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Something isn’t quite right with Don Draper. Well, I suppose that completely true. He’s still killing it at work, and killing it with the ladies outside of work, but there’s something decidedly off about Don. Yes, he’s in the midst of divorce number two, so he has every right to be a bit off-kilter. But this goes far deeper than simply acting out after a split. Don is looking to numb himself. To disconnect from the reality that, once again, he’s all alone in the world.
It’s fitting that Betty, Sally, and Megan are missing from “Severance,” as it allows both the audience and Don the chance to look back on the life Don has lived to this point (or, rather, has failed to live). While the use of “Is That All There Is?” does hit the theme of the episode squarely on the head, it also makes it a bit easier to process Don’s strange and dreamlike storyline. The Don in the early portion of the episode is the swaggering ad man who slays the ladies. But, there’s still the hint of the insecure boy from the boarding house (a story he now tells for laughs and to impress those around him, rather than something he hides deep within himself). He’s still a pretender in this world, even if he’s putting on a great front.
The pretender is the one who has to have an answering service to handle all the women he’s sleeping with. The one who screws a waitress in the alley behind the restaurant. The real Don is the one who walks into Rachel Katz’s apartment hoping for some modicum of closure. Who wants to see the life not lived. Could he have been happy with her? Could he be the one sitting shiva for Rachel? Or would he have managed to destroy that relationship as well? Is that all there is – a string of broken relationships that leave Don Draper in his apartment alone?
Outside of Don’s growing existential crisis, there are a number of other employees of SC&P asking themselves if this is all there really is. Peggy jumps back into the dating pool, getting drunk and promising to fly away to Paris with her new beau. Naturally, in the light of day, rational Peggy realizes that the trip will never happen because she’s so entrenched into her current life. She left behind the life where she would have been able to fly off without a moment’s notice. She’s not the housewife with the lawyer husband. She’s the creative at a major ad firm. She threw away the life she might have led for a life in the office.
That particular choice is made even more clear in the Peggy-Joan elevator scene. Moments between Peggy and Joan are few and far between, but always brilliant. This was no different. While Peggy may not have been taken completely seriously by the pigs from McCann, she was still treated with some respect. Joan, on the other hand, was reduced solely to her looks. It’s awful to watch Joan (who is a partner at SC&P and has more money and clout than those clowns will ever have) have to fight, for the umpteenth time, for respect. Having Peggy reduce Joan to the same level in the elevator, and having her blame Joan for inciting the sexist comments, was even more horrific. But the worst moment? Hearing Peggy tell Joan that she has money and, as a result, can do whatever she wants, as if that negates the sexual harassment Joan just experienced. We all know how Joan got her power, and, as a result, the money. And no, Peggy, she has never been truly able to do what she wants.
It turns out that it’s Ken Cosgrove who actually has the ability to do what he wants while also realizing that his current life isn’t all that there is. Ken really has been in a rut over the last season and having him on the client side is probably best for the character (even if it means giving up his dream of writing, presuming that he still won’t have time for it on the side). And man, I didn’t actually think he had lost his eye (there was much confusion over whether or not he lost his eye or it was just healing, but it appears that mystery has finally been solved). But Ken making Pete’s life hell? Sign me up. Considering there are only six episodes left, it is entirely possible we will never see Ken again, and if that is the case, I can certainly live with it. This is a fine ending for him.
Mad Men is a true character piece, and this premiere (despite AMC’s assertions that this is the second half of season seven, it truly felt more like a season premiere than a continuation) pushed the tale of Don Draper closer to a true end than anything in the past has. Don has had several mini-revelations about life and all it entails throughout the course of the series, but this latest one feels like it might stick. Confronted with real mortality and his own personal failings, will Don turn his life around? Will he try to truly mend some bridges? Or will he simply stay on the carousel of poor life choices and destructive decisions that has dictated the adult life of Don Draper? Is that all there really is?
— Joan’s trip to the store (which may or may not have been the one she worked at when she briefly left the firm several seasons ago) was really intriguing. After being lambasted for her clothes and her looks, rather than shrink back, Joan simply goes out and continues with her life. It is clear that the comments hurt her (as evidenced by her own attack on Peggy), but Joan is a woman who owns her body and understands her own self-worth at this point in her life.
— Peggy, on the other hand, may be making better life choices, but she’s still so anchored to her work and the office that her passport is in her desk drawer and not at her house. Poor Peggy.
— Holy facial hair, Batman! Man, the early 1970s were not a good time for facial hair.