When last we saw Sterling Cooper & Partners, Bert Cooper had passed away and with the partners against him, Don Draper threw a hail mary pass and worked out a new deal with McCann-Erickson. They’re part of a much larger company now and the partners are millionaires. And we’ve reached the seventies. In the mid-season premiere, “Severance”, we catch up with some of the big changes since last time. Once again, our Mad Men analysis team is brimming with enthusiasm, so let’s get to the episode.
Myndi – I love getting immersed in this world, which is so easy to do thanks the meticulous recreation that Matthew Weiner and his team give us to enjoy. From the sumptuous costuming to the decor and the hairstyles (facial hair in particular!), everyone looks perfect. And now, as we move from the picturesque 60s to the often regrettable fashions of the 70s, it’s going to be a trip. Heck, even Ted, who may now be divorced (since he mentioned a party taking place near his apartment), is excited about how high the hemlines have gotten. When we first reunite with the guys of SC&P, we get a glimpse of Don in a french blue shirt, smoking a cigarette and giving direction to a gorgeous girl wearing a chinchilla coat and little else. Eventually we learn they aren’t alone–this is a casting and not another visit to Don’s Hotel Room of Submission a la Sylvia Rosen of a couple seasons past–but the way he talks to her is so sexual, it’s hard to imagine that it would get a pass in any professional scenario today. Sure, she’s a model, and there’s more overt sexuality in advertising and media in general today than ever before, but there’s not a hint of female empowerment in this scene. She’s merely a prop for these men, a pretty bauble.
And that’s how many men in 1970 still felt about all women in the workforce, even those in positions of power and leadership like Joan and Peggy. Thrown together on the Topaz pantyhose account, the two have to patiently explain to the client what their biggest competitor, Hanes’ L’eggs, is doing to sell huge quantities of their inferior product, and then shoot down the client’s idea of countering with a change in their own packaging (“They have an egg, we’ll have a Topaz!”). Both women do things just right, and the client seems satisfied that they’ll get the problem solved. In other words, these ladies know what they’re doing. They’re completely capable. Unfortunately, they still have to go visit the jerks over at the mothership, McCann-Erickson, the firm that bought them and made Joan and her fellow partners very rich. The three account guys they sit across from while explaining their plan could not be more offensive in their blatant ogling of Joan. Every comment is a double entendre, but some aren’t even that subtle, like telling Joan she should sell brassieres. Again, the women acquit themselves well in the face of this misogyny, but once in the elevator, it all hits the fan. Peggy, used to being dismissed until she proves her talent, brushes it off (“At least we got a yes.”) Joan is ready to burn the place down. Peggy suggests she change how she dresses, which Joan scoffs at, because she knows she’s dressed impeccably and can’t exactly hide her assets. She then essentially insults Peggy by saying ““So what you’re saying is, I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you, and that’s very, very true.” A bitter Peggy counters by reminding Joan that she’s rich now, so she can do anything she wants. She may be, but it’s likely she’ll never forget the horrible thing she had to do to put herself there in the first place.
Following that debacle, both women get the chance to let off some steam. Joan has some much needed retail therapy, buying expensive dresses and shoes at the very store she worked in briefly when she left Sterling Cooper without even a thought to the cost, while Peggy goes on a date with John Mathis’ brother in law, Stevie. The two of them have a natural chemistry, even though it’s pretty clear Peggy would wear the pants in that relationship. Stevie gets the wrong meal and doesn’t want to send it back, but has the dilemma of not wanting to appear weak. He tells Peggy that John told him she was fearless, and Peggy beams. They trade plates, proceed to have too much to drink and are suddenly looking for Peggy’s passport to jet off to Paris for the weekend. They can’t find it at her place, but they do find out that they like making out with each other. Peggy calls it to a halt because she admits that she doesn’t want to sleep with him on the first date if this is going to turn into something more. Stevie calls her old-fashioned (not that he seems mad, just disappointed) and she tells him she’s tried “new fashioned”. He leaves after promising to call her when he gets back from an interview in D.C. Her satisfied smile after he leaves the apartment is something we see so little of from Peggy, because she’s almost never completely happy with herself. It’s a joy to behold. (Bonus for all of us My So-Called Life fans: Stevie is played by Devon Gummersall, who created the beloved Brian Krakow on that mid 90s gem. Someone grew up very handsome!)
The next day, she’s hungover, and finds her passport buried in a desk drawer at work. She’s back down from Cloud Nine though, and even though Stan encourages her to go for it, Peggy figures it’s nothing a few Alka Seltzer won’t cure. As much as a big part of me wants Peggy to somehow end up with Stan, I’d love to see her pursue a relationship with Stevie. That is, if there’s any room for him in her marriage to her work.
And that’s the thing, really. Joan could probably stay home and raise Kevin now. Peggy could probably take an extended trip to Paris and follow Stevie wherever he goes. But neither of them really want to do that. Their work is their life. They are driven to excel at the office and neither would really be happy without it. For Peggy, she’s devoted her entire life to her career. She gave up a child and she admitted to Stevie that she’s never been on a vacation. She’s not cut out to be a housewife and mother and she knows that. She clearly thinks that if she got married, her husband wouldn’t want her to work and the mere idea of that terrifies her. For Joan, she obviously feels she has to prove she’s more than an hourglass figure in a tight dress. Both women have sacrificed mightily for everything they have and they’re not willing to stop now. One remark Peggy makes early in the episode shows how far she’s come. When Mathis is trying to set her up on the date and starts by offering her coffee, she tells him that if wants the raise he’s angling for he should “stop acting like a secretary”, something Don said to her very early in her copywriting career. Things are definitely coming full circle.
EJ – I’m not ready for Mad Men to be over. And what I find interesting is that there isn’t a looming sense of finality. Something like Breaking Bad or LOST went into the final stretch of episodes feeling like everything was about to explode. But unlike those shows, Mad Men can just end. There isn’t an Island to escape, the lead character’s not a meth dealer with terminal cancer It’s a show that can end without wrapping everything up for the characters. Don Draper doesn’t have to die or change his life in any way because it’s a show about him, not about a situation that he’s in. And so I’m not going into these episodes expecting massive body counts and huge events. These are the last seven installments in a story about these people, not the countdown to a big shootout or good vs. evil battle.
And so, it’s almost business as usual when we check in again. It’s April of 1970, almost a year since last time we saw them. (More time has passed for us than for them.) There’s this interesting dynamic that I hope we see more of, where everybody’s acutely aware that, as of the merger, they have millionaires in their midst. And now that it’s not a scrappy agency fighting for survival, people are free to hate their jobs. You can see some of them are just checked out, which I love. And then there’s Ken Cosgrove, who’s still just happy to be part of the team.
Ken’s such a survivor. He was threatened with firing early on. He wasn’t part of the new company when Don and company left to start over again. A client shot him in the face. None of that stops Ken.
It’s obviously a point of pride for Ken that he doesn’t just quit his job and live off of his wife’s money while he writes another book. And let’s be honest, Ken is kind of a bro. He needs dudes to hang to with. There’s no way he’d be happy sitting in his study and writing all day. Heck, his original job at Sterling Cooper was pretty much lining up prostitutes for the clients. And he was good at it! If this show were set in the present, Ken would be high-fiving people all the time. I like Ken, but you know that if he quit, he’d be calling Harry and Sal all the time to see if they wanted to meet up after work.
I love that Ken ends up working for Dow. I think it’ll be fun to see him put everybody through the wringer. He seems to end up getting the upper hand over Pete Campbell time and time again, even as Pete keeps moving up in the firm and now it’s actually Pete’s job to keep him happy. Just picturing a flustered Pete is immediately hilarious and I would watch a full season of just that.
Myndi mentioned it, but I felt almost sick watching that opening scene because I thought Don was going into another divorce spiral. Instead, he’s just coaching models. And the fact that they’re talking about chinchilla brings Don full circle to his pre-advertising days as a fur salesman. (That model, by the way? She’s the real life sister of the actress who plays Jill Garvey on The Leftovers.)
When a new season begins, we always have to try and figure out both the date and Don’s state of mind. This time, he’s almost back in Season One mode, only this time without the collateral damage of a wife and family. He’s sleeping around and not in the sort of desperate “bone the pain away” mode we’ve seen before. Don Draper seems to be having fun. I was disappointed to see him drinking again but based on what we see here, he’s not getting sloppy drunk as he was after that first divorce (or, in fact, last time we saw him). Of course, in 1970 you could deal with a drinking problem by drinking less. Technically, we don’t see him actually drinking, but he’s got a flask and he holds a glass of wine in one scene. Just saying, Bruce Wayne knows how to make it seem like he’s drinking socially.
What we don’t see is Don doing any work. He’s in the office, he sets meetings, but we don’t know yet what he’s actually doing. Is he still involved in the day-to-day creative? Is he coasting? We don’t see either of his exes or his kids. (You all saw Kiernan Shipka on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt though, right?) So even though we spent so much time with Don in this episode, there’s a lot we don’t know.
There’s a part of me that wanted Don to end up with Rachel long after it was possible in terms of the storyline. I loved them together and I feel like she was only mistress who was actually a positive influence in his life. (Well, aside from being his mistress.) I’ve also had this idea in my head since the first season that either Don’s birth mother was Jewish or that he believes she might have been. There are so many little moments throughout the series that take on an extra dimension if Don self-identifies as Jewish, like offering this week to take part in the minyan for Rachel. Admittedly, this is something I predicted as the big reveal in the first season when his co-workers were a lot more casual in their racism, and I’ve never been able to shake it.
Which brings me to his dream about Rachel. It’s the third time Don’s had a vision of the recently deceased: He saw a ghostly something just before he learned of Anna Draper’s death, there was the amazing Bert Cooper musical number. It’s tempting to take the Dickens approach and make them the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Granted, it’s a stretch to make Rachel “Future”, but there was a time back in the first season when she was the future he wanted. He was going to run away with her, which we haven’t really seem from him since. That said, there’s something to what Diana suggests. Maybe he dreams about her all the time and he just remembers this one. Or her name came up and that’s why he dreamed about her and the fact that she had died was just a coincidence.
Discounting the possibility that this show is suddenly going to become a supernatural romp in its final episodes, I think it’s an important dream. “I’m supposed to tell you, you missed your flight.” And let’s just keep in mind who else appears in the dream: Pete Campbell (who lost his father in an airline disaster), and Ted Chaough (who nearly caused a small plane disaster). Those are the two guys in Don’s life for whom flight has a dark connotation. So missing a flight would probably be a positive in that context.
Remember when Don and Megan were a bi-coastal couple? I’m thinking especially of how he pretended he was still going to work every day instead of just hopping a plane and setting up shop in California to be with his wife. Maybe that’s the flight he missed. He could have saved his marriage, but he missed his flight. Or maybe Rachel herself if the missed opportunity. Whatever the case, Don blames himself for losing someone or something through inaction. And maybe he thinks he’ll never be able to redeem himself for that, which is why Pete and Ted, the harbingers of doom, appear. Whatever the case, it’s a dream that just drips with sadness even before we know what happened to Rachel.
(And then we get into Peggy who couldn’t take that spontaneous trip to Paris because of a lost passport. There’s a reason the promotional image of this season was Don exiting a plane.)
And what about Diana, the waitress? There’s so much going on in these scenes. From the start, we’ve got Don regaling Roger and the ladies with a hilarious tale from his childhood in a brothel. He leaves that part out, but we’ve never heard him talk about his past like that. His “Uncle Mack” is the pimp who ran the brothel. And the thing is, Roger knows that now. He heard the Hershey’s meltdown. It doesn’t faze him in the least, because you can get used to anything. Your friend grew up in a brothel? Surprising at first but eventually that’s just background information. (And I have to say, it makes me happy whenever Don and Roger are buddies. Everything they’ve been through and eventually it always works out between them.)
When Roger’s being a jerk to Diana, he notes that she has a book by John Dos Passos in her apron pocket. I couldn’t tell what book it was, but there are some interesting things about him in the context of the show. His father refused to acknowledge him until he was 16, which sounds at least a little like Dick Whitman. An auto accident cost him his sight in one eye, though he never sported a sweet Ken Cosgrove eyepatch. He was originally a communist who later reinvented himself as a Nixon/Goldwater Republican. And he died in August of 1970, four months after his episode takes place. I don’t know if any of this is pertinent, but it’s interesting at least. And it establishes that Diana is definitely well-read, which is probably all that’s actually important.
As for why she looks familiar to Don, well, I don’t think he actually knows her. She is definitely his type – he loves the sad-eyed brunettes. She’s not a million miles from Rachel or Suzanne Farrell or any number of mistresses. But I think it’s more that he sees something in her that’s very familiar. Let’s be frank – she’s a prostitute. We don’t know how often she does that, but a $100 tip guarantees that she’ll take you outside. It’s possible she’s trying to give it up and that’s why she has a legitimate job, or maybe that’s what you had to do in the pre-Craigslist days. I don’t know. But Don grew up in a brothel, and I think the idea is that there’s something in the way she carries herself that reminds him of those women. She’s not a fancy escort that Ken would hire for a client. She has to have a second job to make ends meet and has to do it in the alley and she doesn’t love either one of those jobs. I think that’s what Don recognizes in her. She’s a vision from his past because of who she is, not because he actually knows her.
Finally, I just want to note that secretary Meredith is hilarious. I swear, this show has such a deep bench. There are fifteen or twenty people on Mad Men who are going to be the best actor or actress on whatever their next show turns out to be.
That’s it for this week. Next week’s promo was typically cryptic but we’re holding out hope that Sal makes a return appearance before the end. (We also would not mind checking in with Trudy Campbell one last time, but let’s take care of Sal first.)