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Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: Mad Men - "Severance"

Just a quick note before I begin, as it's been a full year since I've written one of these. Going forward, I'm dispensing with the actual letter grades for these pieces, as part and parcel with our ongoing push away from that kind of grading system here at the site. To be frank, a grade and a summary is fairly perfunctory anyway. At this point, barring a disaster, just assume they're all A grades. 

If there was an image that stuck out to me in last night's midseason premiere for this final bow for Mad Men, it's the visage of what you see in the mirror. Mad Men has never been a series to shy away from heavy-handed metaphors, and all one needs to do is look at the first half of this season, with its closed door-monolith structures littering the 7 episodes that came before. After poor departed Bert Cooper's visage vanished behind that white door, we now find ourselves moving onto the next piece of symbolic household hardware: the mirror.

The opening of "Severance" basically sets the tone for the entire episode and perhaps the whole second half of this season. "Look at yourself. Do you like what you see?" Don asks a young model who is modeling a chinchilla coat in front of a panel of Sterling Cooper ad agents. In the context of the normal workaday business of the firm, this is business as usual, particularly under the new regime that oversees them (they're now under the umbrella of McCann-Erickson), but as with all things Mad Men, the symbolic nature of the scene is the key. It may be the obvious, lazy analysis...but it's clear we're talking about a stand-in for not just Don, but every character on the series (particularly those featured in this episode). These characters look at themselves, evaluating their own self-worth and decision making process while a faceless panel in suits stare on behind them with pens and pads in hand. It's now the 1970's, folks, and while the early 70's were, in essence, an extension of the late 60's; there was a sense of pervading oppression in the air. Some of it brought on by the fact that we as a culture ascribe too much value to the arbitrary change of decades, but as a continuation last year's theme of malaise after the promise of the 60's, Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" playing in the background is a fairly poignant underlining of what is likely pouring through the thoughts of everyone at the firm.

Then again, perhaps all they have to do is look in the mirror and realize who it is they actually have to blame for this sense of crushing disappointment or false hope. Sure, in terms of the macro issues that faced the country at that point, it's easy to toss the blame at a figure like Dick Nixon, who gets to make a televised cameo in the background of Don's home, just to remind you that he's out there as a figure of derision. But the reality is, regardless of outside forces, nothing has really changed, and it never really does. There's still war, there's still poverty, there's still inequity (which one of our players still has to face in a very direct way), so instead it becomes a question of "what could *I* have done differently in my own life?", what is the road not taken? This question forms the backbone of "Severance" and is made very implicit in one eye-patch wearing member of the staff.

Ken Cosgrove has never really been a central figure in the day to day of Mad Men's world, for a time he was gone completely, which "Severance" even acknowledges. This is a series that has gone so far as to make a joke about how no one actually remembers his wife's name, so much about his personal details could be considered "forgettable". He's been in a car accident, and he's lost an eye. If there was ever a person who entered "whipping boy" territory, it's Ken Cosgrove. The one thing we do know about Ken, beyond the fact that he married into a significant amount of money, is that he has a knack for writing (which years ago, Roger stifled and in turn he became another faceless company man..almost a blander imitation of Pete in some ways). With this episode, we learn one more nugget of information, that there's bad blood by the way he left his former employers, McCann-Erickson, to return to SCP. That bad blood ends with his being removed from the firm altogether after his father-in-law, an executive at Corning/Dow Chemical, retires. This puts Ken in a unique position. He's obviously angry at the lack of loyalty displayed by Roger, who is now firmly running with whatever their new parent company wants, but his wife (who is named Cynthia, for those wondering), pre-firing, presents him with the opportunity to return to that literary pursuit. In all honesty, who wouldn't want to just quit what they're doing if they're financially stable enough and in turn pursue their dream?

Sadly it isn't quite that simple. For a brief moment, it seemed as though Cosgrove was definitely headed in that much more reasonable direction. You could see it in his face when he has his first chat with Don, there's a bit of a wild look in his eye, but there's a sense of realization there, a feeling of escape and it's particularly emphasized when Pete, his all too often nemesis, states how good Ken will look on a book jacket. But there's another turning point, and it hits the moment that Pete mentions that he has nothing but good things to say about his soon to be departing Head of Accounts. It's at that moment that it all comes pouring back to him, and any sense of self-reflection that he may have ascertained from his conversation with Don was instantly wiped away by seeing the other darker side of the advertising world, in this case, Pete; who stands in as a sort of seedy underbelly of all things that Ken hates about the business. So, what does Ken do? Rather than take the higher road, and one that may very well be the happier one, he decides that short-term revenge is a better option. Taking a job at Dow, he's now going to have Roger and Pete at his beck and call as a client. It's instant gratification and redemption of a sort for Ken, but was it the wisest move? He reflected on what he could have had and turned away.

At this point, for Ken, a person who has given so much of himself to an industry that physically altered him and scoffed at his off-hours passions, revenge may be all there is. 

With Don, there's bit of self-actualization that is occurring instead. While Ken is denying what he probably should be, Don has embraced everything he was once ashamed of. Where once, stories about his impoverished childhood were a source of great shame and confession, now we see him rattling them off as dinner conversation at a diner, as he and Roger are surrounded by a bevy of young women. Don is basically a new man that's more or less embraced the old one. We saw the beginnings of this towards the end of last season, when he took Sally and Bobby to his childhood home. Everyone within his immediate family already knew the truth about his past, and it was a major turning point two years ago when all the firm's partners learned about it as well. Now, it seems like Don doesn't care who knows about his Dick Whitman past (up to a point, of course, who needs the authorities knocking on their door?). With that cat out of the bag, and his financial and professional future secured, what else is left?

Well, he's on the verge of another divorce, which hasn't been finalized at this point; but beyond that, his own emotional well-being is what's at play. Despite his immeasurable success against overwhelming odds (many of those hurdles he put in his own way once reaching adulthood, it should be reiterated), Don is still tackling the specter of his own past. There's a solid argument out there to be made that Don was a rape victim, and on top of that, he grew up in a household that had little interest in the well-being of a "whore's son". As we come to understand what it is that makes Don tick in the first place, we start to realize just why he treats women the way he does, why his emotional connections to them are so fleeting, and why he's able to toss aside meaningful relationships for casual sex. That, of course, doesn't mean it's okay or acceptable, because that's an argument that holds no water, but as with many people when we question why they do the things they do, we sometimes have to return to the nuture argument and the way in which they were raised.

Di, the waitress that Don becomes fixated on this episode, is a bit of an outward realization of those tendencies. It's worth noting that there is a particular type of woman that Don has gravitated towards moreso than any other. While he's had many flings with young blondes, and was even married to one...it's his being drawn towards brunettes of a certain demeanor that he's often tried to fill in whatever hole his childhood left him with. The evidence doesn't lie, from Midge, to Rachel, to Sally's teacher, and finally culminating in a marriage to Megan. Those are the relationships which amount to more than just a one night stand for Don, instead these women that physically resemble that mother and step-mother that were the initial birthing of his personal anguish, could very well be seen as replacements for them if we decide to get very Oedipal about it.

To that note, Don questions as to whether he knows Di from somewhere, and of course he doesn't, but he does know what she stands for in his past. This then leads to his dream-sequence featuring Rachel and his far too late attempt to reconnect with her. When he learns that Rachel has passed away due to leukemia, he visits the apartment where the mourners are gathered for her. The fact that her sister knew who Don was immediately after he introduced himself is fairly telling, as clearly their relationship meant more to either of them than could be admitted at the time. With her death, it's not as though if they had stayed together anything would have changed, Rachel would likely still have passed away, but in terms of the internalized chaos, Don is potentially sensing the chaos that he's wrecked upon other people's lives, and it's hard not to sense both he and her sister lying to each other when she's expresses that Rachel was "happy". Perhaps she was or perhaps not, as sadly we'll never find out for sure given the way Matt Weiner decided to rip our collective hearts out with her passing.

The final shot of that scene sees Don trying to look into a mirror that's been covered. Don has no way to judge what he sees in his reflection, other than a wistfulness for the road not traveled as Ken so succinctly put it in their conversation outside the elevator. While Ken turned away from the very thing he was attempting to sell to Don (via self-convincing behavior), Don may very well be on the verge of full-conversion. He attempted to reconnect with Rachel to some nebulous end, and while I don't expect him to try and find Midge in some squat of an artist's hovel, Don is certainly working out some significant issues emotionally and hopefully he'll get there and not wind up as the all too predicted man falling from a building that we see from the title sequence. Though after a doorway and a mirror, the next household hardware I thought of was a window. Eek. 

As it turns out, money and a job isn't all there is, though Don sure made it seem that way for a good long while.

Peggy, one of our two remaining plot threads this episode, has a bit of a parallel with Don's interactions with Di. While Don is attempting to figure out in a very oblique fashion what his connection to Di is beyond a sexual tryst in an alleyway; Peggy is finally taking the leap into dating again and does so by meeting with her co-worker's brother in law. Stevie Wolcott, an Emory grad, and a currently displaced attorney, ends up being one of the better dates that Peggy has had. It starts off in a rocky place, but by the end they're talking about going to Paris with each other and actually abstaining from having sex on the first date. There's some magical about the way they were able to connect, particularly in light of how awkward and ill-fitting Peggy's past relationships have turned out from Duck (too old, too troubled, and too much like the people she works with) to Abe (too counter-culture and resentful for someone who essentially "works for the man"). When she and Stevie talk, it seems like there's a genuine sense of interest between the two, and for once it feels like there's a man on the other side of the table that is actually engaged in Peggy for who she is. 

In recent years, it's hard not to see Peggy as oddly asexual, given that she's prioritized her career over her homelife. And frankly, it's hard not to blame her given her level of success and stature over her most immediate counterpart in the professional climb in Joan. But when faced with an actual relationship prospect, the kind of person she may very well spend the rest of her life with, Peggy herself begins to think about some of the crushing disappointments that have passed her by. This is particularly centered on her search for her passport. This search for her travel document sets off a temporary alarm over what she's actually experienced vs. what she sells herself as. By the next morning, she finally finds it and tosses it back in the drawer of her office, unable to face how little of her life she's really lived on that scale. When the ever so wonderful Stan walks into the office and prods her with questions about Paris, and insisting that she goes: "It sounds fun!", Peggy's response is that it's the place where margarine was invented, masking her own hurt with a sarcastic wit. "It's nothing a little aspirin won't fix".

In Peggy's world, work really is all there is. Hopefully she won't find herself following Don's footsteps too closely, but it's coming dangerously close.

As for Joan, the final point of focus this week, her struggles in the work place are as tough as ever. Around this time, the women's liberation movement was on the verge of taking hold, and it's easy to imagine in those transitional days there were a number of men in the workplace who went out of their way to "swing their dicks" and flex whatever chauvinistic muscle they still could while they could. When Joan and Peggy meet with what are essentially their employers at McCann-Erickson in order to secure Topaz Pantyhose's potential transition into a department store brand. The barrage of insults swung Joan's way is pretty extreme even for Mad Men's standards, but it's hard not to see a sense of similarity between this extreme behavior and that of what we see currently online in regard to the new wave of feminism and the overreaction of certain segments of male online presence to this sense of empowerment. It's a case of things being on the verge of improving for women, but those on the front-lines take the worst of it.

Joan and Peggy's interaction in the aftermath of this embarrassing moment, sees them lashing out at one another. Peggy veers towards being an apologist for their behavior, while Joan would obviously find it as a source of humiliation. It's a bit of a tables are turned situation, as in the very first season, Joan advised Peggy (when she first came to Sterling Cooper) that she should take all her clothes off, put a bag over her head and look in a mirror and determine what her best qualities were. Now, Peggy stated that it all comes down to how Joan dresses and questions what else she could really expect? This is clearly the wrong thing to say to a woman who was forced to prostitute herself out for the firm, but it's fascinating to see how two women who came to their own power in very different ways react to one another and internalize the values of their male counterparts. 

Joan knows how she got where she is, and basically that security that she bought herself through a very tough choice may very well feel like all there'll ever be. Luckily for her, better times will come, they won't be perfect (and they certainly still aren't today), but history is on her side. It also helps that she's stinking rich.

Welcome back Mad Men, I missed you ever so.

Thoughts to ponder:

- Terrible mustaches, like really bad ones, especially on Roger...christ....

- No sign of a wedding ring on Ted's finger, did his move back to New York signal the end of his happy family? It sounds like he has a bit of a partying streak that suddenly kicked in. I assume he's also over Peggy at this point too.

- Pete thinks he might have to become an apartment building owner in order to keep his millions. Now, that's the spin-off I want! 

- Ted states to Don as an ad pitch, "There are three women in every man's life". Hopefully Rachel doesn't count as one of the three for Don, a little bit of happiness would be nice. Just get together with Joan, willya Don?

- It was tough seeing Ray Wise last night in lieu of that Twin Peaks-David Lynch news that broke.

- Don's answering service is amazing.

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