Don her lost soul story. Apparently she had a daughter who died and she left, unable to bear the pain of life in Racine, Wisconsin in the aforementioned ranch house that she shared with her husband and daughter. She refers to the pain of the loss as a lingering twinge in her heart, a term that any true Mad Men fan recalls as Don’s touch phrase in his pitch to the Kodak people in the iconic episode “The Wheel”. Don, being a fellow traveler along the lost souls road, and at least sometimes, a demonstrably devoted father, offers Diana words of both sympathy and empathy, and he sounds truly sorrowful on her behalf. Diana tells Don that being with him brings her relief from that twinge and we’re meant to believe that’s a good thing. They part, as Megan is due to appear that day with the movers to recover her furniture, and agree to meet again that night but this time at Diana’s place.
One flaw in this episode was that it seemed to be somewhat disjointed, the editing was choppy and we are jarred from one unconnected thread of story to another. Also, and this is something that many other recappers have noted, it’s kind of late in the game to be introducing new characters, is it not? The Mad Men universe is already chock full of interesting people. With only a handful of episodes left in the series, why take us down this rabbit hole with Diana now? Haven’t we seen Don with a few other Dianas already? And lots of the episodes real estate was used on the Don/Diana storyline. At this point I’ve grown to trust the Mad Men writers room and Mr. Weiner’s sensibilities, but I sure hope they’re going somewhere meaningful with this. Anyway, we get a peek at some SCDP drama with the insertion of yet another new character, a photographer named Pima, who has been hired by Peggy to shoot the stills for a Cinzano spread. Stan, as the SCDP art director and a photographer, is miffed but finds himself wanting Pima’s approval in spite of himself. Turns out Pima is a bit of a sexual chameleon, one who challenges people with direct, oddly personal turns of phrase. She tells Stan: “I can feel your desire for my approval.” Whatever; it works, and she and Stan have sex in the SCDP darkroom. Later she approaches Peggy in her office, choosing which shot to use for the print ad and tries to ply Peggy the same way, with a frankly sexual advance which Peggy, being Peggy, rebuffs. Later, as Stan is boasting of the connection he had with Pima, Peggy bursts the bubble of his male ego by reporting that Pima tried the same stunt with her but that it didn’t work because Peggy saw Pima for what she is: a hustler. Which is why Peggy won’t be hiring her for any more SCDP work. Chagrined, Stan slinks out for home. I’ve read many Mad Men fans want Stan and Peggy to connect on a relationship level before the series ends and I could not agree LESS. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if the Mad Men writers bring Peggy and Stan together as a couple I will be very disappointed. They’re friends and colleagues and should stay that way.
I also felt that the Mad Men team spent way too much time this week on the Calvet women. Marie, who we’ve met before, and a sister of Megan’s, also named Marie-France. I may be an inattentive viewer but I never knew until now that Megan even had a sister. Again, new characters; why? Anyway, Marie and Marie-France are in a state over Megan’s divorce. Being Catholics they are opposed to divorce and Marie worries over what Don “has done to our family.” We know from previous exposure to Megan’s parents that they are most unhappily married and both engaged in sexual liaisons outside of their union. Megan has a lunch meeting with Harry Crane to seek his advice on getting a new agent since she’s been without work in LA for several months. As she leaves the two Maries in Don’s apartment to deal with the movers she instructs them as to which pieces of furniture she’s interested in taking back to California. Marie, angry at Don’s treatment of her daughter, instructs the movers to load ALL of the furniture into the truck, something that she is told will cost her more than the agreed-upon price. With Megan gone, and no money of her own, Marie calls Roger, pleading with him to come over and bring the needed cash. He does as requested and pays the movers. Marie, now alone as Marie-France returned to the hotel where the three women are staying, throws herself at Roger who weakly protests but quickly responds to her advance.
Megan and Harry are at a hotel restaurant with a bottle of wine and Harry is telling Megan that “she is every man’s fantasy” and that he can’t believe that “Don threw her away.” He also tells Megan that he’s got a room upstairs and they could retire there and he could “make a few calls.” Megan, immediately understanding Harry’s intention, pulls away and angrily prepares to leave the table. A rebuffed Harry chides her as she gathers her things, his advice being that if she were more open to these “kinds of discussions” perhaps she would be having more success at casting calls in LA. And with that Harry Crane officially becomes the worst.
Megan and Don meet at the attorney’s office to sign the papers and finalize their divorce. As they wait for the attorney to arrive Megan bitterly calls Don out for ruining her chance at a career, since it was at Don’s insistence that she leave her role in a New York produced soap opera and head with him to California. Megan has been badly used by Don and, again, I feel all the feels for Megan because she trusted a snake and got badly bitten as a result. She bitterly calls him “an aging, sloppy, selfish liar” and who could disagree with her, really? Don then writes Megan a check for a million dollars, telling her: “I want you to have the life you deserve.” Megan takes the check and leaves her diamond engagement ring on the table and exits. Again, I felt bad for Megan because she trusted the wrong person and who among us has not felt that regret, even once? I do think that “New Business” may be Megan’s (and Jessica Pare’s) swan song and, if so, I will miss her.
The final two threads of story for this week were a glimpse of Don making Bobby and Gene chocolate milkshakes at Betty and Henry’s house, since the diner (was it the Twilight Zone diner and had he been looking for Diana there before hiring the PI?) was not open. As Don is serving the boys their milkshakes Betty and Henry come back dressed to the nines and Betty tells Don that she’s going back for her master’s degree in…wait for it…PSYCHOLOGY! I cannot imagine a worse choice and woe to the poor, confused souls who end up on her therapy couch. As Don leaves, oddly after Henry insists that he doesn’t have to rush off, he takes one last look at the boys with Betty and Henry and his face is filled with regret, this was one of the lives that Dick Whitman/Don Draper threw away. Regret for the path not taken is emerging as a powerful theme so far this last half of the end of the series.Our final curtain call in “New Business” is devoted to Don and Diana. He shows up at her shabby one room apartment, as arranged, with a gift in hand. Having heard Diana complain that she still doesn’t know her way around New York, Don brings her a New York travel guide. Diana offers him vodka as thanks. She then tells him that she didn’t just leave her husband in Racine but that she had a second daughter and left that child behind, as well. The twinge in her heart is something that she needs to go on feeling and since being with Don gives her some relief from that pain she wants no more of him. This self-flagellation has become her ongoing penance, which makes Diana one of the saddest characters yet on this Mad Men journey. Choosing pain over comfort, choosing alienation over connection, so far these are the themes that are driving this end of series Mad Men train. At episode’s end we see Don return to his now empty apartment and again we are reminded of “The Wheel”, when he returned to his empty house on Thanksgiving. How much more stripped down can the Mad Men team make Don Draper before there’s nothing left at all? As I wrote last week I have been hopeful for Don’s ultimate redemption but now I worry if we, and Don, are going to get that.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Don Draper: The Dinosaur Trapped In Amber

It’s baaaaaaaacckkkk! And I’m so very glad. Yes, Mad Men’s last seven episodes launched on Sunday with “Severance” and there’s lots seemingly going on, but all of it is going on around our protagonist as if he’s frozen in the amber of this post’s title. I realize that there are several key characters in the Mad Men universe, but for this posting I’m going to focus on Don because Mad Men is, after all, chiefly his story and it’s now approaching its end. Mad Men has spanned an entire decade. Episode One, Season One was set in March 1960 and, as of last Sunday’s episode, we’re into April of 1970. Men at Sterling Cooper are sporting hideous muttonchops and awful porn ‘staches and the women are all in miniskirts and white boots. Except for Don, who hasn’t changed his style since the first time we saw him on screen back in that fictional March of 1960. His dark hair is still short and slicked with Brylcreem, his ties are still skinny, his shirts white and his suits dark. He still doesn’t leave home without an overcoat and his ever present fedora. Except…inside he has changed and it’s been a change that was brewing throughout the first half of this last season but seems to have accelerated as of the beginning of this second half. Don looks ill. He’s sweaty and his increasingly present five o’clock shadow gives him a sallow, tired, gaunt look. Gone is the sleek, suave womanizer; he has been replaced by this haggard husk of his former self who’s taken to fucking hooker/waitresses, propped up against a slimy brick wall in the filthy alley behind a diner. Don is, in a word, spiraling, calling to mind the free fall animation we’ve all grown to recognize in the opening credits of each Mad Men episode.
Every scene of Don in “Severance” is darkly lit which only confers a deeper sense of isolation and dreary alienation that has come to be his life. His apartment, still filled with Megan’s decorative sensibility, appears to be almost under a dust cover, frozen since she left and appearing unused. In one scene Don even turns out the lights as he walks in the front door, as if he can’t bear to see anything clearly. He feels better in darkness. Don’s characteristic promiscuity has reached a fever pitch, even for him. Now he consults a messaging service by phone, checking to see who has called seeking his company. We watch him laconically select the company of a stewardess, in town on a layover, and even Don seems bored with the plan. No matter, when next we see him, Don and the stew are drunk, she clad only in her underwear, and they’re stumbling into his bedroom. Staggering and laughing the girl trips and spills her red wine all over Don’s white carpet and it looks unmistakably like blood. Rather than bother to clean it up, Don drunkenly pulls the comforter from his bed and covers the stain. As he does so Megan’s earring falls out of the folds, Don telling the stewardess that the bauble belongs to his ex-wife. I found myself wondering just how long it’s been since that comforter was washed; Megan’s been gone from New York for many months. Yuck. Just another signpost of Don’s detatchment. That and the ever-present refrain of Peggy Lee singing "If That's All There Is" threaded throughout the episode, a jaded accompaniment to Don's downward journey.
“Severance” reeked of death. From the anachronistic and shadowy diner that finds Don and Roger treating three young women to pie and leaving an oddly familiar waitress a $100 tip, to an actual shiva house where mourners are gathered for the wake of Rachel Menken Katz. Rachel has appeared to Don in a dream, draped in chinchilla, seductively looking over her shoulder to tell him that “he missed his flight”. When Don calls a few days later to set up a lunch meeting with Rachel, he is informed that she has died. A stricken Don visits the shiva house, cake in hand, to pay his respects and that (also darkly lit) place is a sad reminder to Don of how much he has missed in his life. Rachel’s sister, upon recognizing Don, bitterly tells him that Rachel lived the life she wanted, subtext of course being, as opposed to you. The loss of Rachel seems to finally pierce Don’s detached exterior and he is shaken deeply at what her death represents. Was she the “one that got away”? Perhaps; we do know that Don begged her to run away with him. Wisely, Rachel, knowing Don for what he is, refused his plea and moved on with her life.
Rachel’s death drives Don back to the diner and the oddly familiar waitress, who, eerily resembles the artist/heroin addict Midge from Seasons One and Four. They’ve cast an actress that, though not a dead ringer for Midge, shares a similar look and attitude. Don can’t place how he knows her but finds that he’s drawn to her anyway. The aforementioned assignation in the alley is her way to thank him for the $100 tip that actually was left by Roger. One recalls that Midge also offered herself sexually to Don for money when she reappeared in his life as an addict. The diner where Maybe Midge works is a strange place where everyone, customers and employees alike, move slowly and speak slowly, or don’t speak at all. It’s creepy and I actually found myself thinking that it could be a diner out of The Twilight Zone, a place where, when you walk through the door, you go back 30 years. It had that kind of place-out-of-time feel to it. Either that or some kind of portal to a place halfway between life and death.
Matthew Weiner cut his writer’s teeth on The Sopranos, so I don’t see him ending the Mad Men series with a definitive outcome for Don Draper. That is to say, I don’t think that Don will die at the end of the series. But with all of the dark portent that Mr. Weiner has thrown at us in this first episode of the beginning of the end, I wonder if anything good can come of Don’s stagnation. At the end of Season Six, as Don stood with his children in front of the dilapidated ruin of the brothel that was his childhood home, telling them: “This is where I grew up”, I had hope for Don’s redemption. There he was, bared down to his essence, opening his past to his children in an effort to be authentic and honest with them and, in so doing, perhaps rebuild himself more in their image of him. But with “Severance” I worry that it’s too late for Don to reach any kind of true redemption. I hope I’m wrong.