by Linda Beail and Lilly J. Goren
The first of the final seven episodes of Mad Men opens by noting that it is in memory of Mike Nichols, most famous for the film The Graduate—itself a rendering of American life and its meaning set during the same period in which Mad Men takes place. And most of the visions of Don Draper within this episode are of him casting about, having fairly anonymous sex, or confusing his dreams with reality, only to be faced with the choices he made, the paths he choose, and what he might have missed. Don doesn’t like the emptiness of his massive apartment, so he turns off the lights. He keeps thinking he is seeing women whom he once knew. Occasionally he does some work, but mostly Don inhabits a seemingly liminal space where he might encounter an equally disconnected Benjamin Braddock, Dustin Hoffman’s defining role in The Graduate.
Don’s story in “Severance” is seen in bits and pieces, brief and bracketed by Joan Holloway Harris and Peggy Olson trying to save the Topaz hosiery account as they face the threat from the famous L’eggs’s egg, and as they fend off overt sexual harassment from their business partners at the McCann-Erickson advertising agency that now owns Sterling Cooper as a subsidiary. Don’s narrative in this episode is also seen in contrast to Ken Cosgrove and his (and his wife’s) dissatisfaction with his life as an account man, not as a writer and novelist. Don seems to move between consciousness and perhaps not—and within that space he thinks he keeps recognizing women from his past, most poignantly, Rachel Menken Katz from Season One. Cosgrove’s story is more firmly positioned within the episode than is Don’s. Ken’s frustration with being fired from Sterling Cooper, ironically after deciding he wants to quit to focus on his fiction writing, leads him to “double down” on advertising and take an even more powerful job with Dow Chemical as one of the clients SCP will now have to keep happy. This mirrors the historical events happening in the background of the episode, as President Nixon is seen on television in April 1970 giving a speech about increasing American troops in Southeast Asia after recently promising a draw-down. This “upping the ante,” personally and politically, may also resonate with 21st century viewers weary of a dozen years of war and its “surges” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Joan leaves the meeting with the offensive McCann men declaring to Peggy that she “would like to burn the place down.” Peggy admonishes her to dress differently if she wants to be respected by the men with whom they work. This dynamic has references back to the very first episode of the series, when Joan admonished Peggy to consider how she looked and what her “assets” might be. Joan responds by sneering back at Peggy that she doesn’t dress like Peggy because she doesn’t look like Peggy – “that’s very, very true.” We have seen Peggy and Joan contend with this kind of sexism before, and they are often at odds about how to respond. Peggy is outraged but insecure and jealous of the sexual attention, while Joan is humiliated but refuses to downplay her sexuality. The feminist debate over how women can best handle their own femininity in ways that gets them both respect and power continues to play out, as Joan chooses to spend the afternoon in “retail therapy”—given that she is, as Peggy notes, “filthy rich” because of the new business arrangement that Sterling Cooper made with McCann-Erickson. She does this to spite both the men at McCann and Peggy. Joan chooses to do something she enjoys, and has the autonomy and capacity to do, luxuriating in couture fashion at Bonwit Teller. Peggy, meanwhile, goes on a blind date and spontaneously agrees to a rendezvous in Paris. Her romantic tryst is cut short, however, when she cannot find her passport and misses the opportunity to catch the flight. Her seemingly promising romance may already be fizzling out even as the Alka Seltzer fizzes in her glass to cure her hangover the next morning: “Nothing that aspirin can’t cure.”
Meanwhile, Don is casting about for solace from a stewardess he knows (who spills blood-red wine on that beautiful white carpeting in his condo), and a familiar-looking waitress at a diner, all while thinking about Rachel Menken as part of putting together the Topaz hosiery account. But then Don learns that Rachel Menken Katz passed away the week before. Don tries to pay a Shiva call to the Menken Katz house, only to be confronted by Rachel’s sister who knows “exactly who Don is” and asks him what it is he wants from coming to the house in mourning. She tells him Rachel lived the life she wanted; in his dream, Rachel tells Don “you’ve missed your flight,” and Don’s regretful face in Katz’s foyer tells us that he’s well aware of his missed connection with Rachel.
Don can’t quite make sense out of any of this. He is looking for connection, as he has over the entire course of this series. Don Draper/Dick Whitman has long been in need of friends and he has rarely known how to cultivate intimate relationships. This episode brings us, the audience, back to the conclusion that Don is lonely; he is in search of the classical connection that friendship provides, an intimate bond between equals charged with both eros and trust. But we know that Don rarely trusts others, or feels comfortable with his vulnerability, but he is desperate for human connection—this is what he explains to Menken in season one, episode ten, Long Weekend. Similar to Benjamin Braddock or Jay Gatsby, Don is often surrounded by attentive people but achingly lonely. This is the tantalizing image of the American dream (just like the model in the fur coat at the beginning of the episode, who is only supposed to show a bit of her leg under the chinchilla)—the promise of intimacy and friendship without the burdens of class or position. But in Don’s case, we also see the inherent emptiness of that dream, especially as it swirls through the wealthy and elite, who have much, but are also often shown as being untethered and alone. Recall that Bert Cooper sang to Don at the very end of season seven, episode seven that the “best things in life are free;” As Don ends this episode alone at the diner counter, Peggy Lee hauntingly asks, “Is That All There Is?”
Oh, and it seems that everyone has ridiculously large mustaches. Except Don.
Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.