Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 8, “Severance”

The first half of this final season satisfactorily resolved (more or less) the arcs of three of the most important relationships on this show: those Don has with Peggy, Sally, and Megan. All is right between Don and Peggy, Don has healed his rift with Sally as well (although I wouldn't mind seeing more bonding here), and while his marriage to Megan ended poorly, it resolved; they’re done, a point emphatically driven home by the string of women Don sleeps with in this episode. The resolution of these storylines leads me to wonder about what stories there are left to tell in this final half-season (some of which are strongly indicated in this episode), as well as what kinds of stories I want the show to spend its remaining time focused on.*

* It’s remarkable that the latter is even something this show allows room to think about; it’s still somewhat novel for a show to have as open-ended a narrative as Mad Men. While the characters have definitive, serialized arcs, the seasons themselves are still rather episodic; individual episodes are often their own separate entities, thus unlike with other shows, it's difficult to narrow my range of expectations for how the show will conclude. Contrast this with, say Breaking Bad, where there were a pretty limited set of expectations for what could happen in the end: Walt could either get caught, go free, or die. On Mad Men, though anything seems possible.

The major outstanding plotline left to resolve for Don seems to be whether or not he’ll find some sort of peace with who he is; the yin and yang of Don Draper and Dick Whitman. As we’ve seen over the course of the series, the conflicts and problems in Don’s life – including those he creates for himself – often stem from his discomfort with his past, and his having to role-play the identity he stole/constructed in order to escape from it. Blanching at thought of being Dick Whitman, but always aware that Don Draper is a put-on, Don’s behavior has continuously tread a narrow path between posturing and self-loathing. What I’d like to see for Don in these remaining episodes is for him to embrace the good qualities of Dick Whitman and to incorporate them into his life as Don Draper. I want him to relax a bit, to let go of his fear of the past and the shame of his upbringing, and to realize that he doesn’t have to completely reinvent himself to change into a better person, or whatever kind of person he wants to be. I think we see some shades of this in this episode.

Most obviously, we see Don talking casually about his upbringing with three women at a late night diner, telling an apparently uproarious story about his stepmother. Even more shockingly, at the story’s end, Roger comments, “He loves to tell stories about how poor he was.” Really? Since when? Perhaps Don’s recovery from the Hershey’s pitch and his honesty with Peggy and Sally in the first half of the season has indeed taught him lessons that he’s taken to heart.

In other respects, however, he still seems a bit lost, indicated most clearly by the business involving Rachel Katz (formerly Menken), and Diana, the lookalike waitress. Don revisits his affair with Rachel from season 1 after being reminded of her by the waitress, and then dreaming about Rachel later on. Don’s continued interest in Rachel, and his accordant attraction to Diana, is a product of his (perhaps subconscious) attempt to become more at peace with himself. Recall that Don was incredibly invested in his affair with Rachel: he wanted to run away and start over with her at the end of season 1, even revealing the secret of Dick Whitman to her (and to viewers). Granted, some of Don’s impulse to flee with her was caused by his fear of having his real identity exposed, but he still wanted her to come with him. Thus Don still thinks fondly of her, and is hit hard by the news that she has died of leukemia. Confused over his feelings, he tries to work them out by having sex with the waitress, and then by stopping by Rachel’s shiva.

Two of Don’s encounters during this story seem to indicate that Don is still wrestling with who he is and who he wants to be. The first is when he encounters Ken in the phone booth outside the SC&P offices. Ken has been fired, and is amazed by the coincidence of the timing (he was planning on quitting anyway), describing his situation as a sign of “the life not lived” (more on Ken below). This clearly strikes a chord with Don, who thinks of Rachel in precisely these terms. For him, she represents a path not taken, one that might have led him to be more at peace with himself, or the kind of person he wants to be (naïve as this feeling might be).

The second revelatory encounter is with Barbara, Rachel’s sister. Barbara knows Don and Rachel’s history, and when Don asks after what Rachel’s life was like after they parted ways, Barbara responds, “She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.” Don reacts with a look that seems to mix remorse and envy: he clearly views her as someone who perhaps could have provided him with the contented life he wanted to live, had things worked out between them (although given what transpired in his marriage to Megan, perhaps we know better. Don might simply be idealizing Rachel the way he once idealized Megan). In any case, Don still seems to have some work to do if he’s going to come to any sort of resolution in the space of these remaining episodes.

There seem to be at least two unresolved story arcs concerning Peggy. The one most obviously indicated in this week’s episode concerns her love life: will she find happiness with a romantic partner? It seems rather late in the game to introduce new romances for her and expect viewers to be terribly invested in them, although I like the idea of Mathis – perhaps the most nebbish-like, milquetoast lemming the show has ever introduced – somehow being the one to lead her to love. That said, Mathis’s brother-in-law Stevie seems like a perfectly agreeable suitor. A more interesting story arc that still seems to be open-ended is the future of Peggy’s career. This is the one I care about, as it’s a story Mad Men has strongly emphasized since the very first season. She’s become the female Don Draper, but she still works under both him and Ted at SC&P. I want to see her striking out on her own to be the head creative somewhere, and for Don to be proud of her and give her his blessing, but there are no developments along these lines in this episode.

As for Joan, I strongly hope that her arc for these final episodes involves her regaining some of the control she used to have over the way she views herself and the way she lets others make her feel. I want her to more fully rediscover the power she has over others (which she wielded so effectively in the first three seasons of the show), rather than become a victim of it, as she’s become over the latter half of the series. This episode has her moving in this direction, albeit incrementally. Joan is now a full-blown accounts woman, and in trying to solve a dilemma with Topaz, Joan and Peggy have an awful encounter with three sexist pigs from McCann, who brazenly sexually harass Joan, and to a lesser extent Peggy. It leads to another rare Joan/Peggy scene, although one filled with friction rather than mutual sympathy, once more demonstrating how far apart these two are (still!) despite their mutual upward mobility.

Peggy is remarkably out-of-touch and insensitive to how Joan feels here, sounding very much like a male chauvinist when she implies Joan should be used to being treated this way and that she invites harassment because of the way she dresses. That Peggy blames Joan is not terribly unexpected, considering that Peggy has so thoroughly insinuated herself into a male perspective through her work (she is, after all, a female version of Don). Joan rightly calls shenanigans on the bullshit coming out of Peggy’s mouth, and then defensively spews some vitriol of her own, basically telling Peggy she doesn’t understand because she’s not as attractive as Joan. The scene ends with Peggy getting in the last word, reminding Joan that she’s “filthy rich,” and facetiously claiming that Joan doesn’t have to deal with sexist assholes if she doesn’t want to (when really, it’s probably hard for Joan to escape these sorts of comments).

Here as in seasons past, other women seem to more fully realize how much power Joan actually has. Previously, Joan’s friend from Avon told her how much she admired Joan for being a partner at the agency, even though at the time all Joan could see was how much power she didn’t have. Here, it’s Peggy who has to remind Joan that her money can buy her comfort as well as insulation. It’s a message Joan takes to heart, as we next see her blowing off a follow-up meeting with one of the McCann execs in favor of a shopping spree. I’d be happy if rest of Joan’s story involved her more and more self-assuredly doing whatever the hell she wants at SC&P (especially if invokes a Pete temper tantrum or two).

Clearly there’s more in store for Roger and Pete, but they’re relegated to the background here in favor of a resolution to Ken’s tenure at SC&P. Ken’s time as the head of accounts has soured him. He never used to be terribly invested in his job, viewing it simply as means to an end, and devoting his spare time to his true passions: his family, and his science fiction writing. His job never used to be the most important thing in his life, and although he started out on the show as just another happy-go-lucky sexist, indistinguishable from the other “chipmunks” like Harry and Paul, he ultimately proved to be an empathetic character, showing concern for others (like Peggy, whenever Don would abuse her in front of him), and largely avoiding the philandering common to nearly every other male character on the show.

However, he's been worn down after having taken over the Chevy account and then becoming the de facto head of accounts in the wake of Roger’s absenteeism and Pete’s exile to the west coast. The more responsibility he’s been given, the more invested in the agency and the more irritable he’s become. Thus when his wife encourages him to retire and focus on his true passion, we can understand his reluctance to do so, and his anger with her for suggesting it: he’s now firmly committed to the agency after giving so much of himself to it (including his eye, which he sacrificed to the lunatics at Chevy). He even tells his wife he’s “proud” of SC&P. Thus it’s the ultimate bitter irony that the higher-ups at McCann (who own a 51% share of SC&P) now want Ken fired because he badmouthed them when he briefly had to work for them after Putnam Powell and Lowe sold Sterling Cooper to McCann at the end of season 3.*

*Also relevant to Ken’s firing: his father-in-law, Ed, is retiring from Dow chemical. Doubtless firing Ken while Ed was still at Dow would have jeopardized SC&P’s business with Dow, but now that Ed is out, Ken becomes expendable. 

However, what seemed to be veering toward tragedy pivoted sharply toward comedy when Ken is hired by Dow as their new head of advertising, and decides to keep SC&P on as their ad agency purely to torment Roger and Pete. Roger deserves it simply for the cavalier and unconcerned way in which he dismissed Ken after Ken’s years of hard work. With Pete, however, it’s more personal. Pete has long been Ken’s compatriot in discontentment at SC&P (even though Pete’s discontent is largely unwarranted), but when Ken meets with Pete to turn over all of his accounts, Pete demonstrates his routine insensitivity to others, complaining about the financial windfall he received at the end of the previous episode, and then unhelpfully telling Ken he can always use him as a reference. The bitter looks Ken gives Pete throughout this scene are not only delightful, but also impressive, considering that Aaron Stanton must express them using only one eye. Thus the shit-eating grin on Ken’s face when he breaks the news to Roger and Pete that he is now their client rather than their workhorse. “Shit” indeed, Pete. What goes around comes around.

Overall, I thought it was a strong start to the back half of the season, and I'm elated that my favorite show is back on the air again. Time to savor these next few months.
Other thoughts:

- Great opening to the episode, with a scene featuring Don at his most seductive, getting into the head of a model wearing a chinchilla coat and having her show him how wearing the coat makes her feel, accompanied by Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” It’s only at the end of the scene do we see a shot of the entire room, which reveals that four other people have been sitting there the whole time. What started out as an intimate seduction between two people instead becomes a theatrical performance, meant for a separate audience. Perhaps there’s some implicit commentary here on how viewers of Mad Men have responded to its scenes of seduction over the years?

- This episode didn’t really feel like the start of a new season, which is appropriate, given that it’s the continuation of season 7. I’m glad the show is back, but I’m still annoyed by AMC’s scheduling gimmick.

- I like how Art from Topaz tests the quality of the Hanes pantyhose by rubbing them on his cheek.I also like how he refers to Harry as Mr. Potato Head. Take that, Harry. If I’m cataloging all of the things that I want for characters on this show, then I suppose I want Harry to stop failing upwards. It makes him easier to hate though, so perhaps I secretly like it.

- Interesting: things have cooled enough between Joan and Don that Joan is comfortable asking Don for advice about what to do with Topaz. However, she’s still curt and sarcastic with him, which he takes in stride, offering good advice rather than responding to her frustration with her client (and any lingering resentment she might have for him).

- Lou might be gone, but Shirley is still around: she’s now working Ken’s desk… but now Ken is gone too. Shirley is becoming something of an omen of doom at SC&P. Whose office will she next cast a shadow upon?

- Loved Stan’s new look! The hair and makeup and costume departments clearly have a lot of fun changing Stan's look as the show progresses. Of all the men in the show, he's by far the one who most changes with the times.

- The McCann pigs behave somewhat like Ken, Harry, and Paul once did during the first few seasons of show: nothing but sex puns and thinly veiled sexual innuendo/harassment. It shows how far our characters at SC&P have come.

- This is possibly the most Meredith we’ve ever had in a single episode, yet it’s also the most perfunctory of her appearances. Where’s the incompetence? Where’s the child-like understanding of the world? Where’s the robotic incomprehension of others’ states of mind? It was as if her Stepford secretary act had been replaced by a genuine person capable of theory of mind. Other than her seeming to think Don’s shock and grief over Rachel could be remedied with a sandwich, nothing stood out to me as particularly amusing. I’m disappointed.

- There is no clearer indication that the show has concluded the story of Don and Peggy’s professional relationship than the absence of any scenes between the two of them in this episode.

- I like the confidence with which Don explains his familiarity with Jewish mourning rituals. After all, he’s lived in New York a long time.

- I also liked how even Mathis becomes exasperated with how wishy-washy Peggy is over whether or not to go on a date with his brother-in-law.

- What happened to Ted’s anguish over Peggy? He seems pretty gung-ho about the Vogue party in his neighborhood. Has he embraced the sleaze of all the other men around him? I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated by Ted, but I have a Ted itch that I want the show to scratch.

- Something interesting about Peggy’s dinner with Stevie is how perfunctorily Peggy describes her story: she didn’t go to college, and started out as a secretary. For someone so accomplished and driven in her professional life, she still displays a meek side in her personal life.

- I’m not sure what I want for Pete or Roger, nor am I sure of what the show has in store for them. I don’t really care if Pete ever becomes content with is life, nor do I think it possible, given the severity of his perpetual adolescence. This seems too steep a hill to climb. Likewise, perhaps Roger will learn to be more responsible, but if it hasn’t happened by now it probably never will, and I’m not really sure I would want that anyway.

- I do know what I want for Sally, however: a spin-off featuring her life as a young woman in the 70s. Okay, that's actually what I want for myself. For her, I want her to finally throw off the yoke of her mother's oppression and to become an independent, well-adjusted woman capable of happiness on her own terms. She's Betty's daughter though, so that's unlikely to happen. As for Betty... eh, I'll deal with her when she appears in an episode.

- The state of the agency another is possible loose end for the show to focus on in the remaining episodes, but this seems like something that can’t ever really be resolved. Instead, SC&P will likely just continue on as more clients come and go, and the agency reconfigures itself over time.

- More evidence of Don’s growth (perhaps): while he’s back to the womanizing ways of his year as a bachelor during season 4, he’s not as much of a drunken mess this time around. He sleeps with at least three women in this episode alone, possibly four (depending on what happened between his dropping off his date from the diner and his calling his messaging service to invite over Tricia the flight attendant), yet the philandering ceases as soon as starts to think about Rachel.

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