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Mad Men – Is This All There Is?

It almost feels silly, writing about Mad Men almost 24 hours after the episode “Severance” aired, because thousands of words have already been written on the topic. I was up long past my bedtime, reading review after review, breakdown after breakdown, of last night’s episode immediately after it had aired.

And yet. Here I am.

I love Mad Men. I know I say that about a lot of shows – Breaking Bad, Orphan Black, and Parenthood are all shows that I’ve declared my love for, probably even used the word “favorite”. Just like “best friend”, favorite is a tier not an individual. So Mad Men is in the “favorite show” tier. I will miss it when it’s gone, and I plan to savor these final seven episodes.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so click through only if you’ve watched the episode.

We are officially out of the 1960s. This episode took place about six months or so from where we left off, and judging from what I’ve read online, it’s the spring of 1970. The fashions are slightly different, particularly a couple of mustaches on Roger and Ted.

The change in decade is not the biggest shift in the Mad Men world – it’s the fact that McCann bought out SC&P. Roger was always rich, Don too. But now people like Joan and Pete are rich, while people like Peggy are not. Everything is different.

Office drama was my favorite part of this episode, it was what I’d missed most. Early in the episode, Ken was fired because of bad blood between him and McCann. It came the morning after his wife had encouraged him to quit the job he’d hated to write full time. And he was going to do it, too. But then Roger and Pete treated him so poorly, he went a different way. Ken took a job at Dow Chemical, a soul-sucking corporation his father-in-law had just retired from, basically so he can exact his revenge.

Don’t get me wrong, the vengeance was sweet. Ken telling Roger and Pete that he didn’t need their severance because he was about to become their client “And I’m very demanding” was an instant classic Mad Men moment. But I felt bad for Ken, who’d always been a notch above everyone else. He’d always been a good guy, with a fulfilling life outside the agency grind. He abandoned his dream to stick it to people who aren’t worth the time of day. If you can give up on your dream that easily, the dream was probably dead a long time ago.

That was great, but my favorite moment of the episode was Peggy and Joan’s conversation in the elevator. They’d met with a few chauvinist pigs from McCann about getting Topaz Pantyhose into a department store, but the guys were only interested in making gross, sexual comments to Joan. Joan was clearly upset, Peggy was clearly trying to just get on with business. The two women left, and at first it was fine:

“Want to get lunch?”
“I want to burn this place to the ground.”
“I know.”

But then, things deteriorated. Joan and Peggy are comrades, and sometimes they’re friends. But they’ll never understand one another. Peggy basically suggested that Joan gets comments like that because of how she dresses, and Joan basically suggested that Peggy doesn’t because of the way she looks. It was a sad, ugly moment, but one that felt entirely believable for these characters in this moment. At the end, Peggy reminded Joan “You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Joan has always cared about money, especially after her marriage ended and she became a single mom. But she’s also been ambitious in her career, she’s wanted to be taken seriously.

Peggy, I think, has somewhat achieved the difficult task of being taken seriously in the workplace. (As much as the inherent patriarchy and sexism of the era would allow her.) But Joan’s comments touched on a sore spot, which is her love life. Peggy has turned 30 and doesn’t date much. She’s not easy to get along with. When a colleague (or, employee, I suppose) tries to fix her up with his brother, she waffles on the idea and is even rude in her acceptance of what is essentially a favor.

The date goes well. The pair drunkenly decides to fly off to Paris on a whim, but the plan gets derailed when Peggy can’t find her passport. By morning, Peggy is hungover and embarrassed and has decided that the romance is dead. Poor Peggy.

Then there’s  Don. Don is doing well for himself, seemingly. He’s rich. He’s single. He has an answering service organizing his sexual encounters. He’s back on top at the office. But he’s still a sad, lonely, desperate guy in a sad, lonely apartment whenever he’s alone. Don’s storyline was the most complicated this week. He learned of the death of Rachel Menken, one of his lovers from season one. She was younger than him. He’d had a dream about her before he found out she died (or so he thought). Don went to visit as her family sat Shiva, and learned that she’d gotten the life she wanted.

Don told much of this to a diner waitress he thought he recognized, but ultimately did not know. Elizabeth Reaser only has one Mad Men episode to her name on IMDB, so she’s not a character we’d all forgotten about. The first time we see her, Roger leaves $100 for an $11 bill after being rude. Even now, that’s a lot of money to leave for a cheap meal. In 1970, it would have been astronomical. Don returns, and has weird sex with the waitress in the back alleyway. Did she feel forced, or threatened? She didn’t want to have sex, she felt like she owed Don sex. One time in an alley, she suggested, covered what he’d paid for. Stupid, gross Don had no idea that’s what she’d been thinking – he seemed entirely thrown off by the entire encounter.

The waitress suggested that Don had dreamed about Rachel after he learned of her death, not before. “When people die, everything gets mixed up,” she told him. Has Don become an unreliable narrator? Has he always been one? He is prone to seeing dead people, after all. I’ve read a lot of reviews and I’m still not sure what my own thoughts are on this.

“Is that all there is?” Those are the words Peggy Lee sings, and the song couldn’t have been a better fit for this episode. Ken has a chance at happiness and chooses revenge instead. Peggy is taken seriously at work, but longs for a real romance. Joan is rich and comfortable, with more freedom than she ever could have dreamed of, yet she’s still limited by men who treat her as an object. Don is rich, free to be promiscuous, and empty. They’re all wondering, “Is that all there is?” The happiest person is the dead, Rachel.

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