'Mad Men' Returns With Familiar Faces And New Dilemmas

04/05/2015 11:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

Warning: Contains spoilers for “Severance,” the eighth episode of the final season of “Mad Men.”

“She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.”

Welcome to the first of my weekly “Mad Men” reviews -- this week kicks off the real beginning of the end. After tonight, there are only six more episodes to go before it’s finally all over for good. No, you’re getting a little choked up, I am totally fine! If you could just pass the tissues and bourbon, please, we'll get started.

In all seriousness, it really is going to be sad when “Mad Men” ends. I’ll miss it a lot. That said, AMC hasn’t done the show many favors by splitting up its final season, although if this bit of foolery gets Jon Hamm an Emmy statue this fall, I’ll eat my words. (The thinking is, with Bryan Cranston out of the running, this could be Hamm's year. He surely deserves an Emmy or five, but I think awards-reaping period is over for "Mad Men.")

In any event, let’s not kid ourselves: The split season was more about AMC trying to supersize the show in its home stretch, which is not something that should be done to a show as artisanal and idiosyncratic as “Mad Men.” Every season takes its time building up a head of steam; there's usually a long, digressive period of setup before the big moves kick in during the last third of a season. Structurally, the divided season of "Mad Men" is just getting in the way of that hard-won and often satisfying momentum.

And "Mad Men" simply isn't like other high-profile shows that have ended in recent years. There is no “solving” the show's core mysteries; there is no pressure-cooker plot that we’re all dying to see resolved. There are just a bunch of wonderfully complex people trying to figure out how to live with their dissatisfactions and to keep alive the connections that are meaningful to them. I highly doubt Don will spend any nail-biting time trying to figure out how to defeat a gang of neo-Nazis, as Walt did on "Breaking Bad."

Of course, there are still loose ends that need to be tied up, and there's reason to believe that many of the endings we arrive at in the next six episodes will be happy ones -- well, as happy as life gets for these complicated characters. Certainly for many of them, a kind of bittersweet, semi-reliable contentment doesn't feel out of reach. One thing I love about "Mad Men is that it not only resists description (despite the billions of words expended on it) -- it also skirts past absolute pessimism. We’ve seen the characters down and out and in black moods and succumbing to sad moments. But the show wouldn’t work as well as it does if I didn’t sense that creator Matthew Weiner was rooting for the characters (most of them, anyway).

“Mad Men” doesn’t fully embrace cynicism about human nature in the way “The Sopranos” often did, even though Weiner worked on both shows. Of course, both "Mad Men" and "The Sopranos" deserve to be in the television pantheon, but I have to admit, I’m hoping “Mad Men” ends on a note that we can interpret as at least somewhat hopeful. All due respect to Anthony Soprano’s exit, but no cut to black, please.

The good news is that the ending of “Severance” gave me reason for optimism. Much of the episode was a loving tour of “Mad Men” moments from the past. We got a final glimpse of a character from the pilot, Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), who, in that first episode, was the recipient of Don’s sardonic monologue about advertising: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”

Nylons were featured prominently in the Topaz storyline, and the visit to the grungy diner and even the old-school coffee cup Don held in the opening scene made me think of past cheap meals enjoyed by the “Mad Men” crew (most significantly, Don and Peggy’s visit to another roach-infested coffee shop in what many, including me, think is the show's best episode, “The Suitcase”). Don also enjoyed a dalliance with a waitress, though (and this is a sign of emotional progress on the show), he didn't ask her to slap him.

More importantly, in that opening sequence, we saw Don do that thing he has done so well for seven seasons: He expertly created a moment of intimacy that, as it turned out, wasn’t intimate at all. We thought he was seducing the young woman in the fur coat, and when Jon Hamm goes Full Draper, as he did in that scene, the seductive sensuality is always effective. The woman understandably responded to the Full Draper vibe, as women do.

But, as is so often the case with Don, the seduction was a performance. He was working on an ad campaign in full view of a room full of executives. Still, as with any skilled performer, there was truth in the scene, and some part of Don was clearly in that moment. You have to wonder whether he felt any nostalgia (“the pain from an old wound”) as he looked at the fur coats: His first advertising job, we learned in the Season 1 finale, was working for Teddy, “an old pro copywriter” who taught him to write about furs -- and about the meaning of the word “nostalgia.”

Nostalgia was indeed a potent lure in "Severance," but the way the episode ended was forward-looking. Old Don was obsessed with nostalgia for a past he didn’t have. Could his future have more to do with another Greek word: agape, or love that expects nothing in return? One can only hope.

Sitting in that old, grungy coffee shop as the episode ended, Don was still Don, but there was something different about him. He's open and honest about who he was in the past, and his dual identities don't tear him apart anymore. That final tableau contained the melancholy -- but also the peacefulness -- of an Edward Hopper painting.

The Don we know now is a synthesis of the men he has been in the past, and knitting together those past selves represents a major accomplishment. He began the show as two people alienated from each other and from themselves: Don Draper and Dick Whitman were constructs that he had to both embody and repress, because neither of them represented who he truly was. When we first met him, he looked like he had it all, but what he really had were scattered pieces of identities that he kept on lockdown unless he needed them.

Don Draper, the ad man with the cool mistresses and the pretty wife and the whole nine yards -- the past seven seasons have seen Don tire of the strain of that performance and, eventually, question the need for it. And as he’s deconstructed his false selves and built up a new one that seems more real, his life hasn’t fallen apart. Well, it did once or twice, but he built it back up again, and he's come to terms with his demons, up to a point. Don's life has its satisfactions and even its joys: He's still got a good job. His colleagues recognize his skill. His daughter still speaks to him (let’s hope). Ultimately, it wasn’t the end of the world for him to finally get much more real about who he is.

How shocking was it that it wasn’t shocking for Don to regale Roger and friends with tales of his poverty-stricken past? Far from keeping it a secret, Don has embraced the tragicomedy of Dick and is now dining out on old-time anecdotes about his messed up early life. To be sure, this is also something of a performance -- Don is leaving out the worst stories about his upbringing. But it must be said, the Don without much left to hide is a healthier human being, one with less of a burden to carry. The Don of the show's pilot made his life look effortless, but the Don of “Severance” is expending far less energy on maintaining a false image.

The new Don -- the one who doesn’t have to choose between his Don and Dick identities -- won’t necessarily stop making mistakes. Of course, Don still had sex with a waitress he just met in an alley. As you do.

But as I said in this collection of predictions about where “Mad Men” will end up, my hope for the man is that, as he goes forward, he makes a better class of mistakes. He will keep screwing around, and screwing up in general, until the day he dies. But the man sitting in the diner at the end of "Severance," the man who just wanted to drink a cup of coffee and maybe even establish a real connection with that waitress? That man seems more at peace than the man we met in the "Mad Men" pilot.

Of course, Don is absolutely adhering to an old pattern -- feeling the pain from an old wound, if you will -- in his pursuit of the waitress, Diana. (Don, you may have noticed, has a type, and it generally involves whip-smart brunettes with a touch of attitude and a storehouse of secret pain.) The death of Rachel clearly led him to pursue the haunted Diana, who looks more than a little like Rachel, but also like Midge, Megan, Sylvia and Suzanne. (And I know Don has more than one type. Cool and collected blondes -- Faye, Betty, Bethany -- represent his other general preference.)

It’s worth thinking about Diana’s name, which carries with it a host of mythical associations. The Greek goddess Diana was strongly associated with the hunt, and nothing turns Don on more than chasing after a woman who gives him mixed signals. This episode had a couple of other Greek references, actually. One of the first images was of the coffee cup with ersatz Greek letters and figures (into which Don metaphorically put out a fire -- his cigarette). There was also the hinted-at callback to Teddy the Greek, who taught Don about nostalgia.

Don’s difficult quest for Diana brought out one of the major themes of the episode -- the pursuit of money and how it helps, or interferes, with obtaining deeper kinds of satisfaction. 
Diana was put off by Roger’s rudeness, and then she thought the $100 he left was from Don. So to her, their sexual encounter had an element of monetary exchange. That, of course, brings up Don’s mommy issues: Sex and money are forever mixed up in the head of the boy who grew up poor and had a sex worker for a mother. All these confusions -- mother, money, Rachel, death, sex -- only make Don more eager to see more of Diana, whom he associates with his past (“Do I know you?”). Well, Don, let’s get real, you’ve slept with 40 percent of the women in Manhattan at this point, so you may already “know” Diana.

But perhaps he “knows” her in another way, too: In Diana, he sees another working-class striver who is far more complex and intelligent than her circumstances would indicate. She is worth hunting, and the fact that an actress as well known as Elizabeth Reaser played this role makes me wonder if we’ll see the emotionally elusive Diana again.

Do you have what you want? Can you get what you want? Can you buy what you want? Who or what is standing in the way of what you want -- and could the obstacle be your own anger or confusion? Do you even really know what you truly want? Is that all there is? These are all the core questions of “Mad Men,” and it’s telling that while Don certainly experienced grief and disappointment in this episode, he remains on a relatively even keel. Other characters had more trouble with these questions than he did. 

Ken thought about whether he’d really rather quit and finally write that sci-fi novel we’ve all been waiting for (my proposed title for Ken’s novel: Prisoners of the Sky). He could have quit, but he won’t. He’s long known he could live off his wife’s money while he wrote, and getting fired would have led to a severance payout that would have helped even more.

But ultimately, Ken didn’t really want that. Vengeance was more important to him than artistic creation. I can’t say that I blame him. To be able to turn the tables on both of his old firms -- the combined McCann and SC&P -- was just too juicy an opportunity to pass up. But Ken should not kid himself about wanting an out from corporate life: He has had at least a few exit strategies presented to him on a silver platter, and he has chosen not to take them. He thinks his father-in-law got off the corporate merry-go-round too late, but won’t Ken make the same mistake? As with Don, the question is: Can he change, or at least learn to make better mistakes?

I have no idea what will Ken do with the rage that being a company man will probably continue to produce in him. His jittery scene in the phone booth gave the entire episode a foreboding air. I honestly was worried that Ken would find Pete’s shotgun or some other weapon and do something terrible to himself or someone else. It didn’t happen in this episode, but as I said in the most recent Talking TV podcast, I’m convinced someone major is going to die before the show ends. I have no inside knowledge, of course -- I’m just guessing -- but this is a show that has deployed symbols and totems of death for years now. Something bad will happen, though I doubt the person who dies will be Don (or Sally, or Peggy, for that matter).

Frustration was also the order of the day for Peggy and Joan, who employed two different modes women often use to deal with sexist behavior: Peggy ignored and deflected it, while Joan used a series of ice-cold stares and a comment that expressed just a sliver of her otherwise silent rage (“Excuse me?”). The women disagreed vehemently in the elevator about how they should have handled the meeting, just as Ken and his wife disagreed about what to do with his career. “Just how much shit am I supposed to put up with?” was the prevailing question, though Peggy and Joan have far fewer options than someone like Ken, who could leave behind the indignities he faces any time he wanted.

Peggy and Joan's meeting with McCann was absolutely representative of various kinds of sexism that any woman over the age of 12 has encountered (Yes! Still!). The three men they encountered may have been particularly egregious and awful, but those attitudes and behaviors were common in that era (and still around today, in subtle and unsubtle forms).

That said, I found the women’s fight in the elevator hard to reconcile with what I know of each of them. Do I think they’d disagree about tactics and take out their frustrations on each other? Sure, people do that, especially after an upsetting experience.

But do I think Peggy and Joan would be that unsupportive of each other’s choices at this stage in their friendship and/or professional association? No, but then “Mad Men” is frustratingly inconsistent about this. The two women's interactions seem to depend on the whim of the show, not really on any kind of believable depiction of the development of their friendship. Both Peggy and Joan accepted long ago that they approach the work world differently, and despite that, they've often found common ground. I understand that neither woman explicitly identifies as a feminist, but I don’t know that I buy that they’d be at each other’s throats in a moment like that. Yet this episode seemed determined, despite their history, to force Peggy and Joan to enact a tiresome cliche: Women who disagree with each other must, naturally, engage in a claws-out catfight.

That felt off. I also didn't love that the show has turned Joan into someone who seems more cold and shallow than she was in earlier eras. The show itself felt as if it were patronizing Joan -- patting her on the head and saying, "Oh, just go shopping, that'll make you feel better." Really? Would it? Joan is an intelligent woman who has navigated treacherous waters at work for decades at this point. There's nothing wrong with retail therapy, but to show that as her only response feels unfair to the complicated, experienced woman we know lies under that controlled surface.

I have other frustrations with how these women have been depicted, despite the skills of the actresses playing them. Mathis was correct: Peggy is a catch, and so is Joan. In the last few seasons, it has become increasingly strange that “Mad Men” has made their personal lives such parades of misery. It implies that professional women -- or women in general -- just can’t have jobs they’re good at and sustain fulfilling intimate lives and sexual relationships. Sure, these endeavors may have their challenges, in that era and now, but women totally can do this! Unfortunately, you would never know that from “Mad Men.”

All in all, however, it was enjoyable to plunge back into the symbolically and thematically rich territory of "Mad Men," and Peggy's and Joan's stories aren't over yet. There are still six more episodes to go, and who knows, Stevie (Devon Gummersall) might be The One for Peggy. I certainly hope either Stan or Stevie ends up giving Peggy the loving, supportive relationship she deserves (if that's what she wants, that is).

Though I’ve been Team Stan for years, I was instantly charmed by Stevie, who was drawn into the debate Peggy had with herself about assertiveness. Perhaps her desire to get Stevie to send his meal back had to do with some guilt that she didn’t push back against the McCann goons in that meeting. As the show has so often demonstrated, Peggy walks an impossible line, one that so many women still attempt to navigate: The assertiveness she has to demonstrate at work can easily be received negatively by men, but if she had been too shy and retiring, she never would have gotten a single promotion. She can’t win, but part of the reason I love Peggy is that she never lets that stop her.

Stevie seems to like her strong will, which is as it should be for any man who wants to be with our Peg. So many shows have done “and then they went to Paris” in their finales that it has become something of a cliche, but if that’s what happens to Peggy and Stevie, I can’t think of a reason to object just yet. I mean, how about that goofy grin on Peggy’s face after Stevie left her apartment! We need to see that more often.

I’ll put the rest of my observations into a handy list:

  • Who would win in a battle between John Slattery’s ‘70s mustache and Ted Chaough’s handlebar specimen? Who?
  • I totally don't care if we don't see Megan or Betty this season, although I am 100 percent sure we will. Ah, well. I've seen a number of pieces about "what we want" from "Mad Men" before it ends, but I only have one real desire, other than the ones I listed above: I don't want characters I don't care about to crowd out ones I love spending time with. And if a TV show doesn't do my bidding, that is surely a tragedy for America.
  • I may be reading too much into all the references to Greek mythology and so forth, but Don’s date spilling the wine reminded me of Dionysus, who does appear to be making sure that post-Megan Don is never short of potential dates.
  • Raise your hand if you were hoping that Joan’s fury would end with her shooting death lasers out of her eyes and incinerating those guys from McCann. I would watch that superhero movie 1,000 times.
  • You can look at Don’s growth as a man as being directly related to his ability to grieve -- he had to learn how to grieve for his mother and for Anna, and he had to to come to terms with the memories of his dead, abusive stepfather. All those losses -- plus the ends of relationships that he knew were doomed from the start -- may have prepared him for the pain he felt upon hearing of Rachel’s death. It hurt, and he was sad, but it didn’t send him on a bender, as it might have done in the past. Instead, he bought a cake and paid his respects. I hope seeing Rachel's kids and hearing about her life from her sister helped him accept that she did experience some joy before she died. “You can’t make sense of death,” Diana told Don. True, but it can help you learn to live.
  • I want to direct your attention to a fine thing TV blogger Oakley Foster has done: He's collected episodic "Mad Men" coverage from all seven seasons of the show, from a number of critics, including myself. If you ever want to revisit the show and the weekly critiques that went along with it, this is a great resource.

Ryan McGee and I discussed “Outlander,” “Wolf Hall” and “Mad Men” in the most recent Talking TV podcast, which you can find here, on iTunes and below.

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