Monday, April 6, 2015

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 8: Severance

Willy Wonka: But, Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted. 
Charlie: What's that? 
Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.

What happens after you get everything you ever wanted?  That's the question facing many of the people at Sterling Cooper.  They have money and security - now what?  What will be their happily ever after?  Is it attainable?  Is there even such a thing?  Don and Roger look for answers in the arms of one interchangeable beauty after another.  Joan looks for things that she can buy.  Pete looks for tax shelters. Peggy considers looking for old fashioned romance.  Ken looks for revenge.  If they find those things will that be enough?  Is that all there is?

The episode begins on an unfamiliar, but strikingly beautiful, face.  A young woman enrobed in chinchilla.  Don Draper is looking at her, smoke rising between them both literally and figuratively.  He has a sly smile across his face as he instructs her on what to do - where to go, how to position herself, what to feel as she slides the fur off to show some skin.  Music rises and it's Peggy Lee talking and then singing her signature boozy old broad song of fatigue and hopelessness "Is That All There Is?"  And then as we're sure we're watching a sleazy seduction, with the debauched divorced Don playing one of his domineering sex games with a girl even younger than his recent ex-wife, we pan back and Don's in the office with a number of male co-workers who are there watching.  It's the casting process for Wilkinson razors.

Next Don is wearing black tie and sitting in a diner surrounded by a bevvy of lovelies and he's entertaining them with stories from his - nay Dick Whitman's - past, albeit with some minor adjustments. The formerly taciturn Don is now regaling people with stories from his childhood, his prickly stepmother and her well-meaning but clueless second husband and their amused boarders.  Roger and his exemplary new moustache join the group and we learn that Don is now fond of telling his Horatio Alger story of rising up by his bootstraps, especially when he can contrast it to silver spooned Roger Sterling.  In the background, Peggy Lee is still going through her sad litany of life.

Roger feels guilty about giving the waitress (who he calls "Mildred Pierce" after a waitress in a '40s film noir) a hard time and way over tips.  Don is distracted by the waitress, convinced he's seen her somewhere before.  Considering he's plowed through every woman in New York aside from Peggy, Joan and the late Ida Blankenship it's possible he has met her before.  But, no, she says she doesn't know him and we eagle-eyed viewers are pretty sure we've never seen her, but various incarnations of her.  Still, she has grabbed Don's attention and we know he doesn't just let things go.

Topaz pantyhose,  Peggy's client, is concerned that they are being outsold by the new L'eggs pantyhose and their cute little egg and low price.  Joan and Peggy meet with the client to discuss new strategy.  They don't have any great ideas, so Joan goes to Don.  Don suggests the Don Draper strategy - change your name and reinvent yourself.  He tells Joan to work with their overlord, McCann Erickson, to get an introduction to high end retailers like Macy's.

Ken Cosgrove has a visit from his father-in-law who is retiring from Dow Chemicals (a client of Sterling Cooper).  His father-in-law talks about the what next of retiring, finding new interests and chasing new dreams.  The next morning he and Cynthia talk about how short life is and why wait to do what you really love and how Ken should just quit his job and go back to writing full time and pursuing that dream.  Money is not an issue, so Ken is free to do what he really wants for once.

Speaking of dreams, Don has an odd one.  Ken opens a door and in walks Rachel Menken Katz, Don's love interest from Season 1, and it looks like she's part of the commercial casting process as she's bedecked in mink.  Dream Rachel tells Don he missed his flight and he responds with the commercial tag line for the razor.  Ken is now Pete Campbell who shuts the door after telling Don to get back to work.

Peggy and Joan meet with some co-workers from the McCann side of the company, hoping for that intro to Macy's.  They get it, but not until they sit through a barrage of puerile and sexist comments that are degrading and insulting - and par for the 1970 course.  Peggy soldiers through, ignoring their double entendres and frat boy boorishness, Joan is less even-keeled.  Later, in the elevator, we see the divide.  Peggy is all about the results - they got what they needed, so what if they had to put up with some harassment to get it.  But Joan has had it up to her eyeballs in men looking at her as a sex object and thinking that they can do and say whatever they want about her and she has to just smile and take it.

The great divide we learn in the elevator, however, is not between the sexist pigs and the ladies, it's between the women themselves.  Peggy suggests that Joan is asking to be treated like a sex object by looking and dressing as she does and Joan is enraged to see that she has to deal with this treatment from a peer as well as these juvenile boys club.  "You can't have it both ways," Peggy tells her.  There's envy on both sides, Peggy may envy Joan's money and her sex appeal, Joan may envy Peggy's ability to be thought of as a human not just a walking Barbie doll.  But rather than seeing how both are being diminished by this rampant sexism, they fight among themselves.

Meredith, the most wonderful secretary Don has ever had, a true angel and the greatest character to set foot on the Mad Men sound stage, brings Don upsetting news.  She certainly wouldn't have had she understood what it meant, she is after all Don's strength.  He had asked her to set up a meeting with Rachel Katz ostensibly to discuss bringing Topaz pantyhose to Menken's (but more likely because she was on Don't mind and now that he's newly single he wanted to reconnect with her).  But Meredith tells him that Rachel passed away a week ago.  Don is stunned (as are we Rachel-Don shippers who saw that boat sink like the Titanic).

Elsewhere, John Mathis is attempting to set up Peggy with his brother-in-law.  The workaholic at first demurs but, after her elevator encounter with Joan, she decides to be a little friendlier and more outgoing, less Peggy-like.  They have a funny awkward first date that starts in a nose dive before a well-timed compliment rights the plane back on track. A few (too many) drinks later and the woman who hasn't taken a vacation thinking of spontaneously flying off to Paris with her new friend Stevie.  But for the lack of a passport, Peggy might be in France right now.

Don is still trying to figure out where he knows the waitress from and why she looks so familiar.  She is a Midge-Rachel-Suzanne-Silvia doppelganger, in other words, she looks like pretty much everyone he's cheated on a wife with.  He goes back to the diner to talk with her and she's pretty sure she knows why he came back. She meets him in the alley behind the diner and has sex with him.  That should take care of the $100 Roger left the night before on their $11 bill.  But she doesn't get that's not why Don is there.  He's looking for something and she's a piece of the puzzle, a clue to what that something is.

Pete is going to be glad that his last conversation with Ken as a co-worker went so well.  On the heels of his talk with Cynthia about quitting, Ken gets canned from Sterling Cooper.  Apparently, he had made some enemies when he was with McCann (back when McCann bought PPL, when the Sterling Cooper group started their own agency back at the end of Season 3) and they took his father-in-law's retirement as their chance to now get rid of Ken.  He hands his files over to Pete who, though he's always been in competition with Ken, is fairly gracious in victory.  But Ken is stunned.  He now has the opportunity he's wanted forever - he can go home and write the great American novel.  Think how great he'll look on the dust cover!  Finally, at least one character on the show will get to live out their dreams before it is too late.

Joan tries retail therapy to deal with her anger following both the awful meeting with her male coworkers and her unpleasant conversation with Peggy afterwards.  If she has a body that people enjoy looking at, she's not going to hide it.  She spends plenty on beautiful tight fitting outfits and quickly corrects the sales girl when she suggests that Joan ever worked in that store (which she of course did briefly in Season 3).  She's not that person, she's Joan "filthy rich" Harris, partner at Sterling Cooper, and she can do whatever she wants.

Don shows up at the shiva for Rachel and meets up with her sister, Barbara.  She was the one Rachel had confided in about her affair with Don and about whether this non-Jewish guy could be "the one."   She's polite, realizing he's here with the best intentions.  He wants to know something about Rachel's life and her sister tells him she lived the life she wanted. He sees the group of mourners, her two children, a home full of love and sadness.

Guess who's back at Sterling Cooper?  It's Ken.  But he's not here to beg for his job back or to talk about his next novel, an expose on the advertising game.  Nope.  He's there to introduce the team to their new client.  Yep, Ken has been hired by Dow Chemicals and Roger et al. will be answering to him.  So maybe this was his dream after all, not being a writer.  Maybe he wanted to be the boss and have Roger, Don and Pete all have to bow and scrape before him.

The day after her date Peggy finds her passport, at work, of course.  Mathis and Stan ask her about the date and her plans to runaway with someone she just met.  She keeps us, and them, in the dark, but something hints at she might be ready to commit to something besides her job.

Don can't let go of that waitress and whatever she means to him - a reminder of someone maybe something now gone from his life.  He goes back to the diner and tells the waitress about the dream he had of Rachel.  He thinks it means something.  He wants to believe this all means something.  The waitress is a bit of a philosopher and tells him that he can't make sense about her death or anyone else's.  Things get jumbled, things don't always make sense.  Maybe this has nothing to do with Rachel.  As much as we know that a part of Don did care for Rachel, it may not be her life that he's needing to reconcile but his own.


Don still looks like the Don of old while everyone around him has changed their look along with the times.  Possibly because Don is himself a construct, he is not as malleable and reactive to the changes around him.  He only knows how to be Don Draper and that person looks and dresses a certain way.  Play with it to much and the fictional character will lose his identity.  That or Jon Hamm has a "no silly facial hair" section in his contract.

Of course Don knows his furs, he was once a fur salesman.  It was through that job that he met Betty, his first wife, and Roger, his accidental boss and now partner.  Betty in fact was a fur model, so Don knows his way around the casting process as well.  Furs were also a form of currency between Roger and Joan, when in lieu of a commitment or a public relationship, Roger tried to buy Joan's continued affection with a fur.

How great is Meredith?   She does research now!  Don tells her that David Bailey wants to shoot her.  This is a reference to the famed British photographer famous for his work in Vogue as well as with major rock stars of the era. 

Harry - "Mr. Potato Head."  Why did no one notice this before?

If that stewardess looks familiar, she was on Don's flight to LA last season.  She said at the time that Mrs. Draper was a lucky woman.  She probably doesn't feel that way now.

Peggy takes another step towards becoming Don  when she drunkenly tells Stevie they should run away to Paris.  Don suggested as music to Midge the bohemian back in Season 1.  Notably, neither followed through.  

The wine spill on the carpet in Don's apartment brought to mind his fever-induced nightmare in Season 6 of being stalked by an old paramour that he then kills and stuffs under the bed.  Here's where we discover that Don and Megan have made it official as Don says the earring Tricia found under the bed belongs to a woman he's not sleeping with - his ex wife.

The strategy Don suggests for Topaz, change the company name and rebrand itself as a high end product, was the same strategy that the dog food company Caldecott Farms shot down in Season 3.

The episode was dedicated to legendary director Mike Nichols who directed, among many other things (and an episode of Mad Men), The Graduate.  Nice shout out to that movie with the mention of plastics.  If they had silhouetted Don in the frame when the model raised her leg and put it on the chair, that would have been a great nod to that movie as well.

Great throwback to the pilot episode where Joan gives Peggy guidance on how to dress in the office if she wants to get a husband.  Now Peggy is giving Joan pointers on how to dress if she doesn't want to "invite" lewd sexual comments.  Maybe also a nod to how things are starting to change for women.  In 1960 the goal was to get out of the office, find a husband and live in the country.  In 1970 the goal is to be taken seriously at the office.

Another callback to the pilot comes from Don thinking of Rachel when he's looking to sell Topaz pantyhose.  Back then, he told Rachel that love was created by guys like him to sell nylons.  And now years later he tried to reconnect with Rachel (who some think could have been the love of his life) to sell nylons. 

In Season 1 ("The Long Weekend") Don had a conversation with Rachel after Roger's heart attack.  He was feeling particularly shellshocked after Roger's close encounter with death and (she felt) using this as an excuse to leave his wife and runaway with Rachel.  Don was questioning everything in life including life itself. "This is all there is, and I feel like it's slipping through my fingers like a handful of sand.  This is it.  This is all there is."  Almost ten years later he's still asking that same question. 
In Season 4, Peggy and her then boyfriend are making out and he want to "go all the way" but she refuses.  He calls her old-fashioned and Peggy asks what's wrong with that.  She tells him then that she wants to wait.  Here once again she deals with the old-fashioned mantel and she's now embraced it.  Again, she says she wants to wait.  There are the guys you have sex with and the guys you want to have a relationship with.

Peggy tells Stevie that she was once quit a job because she wanted to go to Paris.  This references her break with Sterling Cooper in Ep. 5.11 "The Other Girl" when Don has a hissy fit about Peggy wanting to stay on the Jaguar account (and shoot in Paris) which leads Don to rudely throw money at her.  That was her final straw after years of harassment and abuse and she left to join Ted Chaough's agency. 

So many allusions to fire and things burning down or being blown up, from the song, to Don's reminiscence of the poorly wired toaster, to Joan wanting to "burn this place down."

Characters dreaming of dead people is nothing new - Betty and her parents and Medgar Evers, Don and Anna, his parents and step-mother, the soldier.  But the coincidence of thinking about Rachel, dreaming of her, and then discovering she was dead was certainly something that understandably would rattle someone.  The waitresses explanation - that death can jumble facts and time - was interesting.

Peggy Lee in "Is That All There Is"  explains why she won't kill herself if she's so depressed by the meaninglessness of life - that she knows when her life is about to end, she'll ask again, "is that all there is?"  Life may be futile, its meaning illusive, but she doesn't want to get to the end any time soon.  Don has told us since the pilot episode that life is nothing - you live and you die and nothing really matters.  He's still grappling with whether that's true or whether he can find meaning.

In the song, the singer says if that is all there is "then let's keep dancing."  That is what Bert Cooper did at the end of the last half season.  After he shook of his mortal coil, and there was nothing left of his life to live, he (in Don's imagination anyway) did indeed keep dancing.

Don tells the story about Abigail and Uncle Mack, but leaves out that there weren't "boarders" but "hookers" in the old house.  He's honest - but only to a point - about his past.

One of the big questions at the beginning of every new season is when does this episode take place?  Thanks to the news report of Nixon's speech we know the date was April 30, 1970.  This is roughly nine months after Bert Cooper's death and the sale to McCann. The book and later the movie "Love Story" both came out in 1970 and were very popular.  They dealt with the death of a young woman from leukemia, so the culturally aware Don would have been very familiar with he disease that took Rachel.

Ken has probably been waiting for this opportunity since at least Ep. 4.6 "Waldorf Stories" when he was brought back to Sterling Cooper by Lane Pryce but still forced to jump through hoops by a prickly Pete Campbell before the move was officially approved.  

I was never a big Ken Cosgrove fan, primarily because I binge watched the show and so saw his boorish/sexist behavior from the first three episodes before he was transformed into Pete's foil.  I really don't care about what his character does from here and would rather have a cameo from Sal these last few episodes.

One reference to the civil unrest in the country (anti-war protests) was Joan's throwaway line about department stores being blown up.  Nixon's speech about the Cambodian invasion on April 30th sparked campus protests that culminated in the shooting at Kent State University by National Guardsmen on May 4th which took the lives of four students.

The song, "Is That All There Is" is played three times in the episode.  Although it sounds like it was from the 40s it was a current song for 1970 (it was released in '69).  The song was written by Barry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the duo behind hits like "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock."  Fun trivia, they were the producers of the Steeler's Wheel song "Stuck in the Middle With You" which was immortalized in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."

The book the waitress was reading was "The USA Trilogy" by John Dos Passos.  I haven't read it and am not familiar with it and my cursory review shows it was another "great American novel" about how great the hardworking blue collar people are and how evil the upwardly mobile are.  Seems like pretty heady reading for a waitress who turns tricks in an alley, but who knows?   Here's a summary from John Dos Passos's "USA" trilogy is a monumental work, and is considered an example of a Great American Novel. The "USA" trilogy follows the lives, fortunes, ascensions, and downfalls of various characters as their lives intersect and diverge in the United States in the early part of the Twentieth Century.  

The Hospital where donations were to be made in lieu of flowers is, according to Wilipedia, a "academic medical research facility located in Denver, Colorado specializing in respiratory, cardiac, immune and allergic disorders. It was founded in 1899 to treat tuberculosis, and is today considered one of the world's best medical research and treatment centers."

Pete kids about Ken handing him files of clients they don't even represent anymore like Fillmore Autoparts - a client we saw only once, during Ep. 4.09 "The Beautiful Girls."


Roger:  Don't go back there.  A lot of roaches.
Girl:  Are you surprised? 

Roger: Only by the size.  There was one making a phone call.

Mathis (to Peggy): You know you're a catch.

Rachel: I'm supposed to tell you you missed your flight.

Ken (of Dow Chemicals, where he later goes to work): Your father was a cog in a giant machine that makes weapons and poison.

Ken: That's not a coincidence.  That's a sign.
Don: Of what? 

Ken:  The life not lived.

Pete: Do you know how great you're going to look on a book jacket?
Ken: I have thought about it.

Pete:  I thought I was really changing my life when I went out to California. Of course, now it sort of feels like a dream.  But at the time if felt so real.

Stevie:  What am I supposed to do? Send it back like a prima donna? So you're just gonna eat someone else's dinner? So I can either be a jerk and send it back, or eat it and look weak.

Barbara:  She lived the life she wanted to live.  She had everything.

Peggy: That's so old-fashioned.
Stevie:  I've tried new-fashioned.

Waitress: When someone dies, you just want to make sense out of it.  But you can't.

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