‘Mad Men’ Asks ‘Is That All There Is?’ In Season 7 Part 2 Premiere ‘Severance’

Gigi Gastevich, Senior Arts Editor

“Mad Men” returned tonight after a yearlong hiatus, and something feels a little off.

It’s not the costumes or music or cinematography, which were on point as always — it’s an emptiness hanging in the air, a feeling that things are coming to an end.

“Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee’s voice echoes in the beginning scene. And indeed, each character seems to be asking what’s left for them at the end of the Swinging Sixties.

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It’s 1970. Nixon is pulling troops out of Vietnam; Roger is sporting a pornstache; and Megan’s done with Don Draper for good, presumably making it big in paisley bell-bottoms. Don, Roger, Joan and Pete are newly wealthy following SC&P’s acquisition by rival agency McCann-Erickson.

In figuring out how to spend their payouts (which would be about $10 million each today), Joan, Don and Roger tackle issues we’ve seen before — Joan’s trouble balancing her sexuality and intellect, Don’s need for human connection rearing its head in a back-alley tryst with a diner waitress — but this time each scene feels a little rote, like it’s been played out too many times before.

The tide is turning on Don, especially on the feminism front with the second wave movement gaining steam. Gender-heavy dialogue is becoming more and more deadpan, sometimes giggle-inducingly flat. (“I made a Pop Tart the other day,” Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law announces proudly. “It was very good.”)

In a meeting with three male executives, Joan and Peggy make the case for a department store-branded line of drugstore pantyhose, and the men can’t stop cracking jokes (“what kind of panties do you wear?”). But while we might have once pitied Joan and Peggy for being discriminated against and embarrassed, both women have now risen in the agency to become the bosses themselves — and the “not having any of your shit” looks on both their faces during the scene puts the joke, finally, on the suits across the table. Score for the ladies.

Sexism is still an issue for both women, but Megan’s ending things with Don at the end of last year’s episodes was a sign that the times are changing — toward what, however, neither Peggy nor Joan seems fully aware of yet.

The most poignant scenes in the episode are the brief return and then death of fan favorite Rachel Katz, one of the only women Don’s ever really loved. She comes to him in a dream, dressed sumptuously in a fur coat; she says coyly, “I’m supposed to tell you: you missed your flight.” The next day, Don learns she died just days before. (Don’s definitely seeing things — remember the Bert Cooper musical number from last year’s mid-season finale).

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In a dimly lit, apocalyptic-looking diner, Draper tries to sort out his feelings about Rachel to the aforementioned waitress. “Maybe you always dream of her,” the waitress muses, and Don seems to realize that, through it all, he has. He did “miss his flight,” so to speak, in not holding onto Rachel — onto any of the smart, independent women he left as soon as he began to love — while he had the chance.

If the flat way the waitress shoots him down after their alley rendezvous is any indication, Don might be losing his charm. He not only “missed his flight” with Rachel (and Betty…and Megan…) he also missed his flight out of the Sixties; he failed to age gracefully out of the era. And now, like the other partners of SC&P, he’s wondering what’s left. Has he missed his flight for happiness?

The episode is called “Severance,” ostensibly about the severance package Ken Cosgrove denies after being fired from the agency. But it’s severance in a more abstract form — the remnants left, the unsatisfying bits offered to you when something ends before you’re ready — that we see Don looking for as he faces a new decade without youth and without love.

“Is that all there is? Then let’s keep dancing,” Peggy Lee croons. And it looks like that’s what Don will do, just as he’s always done — how much longer he’ll be able to do it, though, is less certain.

Episode 8 airs on AMC next Sunday at 10 p.m. PST. Let me know what you thought here.

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