Aaron Yap welcomes part two of Mad Men season seven, dissecting the first two episodes and predicting towards how the show will wrap its final season.
As Mad Men heads towards the end of its extraordinarily consistent eight-year run, the first two episodes of its final season, ‘Severance’ and ‘New Business’, usher in a brand new era – and an encroaching sense of inevitability.
Last time we checked in, the social and political upheavals of the late ‘60s had crept into the workplace and inner lives of our favourite Madison Avenue ad execs. There were Vietnam War allegories, generation-gap conflicts, prickly gender politics and techno-paranoia meltdowns.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) spent most of the season as a ghost. Whether it was at his soon-to-be-ex-wife Megan’s (Jessica Paré) pot-hazed L.A. parties, or Sterling Cooper & Price, where he was brought back under strict terms that practically relegated him to the bottom – he was on the outside looking in
By the season’s finale, ‘Waterloo’, Don victoriously manoeuvred himself back into a position of power. Like the historic Apollo 11 moon landing of that episode – it was an optimistic career note. But it had the whiff of an illusion – much like his hallucination of a song-and-dance performance by freshly deceased SC&P co-founder Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) at the close of the same episode.
Written by showrunner Matthew Weiner and directed by executive producer Scott Hornbacher, ‘Severance’ is Mad Men at its dream-like best, easily my preferred mode of the show. Thematically, it leans heavily on the notion of unfulfilled lives. Those nagging ‘what-ifs’ that we fail to capitalise on that eventually return to eat away at us.
The cleverly-layered opening scene toys with the idea of these alternate realities. A model dressed in a fur coat is taking direction from Don. There isn’t much context. Don being Don, it wouldn’t be too far out to suggest that it might not just be a strictly professional exchange. He could be receiving his own intimate, sensual private show. It could be foreplay, or even role-play, during another one of his random trysts. Then the scene – hypnotically accompanied by Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There is?’ – cuts to a wide shot, revealing the bigger, “real” picture. It’s just an audition for a commercial, and we’re watching along with a bunch of other observers.
We often think we have a certain role we were cast into – that defining thing we’re meant to do in life. But it doesn’t always work out that way, and we find ourselves toiling in some other role out of necessity or circumstance. This echoes one of the show’s long-running arcs (see also: Don’s identity theft of a fellow Korean war soldier), but with ‘Severance’, we see other characters flirting with their respective sliding doors.
When Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton) is fired from SC&P, he sees it an opportunity to pursue his passion for writing. Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) reluctantly goes on a blind date with Stevie (Devon Gummersall), the brother-in-law of her junior copywriter John Mathis (Trevor Einhorn). She gets stupid drunk and entertains flying away to Paris with him. It’s the sort of sweeping, romanticised spontaneity that really isn’t her – she doesn’t even know where her passport is. Sobering up in the morning, she snaps back into Peggyland, brushing it off to “too much wine”. Likewise, Ken’s brief burst of giddy inspiration is quickly replaced by the last laugh, as he lands a job as Head of Advertising of SC&P client Dow Chemical.
For Don, his “life not lived” appears in a dream of Rachel Menken Katz (Maggie Siff), a former fling from season one whom he had asked to run away with. He later learns that she recently passed. Attending her shiva, miserable box of cake in hand, he meets Rachel’s older sister Barbara (Rebecca Creskoff). She doesn’t think particularly highly of their relationship. Rachel died from leukemia, leaving two children. “She lived the life she wanted to live,” Barbara tells him. “She had everything.” You can see the pangs of regret slowly wash over Don’s face as the awkward, stinging encounter unfolds.
Rachel’s spectre also hangs over Don’s newest lady – a mysterious, sullen waitress from the Midwest named Diana (Elizabeth Reaser). Is it a spooky coincidence that both women have dark hair, and Don’s just had a dream about Rachel? Don thinks they’ve met, but she doesn’t – a disagreement that nevertheless leads to a torrid back alley quickie.
The affair deepens in ‘New Business’, if only to a point where it underlines what a black hole Don is. Diana shares many of his haunted, self-loathing attributes. She’s trying to escape a turbulent past of death, divorce and neglectful parenting. But whereas Don thinks he’s ready for a new relationship, she realises that her time with him is only a placeholder for grief and not something she wants. Reaser’s performance is a thing of bruised, sad-eyed beauty, but Diana’s foresight to (presumably) drop out of the picture now – rather than become another casualty in Don’s long list of broken romances – is sensible.
In other ‘New Business’, Betty (January Jones) is thinking about taking up a Masters in Psychology (“People love talking to me”), Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) and Peggy dance around the slippery gender power plays of bisexual, androgynous celeb photographer Pima (Mimi Rogers), and Megan and Don settle their divorce.
The latter provides a farcical centrepiece. A routine furniture removal at Don’s apartment turns into a booty call between Megan’s mum Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who winds up footing the bill for the extra labour. “You’ve already emptied the place, you want to defile it as well?”, Roger balks at her advances, before giving in.
Don and Megan’s final moments together are quieter, an exhausted last gasp to the finish line. Rather than prolong the agonising process, he simply writes Megan a cheque for a million dollars. “I want you to have the life you deserve,” he says, in a gesture that circles back to the Rachel thread.
A rosy ending is probably not in store for Don. There will be emptiness, as several shots in these episodes seem to foreshadow. In ‘Severance’, Don enters his dark apartment, and looks in to find no sign of life. It’s contrasted in the opening of ‘New Business’ where, upon leaving Henry and Betty’s, he glances back into their kitchen and sees some semblance of the warm familial unity that he lacks.
The final shot frames Don standing bewildered, as if stranded, in his once-lushly-furnished lounge. The conversation pit is now just a pit. The sparseness recalls Diana’s ascetic low-rent digs, which he’s just come home from. This, perhaps, could hint at the kind of finale Don will get. A far-from-happy one, but something, to quote Megan, “an aging, sloppy, selfish liar” deserves.
Looking forward to catching up with new seasons of Louie (Season 5) and Silicon Valley (Season 2)… Euro cult classics Suspiria and Django are being developed into a series … Curious about M. Night Shyamalan’s first foray into TV with the Twin Peaks-y weird-small-town drama Wayward Pines debuting next month… AMC’s controversial comic adaptation Preacher has found its lead in Dominic Cooper… a Marvel mystery TV project, described as a “reinvention of an existing superhero character”, is in the works at ABC.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.