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 Gone is the sleek, suave womanizer; he has been replaced by this haggard husk of his former self who’s taken to fucking hooker/waitresses, propped up against a slimy brick wall in the filthy alley behind a diner.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.