"Severance" (Season 7, Ep. 8)
I know plenty of people who don’t watch Mad Men.
They almost always have a reason. The most common one has to do with being turned off by what they feel is a romanticized, overly glamorous version of 1960s America. That’s easy enough to understand. Much like The Sopranos—which initially gets our attention with laugh-out-loud humor and clever violence, before seducing us completely with terrain-altering character work and finally leaves us feeling complicit in the bleak reality of its latter seasons—Mad Men opens light. Its early episodes are visually beautiful, crisp and indulgent. Its main character is the world’s handsomest, coolest, most talented adulterer. The action is loaded with enough wink-wink references (bigotry of all kinds; chain smoking; alcoholism; questionable parenting; littering) to put off any modern viewer who doesn’t quickly hook in to what’s happening beneath the surface. Because something is happening. The Sopranos isn’t just a funny show about the mafia. And with Mad Men, the glamour is most certainly not all there is.
In the famous surprise at the end of the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” we learn that the swaggering Mad man Don Draper goes home to a red-doored suburban home, an eager, angelic wife, and two sleeping children. This guy has a family? Gross. But this isn’t your typical two-timing executive. Not quite. A strange, confused longing emanates from Don as he gazes at the perfect picture of his life (“You have everything. And so much of it.”). And that’s the thing. The thing that makes Mad Men more. Something else is happening here, even if we don’t yet know what Don’s trouble is, nor just how unlikely it is that he’ll ever truly pull himself out of it. That’s all still waiting for us.
Forgive me. If you’re reading this, you probably know Don’s Kodak pitch from “The Wheel” as well as I do. But let’s revisit it together here, at the opening of the close:
“...he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate but potent. ...in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means, 'the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
This device isn’t a space ship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called The Wheel. It’s called The Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
Six and a half seasons later, “Severance” plays with us a bit, leaning into the nostalgia that would accompany the show’s final premiere episode whether it was ever acknowledged or not. We begin in a room with a Don who seems very much like the version we first met in 1960. He looks relatively healthy leaning up against that wall, tapping his ashes into a paper cup, seducing/directing a lush young woman in a fur coat. A fur coat again.
His speech is typically hypnotizing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Whatever dark secrets we learned about 1960 Don, we didn’t yet know what it was like to see him fail. The bottom had not yet dropped out. Even if his confidence was always a precarious fiction, propped up by an unfair and ugly world, it feels good to bask in a version of its glow once again.
Of course, it doesn’t last.
We next see Don sharing a booth with some random women at a dingy diner, drunkenly telling a story about Abigail, the woman who raised him in a brothel. It’s a shock to hear him talk so openly about his childhood in front of Roger, who sits across from him sporting a perfectly sickening 70s mustache. This is it, friends: the glamour is officially gone.
On the one hand, it’s a thrill to see Don out in the open, no longer encumbered by his secret. On the other, honesty doesn’t seem to have clarified his life all that much. Back in “The Wheel,” Don was already looking at slides of Betty, Sally, and Bobby with a sense of loss. That family, that place where he knew he was loved, may never have really existed. But it has never felt farther away than it does now, as we near the end of the series, when he returns to his empty condo and surveys the home he shares with no one.
Again and again in “Severance,” we watch our characters navigate decidedly unglamorous—sometimes downright depressing—waters. Don’s got a rotating roster of one-night stands in his message box, an old earring of Megan’s lying discarded under the bed. Roger has that mustache. Joan, now a millionaire, partner, and account executive, is getting the same degrading treatment she got back in 1960, only now she’s weighed down by the internal reverberations of her own Jaguar decision (more of this, please).
Pete recalls his uplifting time in California as a dream. And it looks like Ken Cosgrove won’t ever write his novel, after all. Only Peggy “It’s nothing a couple of Aspirin won’t fix” Olson seems on the upswing, ever dynamic, dishearteningly unsympathetic to Joan, with a knock-out first date complete with blushing and next-day embarrassment. (I won’t get into who plays her date, because I can’t even. This was a major, cosmic reward for me personally. Another treat, well timed during this trying week for Twin Peaks fans, was Ray Wise’s Leland Palmer-iest Mad Men moment yet. Over a Pop Tart, of course.)
Speaking of Twin Peaks, the theme of dreams runs side by side with nostalgia throughout the episode. Indeed, the entire thing feels like an extended dream sequence—this is Weiner via Chase via Lynch. It is slow, odd, and opaque. Every moment is loaded to bursting. Even the waitress whose face we recognize from other shows speaks in riddles and wears a uniform straight out of the Double R Diner.
Don’s face is a mask of pain as he learns that Rachel, the second of the three women who really know him, is dead. “She lived the life she wanted.” Was this Don’s life not lived? The question hangs on his face, around his neck, as if he’s sick of asking it but still can’t stop, and as he searches the face of the familiar waitress, still trying to place her, the words he uses to describe his dream sound like they could be another verse of Peggy Lee’s song. “I had this dream about a woman I once knew, and I found out the next day she had just died."
And then, later: "I just want to sit here.”
What a long way we’ve come from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” And yet, perhaps this was all there from the beginning, deep under the shiny surface, just waiting to be unpacked. Maybe that’s the troubled question that was in Don’s face as he looked as his sleeping children. Say what you will about Mad Men - it is nothing if not deliberate. It won’t end with a bang, or wrapped up with a tidy bow. That has never been a part of its DNA.
I wish it would never end; let’s talk about it forever.
Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.