'Mad Men': Tim Goodman Weighs In On "Quietly Provocative" Return

The eighth episode in the final 14-episode season didn’t need to be a flashy premiere or a shocking finale — Weiner can save whatever big scenes he has until later — but it was still a quietly provocative episode.
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'Mad Men'

This is a "Spoiled Bastard" column. It contains spoilers. That’s the point. If you haven’t watched the latest episode of Mad Men, come back when you have.

Even though I already reviewed Mad Men prior to Sunday’s premiere, it’s always good to take a deep dive in the aftermath since the series packs so many allusions and so much meaning into an hour — and nobody wants to read about scenes before they see them.

And, of course, series creator Matt Weiner goes out of his way to ask critics not to spoil specific details like what year it is, etc. Obviously, Ken’s firing and subsequent hiring at Dow Chemical — to be a thorn in the side of McCann Erickson and its 51 percent controlling interest in Sterling Cooper and Partners, was also a spoiler. As was Don’s dream sequence about Rachel Menken/Katz, which provided the fodder for one of the oddest non-dream-sequences in some time on the show, as Don became fixated on waitress Diane, aka “Di” (in yet another death reference the show is so fond of).

Weiner also didn’t want critics to talk about Don’s love life, and not doing so was a big kiss back to Weiner. Though referencing his solo status would have revealed he’s divorced from Megan (if it’s actually official), and which is the secret Weiner wanted to keep, that was already pretty clear from the midseason finale. More importantly not discussing Don’s marital status obscured the fact that he’s now unexpectedly fully into the Swinging '70s.

And that’s where we are. The first half of this seventh and final season ended in July of 1969, while “Severance” picks up nine months later in April of 1970.

One thing that the review unquestionably had to include was a reference to Peggy Lee’s cover of "Is That All There Is?," one of the more spot-on uses of music the show has ever done. You could make an argument that no song better sums up Mad Men and Don Draper in particular than that song, with its jaded disappointment in all things, good and bad, that life has to offer. Since Don has never been satisfied for any stretch of time, and looks unlikely to be before he leaves us, it’s sort of like the show’s second theme song.

"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."

Indeed.

I noted in my review that "Severance" felt exactly like what it was — the eighth episode in a 14-episode season. It didn’t need to be a flashy premiere or a shocking finale. Weiner is just starting up the gears again and can save whatever big scenes or revelations or final sentences he has for us until later. But it was still a quietly provocative episode, mostly because it focused yet again on death, a theme the series increasingly concerns itself with. And then there were the scenes with Diane/Di (Elizabeth Reaser) which were so disjointedly odd that they seemed like a dream sequence even though they’re not.

When I first watched the episode, I missed the use of "You’ve Got What I Like" from Christopher Blue (basically a one-hit wonder) playing in the background as Don and Diane finished up the sex she apparently thought he was paying for, even though it was Roger’s tip. Blue’s song is time appropriate — 1970 — and among its cloying June-moon-spoon lyrics is this all-too-accurate reference to Don’s emotional condition, particularly in light of Rachel’s death: "I used to think I had everything/Until I saw you walking by/And now I know I don’t have anything/Guess I’ll just sit and cry," which unspools in the final Hopperesque Nighthawks At the Diner moment.

That scene is unsettling precisely because it hints at more to come — which means this is probably as good a point as any to remind you that these deconstructions are fun to do and hopefully they’re intriguing as well, but nobody is going to solve this puzzle completely until Weiner airs the finale.

And yet, Don’s belief that he knows Diane is framed oddly. He mentions that the first time they meet in "Severance." And when he’s compelled to go back — after a direct reference to Rachel Menken from work — he says "I think I know you," in a way that means "truly understand" rather than "seen you around." Before that can even be pondered, Di says, "You don’t need a line. I know why you’re here. And it’s not for a cup of coffee."

Now, we could probably (but won’t) spend a lot of time on what this motivation is — and what the hell is really going on in this scene. Is Diane’s life so miserable that she feels like she needs to have sex with someone who over-tips her? (Even if the tip is, what, almost 900 percent?) Does Don — who in the spirit of the Swinging ‘70s, gets nightly reminders from a secretary service about all the women who have called him that day (four in this episode) — believe he can just walk outside of a diner and get laid? Both of those seem way too simplistic for how the scene played out in all of its disjointed nature.

“I had this dream about a woman I once knew,” Don tells Diane. “And I found out the next day she had just died.”

“Is that who you think I am?” Diane asks.

“No,” Don says. Then, tentatively: “I don’t think so.”

“When people die, everything gets mixed up,” Diane says. “Maybe you dreamt about her all the time.”

May-be” Don says. I loved how Weiner and Jon Hamm changed the spoken sound of the word.

I think we’ll find out more about this later. But most likely it’s just another reminder, and there were lots of them in this episode and tons in the seven prior, that life brings change and that change isn’t always what you wanted. Life itself isn’t always what you wanted. No person on Mad Men has lived a life that routinely reminds them of failed expectations more than Don Draper.

From the musical cues of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” and the Christopher Blue song about thinking you have something and realizing you have nothing to Ken’s mystical understanding of “The life not lived” and Peggy’s straightforward lesson to her date about not accepting something in life that you didn’t order, these metaphors were everywhere in typical Mad Men style.

Don continues to be unsatisfied. This is an episode-to-episode, season-to-season examination of his ongoing existential crisis. It’s what Mad Men has always ultimately been about. But here we are at the end — a full decade in the lives of these characters — and Don has blown through two marriages, countless women, vacations in paradise and the highest of work-related highs only to come back to the realization that it’s not enough. It’s not what he expected. It’s not what he hoped. Is that all there is?

Where we go in the final six will be, clearly, a continuation of this. That’s perfect for my desires about this series; I could watch Don be unhappy for a lot of years. But I wouldn’t rule out that he might find something that, in the last six episodes is good enough.  Perhaps it will come in the form of better understanding and accepting who he is, even while he’s playing someone that he’s not (the whole Dick Whitman/Don Draper identity issue). After all, he’s had such flashes of acceptance and happiness with his kids, particularly recently when he dropped the lies and told them where he’s from (spurred by Sally's deep disappointment and sadness about his affair with Sylvia). More of that, I believe, will help Don find something close to happiness.

What "Severance gave us then was more variations on a theme — Don’s pursuit of happiness in a life that has never been what he wanted or expected. And, with that story, everyone else follows, too, in one way or another. We might not get all of their stories tied up in a bow six episodes from now, but I think we’ll have a pretty clear understanding of what happened to them and what their mental state is as the show draws to a close.

Anyway, there are always stray observations in each episode, so here’s a smattering:

·      The “severance” in the title could allude to both Rachel and Megan or something even bigger.

·      The visual of Roger’s mustache — I certainly hope nobody ruined that in reviews prior to the show airing. A thing of beauty. And, yes, Ted also looks ridiculous.

·      Ted and Pete's return to the office wasn’t directly addressed because it’s been nine months. But I do love Pete’s recollection, which plays into so much of the visual vagaries that Weiner tries in this show: "I thought I was really changing my life by going out to California. Of course, now it really feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real." Love how that gets inverted.

·      Nobody really seems to want to work hard anymore. They’ve made their money and now it’s time to leave early. But Joan might be the exception. Yet her sexual harassment at the hands of M-E execs who didn’t take her seriously was painful to watch. Joan attempted to heal that by shopping like a woman who was “filthy rich” — and in the process she was reminded of her past. But like Don, she pretended to be someone else.

·      This episode was littered with references to travel/movement — from missed flights to “shoving off” and “landing party” etc., it seemed they were in every third scene.

·      That Jon Hamm hasn’t won an Emmy for his acting is criminal. That needs to be stated often.

·      I loved how Hamm made Don look absolutely devastated as he visited Rachel’s apartment. His eyes were wet, his face and neck tightened — not only was Rachel younger than he was, she could have been the love of his life. The life not lived. But Rachel, as her sister noted, took a different path: “She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.” Has there been a more declarative statement that exposed Don’s choices?

·      “I thought you were a fling. Now I think you could be more.” Will Peggy find happiness? I love that Stan wants her to do just that — take a chance and find out. Of course, how can anyone not love Stan the man?

·      Well, kids, even if we found out today that the Twin Peaks revival is dead, we still got Ken’s father-in-law, Ed (played by Ray Wise, who was Laura Palmer’s father, Leland, the man who killed her in the series) in a very surreal moment: “I’ve started cooking,” he said. “I actually made myself a — what is that, honey?” “A Pop Tart, Ed.” Pause, devious smile: “It was very good.” So, so, Twin Peaks.

·      And in that frame of mind, one of my favorite moments from this episode was the way that Ken asked Don, “Do you want to hear something spooky?” Sometimes you need to laugh when all around you is failed expectations.

·      There were two references to Vogue magazine in this episode. And this astute observation from Ted: "Apparently, hemlines are going up."

·      Lastly, some characters were not in this episode – like Betty and Megan, who will undoubtedly be seen later. And some we might not see again — like Jim Cutler, Trudy, Bob Benson and Lou Avery.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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