Peggy Lee’s existentialist song “Is That All There Is?” bookends the premier of the second half of the final season of Mad Men. The song’s narrator speak-sings about how disappointing and pointless life can be, and how alcohol and dancing may be the only succor. It’s a fitting theme for “Severance” an episode that may be a bit underwhelming at first glance, but after repeated views proves to be one of the strongest in the show’s history.
And throughout the seven seasons, Mad Men‘s antihero Don Draper personified destructive ennui. In “Severence” Don’s feelings of self worth as well as satisfaction are put to the test. He realizes just how empty and sad his life is: two divorces and a string of failed affairs. Rachel Menken, Don’s first season tryst comes back – both in a dream and in death. It’s a terribly sad moment to learn that Rachel died because of all the women Don had affairs with, Rachel was the most appealing (and yes, I’m including both Betty and Megan).
Rachel’s Judaism was a way for Don – he saw himself as an outsider in his world, and Rachel was constantly an outsider when she left the secure confines of her family’s department store. And though Don displayed a lot of the casual bigotry and antisemitism of the era, he managed to transcend his personal limitations and fall in love. Obviously, if he had married Rachel, he probably would’ve cheated on her and made her miserable, just as he did with Betty and Megan, which makes it all the more poignant that when Don stops by for Rachel’s memorial he sees that she forged a fulfilled life (and had two kids), while he remained – emotionally – at the same place. Rachel is also the second woman in Don’s life who dies during Mad Men‘s run – Anna Draper was the first, and it’s clear that these two departed women were the women he cared for the most.
But Rachel’s death doesn’t mean she’s absent from the episode. In fact she haunts the episode. Her presence is felt everywhere. When Don’s at the greasy spoon diner with Roger and some beautiful young women, he sees Rachel’s face in the overworked waitress, Di. Roger (sporting a hideous mustache) treats Di with contempt and throws a $100 bill. When Don returns, he and Di have a depressingly unerotic tryst in an alley, that seems to highlight just how little Don has evolved since the show’s start. Rachel also appears in Don’s dream as a model auditioning for a fur ad. Don used to sell furs, so the dream is a clever way of harking back to his former life; more than any other character on the show, Don had to reconstruct a new life for himself, and it’s interesting to see the tension that naturally springs up from living a lie. In a sense, Don’s a bit like Sal (remember Sal?) because like Sal, Don was also forced into a closet. It’s too bad that Don’s experiences don’t lead him to sympathy and kindness – instead, he’s always on the verge of self-destruction.
But Mad Men isn’t just about Don. In fact, even though the show’s title refers to the men on Madison Avenue, it’s the women of Mad Men that often get the juicier story lines. Both Peggy and Joan are living examples of the progression of the feminist movement, even though their roads to financial and professional success was dotted with personal humiliation and devastating compromise. The two ladies are trying to help out Topaz’s executives overtake Hanes in selling discount pantyhose. Don suggests reaching out to department stores, which has Peggy and Joan face off with three of the most sexist clods on the planet. While Peggy’s virtually ignored, Joan is subjected to some of the most crass and vulgar double entendres in history. Now normally, Joan would simply cut them down to size with her sharp wit, but she’s at a disadvantage, so she simmers, while the guys make obvious boob and leg jokes. Both women ride the elevator in mutual disgust and self-loathing. Peggy makes the awful, awful, awful choice of blaming Joan for the guys’ behavior. Joan lashes out, basically calling Peggy ugly and plain. It’s an awful exchange, but what is so startling is how today the whole nasty episode feels – from the meeting with the asshats to the disgusting way Peggy victim-blamed (and slut-shamed) Joan, what Mad Men is showing is that even if the sexism and misogyny reaches almost-cartoonish heights, things aren’t all that different from today (think about it, how many conservative yahoos in the past two years have blamed rape victims for being raped). I wish Joan and Peggy bandied together to fight against the sexist establishment – and maybe that’ll come. Interestingly enough, the perceptible shift in women’s rights as well as gender roles hasn’t really taken hold on the show. Peggy and Joan succeeded but they’re not interested in bringing their sisters on board to social, financial, and professional parity. They’re in for themselves. That’s not a judgment – no one is obligated to be an activist. But the quick and easy way the two women turned on each other illustrates just how destructive and shaming sexism can be.
Possibly due to Peggy’s comment, Joan decides to march over for a shopping spree. As Peggy pointed out, Joan is “filthy rich” (interesting choice of words, given just what Joan did to get so rich), and she asserts her privilege after being humiliated. The only place where her privilege runs unchecked is in the department store, where she can afford expensive clothing. Like Don’s past, Joan’s comes rearing back, when the salesgirl recognizes her from when Joan was a salesgirl herself, after quitting the ad agency. And like Don, Joan does her best to dismiss and bury that past.
Peggy, on the other hand, is feeling a familiar sense of “Is that all there is?” like Don, because she’s achieved the professional goals she was working her ass off for, but she still wants something more. When she’s on a blind date with Mathis’ brother-in-law, Steve, she boasts of the exotic locales used for the ads, but realizes she doesn’t get to go to any of them. This realization sparks a futile desire to chuck it all and fly off to Paris. Drunk from her date (who just wants to have sex), she is intent on booking a flight for the City of Lights – but the next morning, reality and reason sets in, and she scuttles the idea (which doesn’t sound like the worst idea in the world). Bitter and pissed, she mutters about Paris, “where margarine was invented.” Peggy was never going to fly to Paris – at her most spontaneous, she’s far too cautious and reasonable. Still, it was interesting to see her indulge in the less structured side, even if it was for an evening (and even if it was because she was tanked).
Finally, the title of the episode itself. Severance refers to the financial package dismissed employees receive. Ken Cosgrove, whose father-in-law recently retired – is fired after his services are no longer needed. It’s nothing personal – and Roger couldn’t be bothered. In fact, Ken’s expected to pass off his clients to Pete. Some people may be surprised at Roger’s obliviousness, but I’m not. Roger’s belief that Ken will be the good little soldier is exactly the reason why Roger’s time has passed. More so than Don, Roger’s a staggering dinosaur – quickly becoming irrelevant as the years pass by him; because he refuses to change or evolve with the times, he’s going to be increasingly left confused and nonplussed when things don’t neatly fall into place according to his wishes. In Roger’s mind, Ken was a dutiful and fortunate employee who benefited from years of experience under his tutelage. It would never occur to Roger that Ken would feel resentment or anger at his superiors. So when Ken does strike back, quitting the agency and joining Dow, becoming one of the firm’s biggest clients, he’s left with egg on his face. And Ken promises to be a very difficult client, ensuring that the slight will not be easily forgiven.
As Peggy Lee’s distinct voice asks, “Is that all there is?” we see Don left alone in the diner contemplating his life. He has been shaken to his core by Rachel’s death, but also by how much she lived and how different and unpredictable her life was when they were apart. Life went on without him. It’s an important lesson for Don to learn. Because he’s so self-centered, he often forgets that the women in his life – Betty, Megan, Sally, Peggy – they aren’t merely satellites that orbit him – and he’s always caught off guard when he’s confronted with the realization and knowledge that the women in his life aren’t there to be appendages to him. Don needs to make some major changes in his life, otherwise, he’s going to be left behind.