Exactly one week ago, as a friend gushed over the return of Mad Men, I confessed I had never gotten into the show and received a telling-off worthy of Don Draper himself. At the behest of this incensed friend, I opened Netflix and started the pilot; five or six hours later, I looked up and noticed the sun had gone down and I had finished the first season. I fell in love with the show as Don fell in love with Betty— lustily consumed at first sight by the glamour, the costumes, the people, the sets, the dialogue. Beauty and intrigue draped through every shot like the ubiquitous clouds of cigarette smoke.
In a mixture of impulse and ambition, I decided that I would catch up on the entire show in time for the release of the new episodes, and through a heady mixture of blood, sweat, tears and caffeine, I goddamn did it. (Please save me the embarrassment and don’t try to calculate how many hours of Netflix that is). But after seeing the new episode, “Severance,” I can confidently say it was well worth it. Mad Men is a wild ride, and though there were a few lags in the later seasons, Sunday’s new episode proved that this show is going out the same enticing way it came in.
This week’s episode starts off with what seems like a very intimate scene: a long-limbed brunette poses seductively in a chinchilla coat, following specific instructions from “sexy voice” Don. As the brunette stares up at him (and us), flashing baby blues through dark lashes and slowly drawing her fingertips up the length of her exposed leg, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” begins playing— for me, this was the defining moment when I knew the rest of the show would not disappoint.
This song choice is so perfect—the piano melody recalls a burlesque club, adding more heat to the already intimate scene, but the lyrics are even more evocative, as Lee singsongs the question Don has been asking himself every day of his adult life: “Is this all there is?” Don has been chasing a loose dream of happiness for the entire show, never satisfied with what he has, never sure what he’s searching for, but searching for something nonetheless. The song, which plays again during the credits, sets the tone not only for the episode, but for the rest of the series.
The episode continues with twists and turns of plot and character development. As the song begins to fade out in this opening scene, the frame pulls back and reveals this isn’t one of Don’s trysts but a casting call, subverting our expectations and switching our focus from Don’s personal escapades to his professional life. As “Severance” continues, we see Roger (now equipped with a mustache that would make the Monopoly man green with envy) and Don out at a diner with a group of girls. Don tells a seemingly true story about his childhood in the “boarding house,” closing the time gap since the last episode and reminding us neatly of his past as it contrasts with his present— which Roger notably points out: “He loves to tell stories about how poor he was, but he’s not anymore.”
As episode goes on, it moves between glimpses into the personal and professional lives of not just Don, but Peggy, Joan, and, somewhat surprisingly, Ken. Despite the less significant role he usually plays, Ken is one of my favorite characters because he’s one of the only truly good people in the show. He is honest (well, as honest as he can be), he loves his family, and he really captured my heart with his short story “The Man With the Miniature Orchestra” in Season 5 episode “Signal 30.” I love Ken’s storyline in this episode because it’s one of the few times we see good conquer evil as he turns his firing into a promotion at Dow, pulling the wool over Roger’s head and shocking Pete into speechlessness (a rare feat).
The storylines of Peggy and Joan are less heartening— in an effort to rebrand Topaz pantyhose, the two women attend a meeting with some men from McCann, who spend the entire time sexually harassing Joan in a disgusting display of misogyny. This scene exemplifies what I most admire about Mad Men: the unabashed demonstrations of sexism and misogyny that don’t shy away from reality, but highlight what some people might call the more banal sexism that is still common today. Though no man in 2015 would be able to get away with saying what these assholes say to Joan, Peggy’s response to the situation (a comment about how Joan can’t expect more the way she dresses) is right on par with the slut-shaming, victim-blaming rhetoric circulating society today. Keeping her head held high, Joan handles it like the bad bitch [register] she is, refuting Peggy’s insult and pointing out that the problem is how she’s built, not how she dresses. Joan later bails on a meeting with the pigs from McCann to go out and buy herself a bunch of sexy, expensive dresses, and when the department store clerk recognizes her, Joan looks fiercely at herself in the mirror and says she must have her mistaken for someone else. This was an Ilana Glazer “YASSS QUEEN” moment for me because Joan is a different person from who she was when she worked there, and she is never looking back—she’s gonna get hers, girl, and I am so excited to watch her do it.
Though the beginning of the episode made it clear Don is back to his drunken playboy ways in the wake of his second failed marriage, we do see genuine emotion from him in the second half of the episode, after he learns of Rebecca Menkin’s death. He goes back to the diner and the sex scene in the dank alleyway that follows is a poignant display of loneliness, rather than lust. This loneliness is only compounded as he inappropriately shows up at Rebecca’s shiva and then returns to the diner to sit by himself, and even before the song fades back in, the question is written all over his face: “Is this really all there is?”
Guess we’ll find out over the next six weeks.
Equally well versed in the intricacies of The Lord of the Rings and The Black Album, Caroline is a Virginia-bred writer/filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is strongly opinionated about French fry variations, Ciara, underrated animals (lemurs, goats), and gender issues. Her personal essays can be found on her website and Femsplain; her shorter and more belligerent musings can be found on Twitter @CPConrad