"Mad Men," Season Seven, Episode Eight, "Severance"
This episode is fraught with tensions. As it begins, a sexy woman, dressed in not much more than a fur coat and high-heeled shoes, walks into a room with Don Draper's gaze on her. He stands near a window, smoking and flicking the ash of his cigarette into a paper coffee cup in his left hand. He rather seductively tells her what to do: "You're not supposed to talk. Just tell me how you feel. . . . Look at yourself [in the mirror]. Do you like what you see?" She complies with his continued demands, putting her leg up on a chair as a woman's voice-over draws us into a story: her father saved her from their burning home when she was a child. Watching the fire from the street, she wonders, "Is that all there is to a fire?" The camera pulls back to reveal a group of men on a couch taking notes, and my question is answered. This is an audition for a commercial, not the foreplay to Don's latest dalliance.
The opening scene rather brilliantly encapsulates the questions and issues to be dramatized: What is real and what is fantasy? Can Don Draper and other characters ever direct what occurs in their lives or are they always subject to the whims of fate--that director across the room? Can one--particularly the women--escape the objectifying gaze of those of a higher social status? Can there be meaningful human connections forged in the world of modern advertising, which is always about commodification and acquisition? Will these characters ever be satisfied (look in the mirror and like what they see)? And then there's the reference to fire, repeated several times: the child saved by her father. We then learn from Joan that "department stores are being blown up by radicals every day." Fire is used as a form of protest against capitalist excesses. Later, Joan herself tells Peggy that she wants to "burn this place down" after the women have been subjected to sexist disrespect by the team of McCann men with whom they'd been meeting. The fantasy of fire is used to express anger and hurt over unjust treatment.
The 1969 Peggy Lee song bookmarks this episode--an atypical way for the show to use its weekly song. Raising the question "Is that all there is" to fire, to love--to life, essentially--the music expresses Don's existential anxiety over the losses he faces and the tension between them and the excesses he engages in to avoid them. Though we don't hear the chorus to the song, it hangs in the air, heavy with relevance:
Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing.
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is.
In a March 29, 2015 interview published in The New York Times, Matthew Weiner discussed his perception of how his show "mines" the secret shame that all people feel, and that leads to a sense of isolation: "We're all alone. And we all have a fake identity." While I observed in blog posts on the first half of this season that characters like Don, Peggy, and Pete were making moves to bridge that isolation and forge more meaningful relationships with others (Don with Sally, Peggy's Burger Chef campaign on a new kind of family that included Don and Pete), in their post-sale of the firm to McCann, they once again are essentially fragmented and alone, seeming to revel in the luxuries the new money can buy, but not finding real connection. We barely see Don and Peggy together. Peggy and Joan are working more closely as a team, but instead of allies in the face of the dismissal and sexist comments they receive from men in the field, they once again have an elevator spat as Peggy opines that Joan should dress differently if she doesn't want to be told she should be a brassiere model, and Joan retorts, "I don't expect you to understand." Peggy makes the first of the show's references to the fact that non-partners in SCP resent the millions the partners made in the sale of the firm when she spits back, "You know what. You're filthy rich. You don't have to do anything you don't want to!" But, Joan is doing what she wants to do. She just would also like to dress in her style while doing it, and be respected for her brains and ability. Instead, she and Peggy--intelligent, creative ad people--are objectified by the gaze of the three males across the table from them as much as the fur models are.
Peggy is attempting to create a social life for herself when she accepts Mathis' offer of a date with his brother-in-law. She and Stevie hit it off, laughing and drinking through a long dinner that ends with Peggy proposing a trip to Paris. That falls through when she can't find her passport and the next morning, she wakes up hungover and questioning whether they could have a relationship that will go anywhere.
Don starts out the episode seeming on top of his world, if in a superficial way. He's back on the team, leading the audition for the fur ad. He has a date with a model and a mustached Roger sitting between two young models. They've been someplace fancy, but are ending the evening at a diner, where Don is comfortable enough to tell stories about his step-mother, uncle, and their impoverished past. Roger tells the women, "He loves to tell stories about how poor he was, but he's not anymore." The implication is that Don really is moving forward. When he gets home and calls his answering service, he has messages from three women among whom he can choose to spend the night with. But, he doesn't seem happy. With his arm around a young, beautiful, well-dressed model in the diner's booth, he is more drawn to the hard-working waitress with the John Dos Passos novel sticking out of her apron. When he arrives home and turns on the light to reveal the empty apartment, he looks sad. Megan is gone. There is no hint at all of his children in this episode. We could be back at the series premiere in which we don't find out until the very end that this man with a lover in Greenwich Village has a wife and children in the suburbs. The stewardess on lay-over whom he calls to spend the night seems there just to dispel the isolation; she allows him to don a mask so that he doesn't have to deal with the question, "Is that all there is?" As in Peggy Lee's song, he is just dancing so he doesn't have to stand still. The news of Rachel's death, though, forces him to slow down.
Don has a special sensitivity for seeing the shades of dead people as they're on their way out of this life. Anna Draper appeared to him in "The Suitcase" (Season 4.7), saying nothing, but smiling beneficently at him as he wakes from a drunken nap on Peggy's lap. At the end of the last episode of Season 7, Part 1, he sees the recently deceased Bert Cooper engage in a song and dance routine, exhorting him to realize that "the best things in life are free." He seems in this episode to be trying on the lifestyle of the millionaire he's become, but also to recognize that it doesn't offer the best things in life. So, when Rachel Menken Katz enters the room, clad in a fur coat, for an audition, he is thrown off guard. It can't really be her, can it? Her message to him is that he's missed his flight. All he can think to say to her is the ad slogan-sounding "You're not just smooth. You're Wilkinson smooth." What the hell does that mean? A day or so later when he receives the news that Rachel had died the week before, Don is thrown into a search for what it all means. He visits the Dos Passos reading waitress and receives some quick sex in the alley. For him, it seems to be one of those attempts to hold fast to one's physical nature when forced to face the gaping hole of mortality--especially the mortality of someone younger than oneself. For the waitress, it is what she expected she'd have to pay out for the glib $100 tip Roger left her to make up for having been rude. "You got your $100 worth," she tells Don. "You can go." But, he doesn't want to go. He wants to talk to someone with substance. To someone who reminds him somehow of Rachel.
He makes an awkward visit to the Katz home while the family is sitting shiva. Rachel's sister makes it clear that he is unwelcome: "I'm not sure what you're looking for here." Don just wants some knowledge. He wants to know what happened, what her life was. "She lived the life she wanted to live," the sister tells him. "She had everything." "Good," Don replies, his face full of pain. Whether or not Rachel actually did find full satisfaction in the life she had, Don is shown the disparity between having the life one desires and living the one he has made for himself when he confides that he is about to be divorced for the second time. He's alive, but a failure at relating: to his wives, to this lover who is now dead. Rachel is dead, but leaves behind a husband, children, sister, and others who grieve her passing. He returns yet again to the diner, to the woman whose social status is closer to the one in which he was raised. He again wants answers; he is again looking for meaning--"Is that all there is?" The waitress can only tell him, "When someone dies you want to make sense of it, but you can't." Then she leaves him to sit alone at the counter, again in isolation, listening to Peggy Lee sing, "And then one day she went away and I thought I'd die, but I didn't and when I didn't, I said to myself, 'Is that all there is to love?'" Another thought-provoking question to add to the one that begins the episode. This time it is Don who is the object of our gaze, and it seems clear that he does not like what he sees when he looks into the mirror within. A haunting beginning to these last few episodes.....