Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Mad Men: "Severance"

It's my intention to write up analysis posts for each episode of this last season (or half season) of "Mad Men," like I did for "Breaking Bad," but a quick warning first.  My available time to consume media is still fairly limited, so the posts aren't going to conform to a standard schedule.  I hope I'll be able to get them up before the next episode airs, but honestly I doubt that's going to happen. 
Spoilers ahead.
"Severance" was a mostly agreeable premiere, a place setting episode that situates us in early 1970.  Initially everything seems to be back to the original status quo for Don - he's attending casting calls and tomcatting with Roger, master of the universe again.  But now there's no Megan to make him feel old and out of date, and no Betty to remind him of his responsibilities.  He's reasserted himself at work at things are looking up.  However, Don isn't out of the woods, not by a long shot.  Multiple portents of death still haunt him, the bloody wine stain on his apartment floor and a vision of a dead woman in furs, presage the passing of Rachel Katz nee Menken, the client we were introduced to in the very first episode of "Mad Men," who Don of course had an affair with.
He's drawn to a waitress who reminds him of someone - perhaps many someones - she resembles several of his past encounters including Rachel.  Or maybe she doesn't.  Don's fixation on her reveals a need for closure, a need to process the loss.  Despite falling into his old behaviors, on some level Don instinctively seeks to acknowledge the passage of time.  Over the past few seasons we've watched Don disconnect and reconnect, destroying and rebuilding his image.  Here, he's faced with the unpleasant reality that Rachel moved on after their affair, likely to a much greater degree than Don did.  He seems torn between trying to reaffirm the connection and trying to distance himself - he tells Rachel's sister that he's been through a second marriage, but seems unsure how to parse it.
So the old conflict is still very much alive in Don Draper.  Even after grappling and reconciling with his demons for the past several seasons, confirming he's better off with this job, with this lifestyle, and without a long term romantic commitment, he's still trying to figure out how to live with being himself.  He's still obsessed with lost opportunities and looking backward - he's not grieving for Rachel, as it's made clear that he didn't really know her anymore - but the life he might have had with her.  The waitress insists that the loss doesn't mean anything, not really, but Don has always had a terribly hard time admitting defeat and letting go.  Here he's forced to, as he was forced to let go of Bert Cooper last year, and perhaps he'll be forced to let  go of far bigger things in the weeks to come.
Other characters were busily trying to break out of the status quo this week, as time quietly slips by in the background - look at the facial hair on Roger, Ted Chaough, and Stan.  Part of me was really hoping that Ken was going to make it out of the advertising business with his soul intact and go off to write his Great American novel.  But despite a supportive wife and a helpful kick out the door from Roger and Pete, Ken follows his pride instead of destiny, and gets himself even more fully entrenched in the advertising world.  And while I love seeing Ken get the upper hand, it still feels like our favorite tap-dancing cyclops has lost and lost badly.  I don't think there are any characters left on the show that I can remain remotely idealistic about - well, except maybe Bobby and Gene Draper.
Peggy is still Miss Lonelyhearts and getting bitter about it, but this is really starting to get repetitive.  After Abe and Ted, Peggy's love troubles have gone from mostly entertaining to a worrisome slog, even if it's to prove a point.  And I still love Peggy, so it irks me that her personal life is such a bore and that she's turning into a sourpuss.   We don't know if the lawyer is going to be Peggy's new beau or only a only a single date, but he's certainly not distinguishing himself so far.  With only so many episodes left to go, are we going to be left with Peggy the brilliant workaholic grump?  Compare with Joan, who is understandably frustrated at being on the receiving end of more catcalls, but happily indulges in a little retail therapy to soften the blow.
Even if she's more unsatisfied about where she is than Peggy, at least she's better at pretending to be happy.  And that's probably why she's going to come out of the series better than anyone else when the series wraps up.

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