Mad Men : Don Draper's Back On Top and Having Fun, But Is That All There Is?

04/07/2015 01:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

And we're back.

Don Draper's power move has worked. With Sterling Cooper & Partners now a subsidiary of McCann Erickson, he's restored his central creative role in the agency, rid himself of a hateful rival, and further enriched himself. And with second wife Megan in the rear view mirror -- or so it seems -- his sexual mojo is in high gear, with an emphasis on modelizer mode.

Some spoilers follow.

This episode, entitled "Severance," joins the show in media res. It's not an attempt at a season premier, as clearly creator Matt Weiner has opted to go for his original "season" concept, unlike the Breaking Bad folks, regardless of how AMC has programmed Mad Men by cutting the final Season 7 in two parts.

Don is back on top. He has Warren Beatty's phone answering service, not to mention a stray earring turning up a la Shampoo (Mad Men consulting producer Robert Towne, Oscar-winning screenwriter of my favorite film, Chinatown, was a Beatty collaborator), as well as money and advertising clout. And yet, he's not satisfied.

So for him, the episode was at once an affirmation and an extension of his ongoing issues now that he's not failing/collapsing/whatever. For the others, well, they have to question where they are, too.

It's April 1970, something we learn later in the episode when President Richard Nixon reveals another part of the "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War with which he was elected in November 1968. We're invading Cambodia! That was certainly worth keeping secret, wasn't it?

But as the episode opens in rather brilliant fashion, it might still have been 1969.

Don is seducing a beautiful young woman who is wearing only a slinky fur coat, giving her oral directions to get in the mood. Scratch that. She's slinky, the fur coat is smooth. And wait. Is he really putting out his cigarette in a coffee cup while he's seducing her? Ah, no, he's not.

For he's not seducing her, he's directing her. And they're not role-playing, for there's a sofa full of men raptly watching the performance. And it's not a porn film, it's a rehearsal for an ad. And more accurately, it's a casting session for the ad, not the ad itself.

That's a lot of layers of pretense, even for advertising. And since this is a Hollywood show arguably about advertising, it's especially fitting that Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" plays atop the pretend action.

Because when pretense and artifice are not just the packaging but the core of a life, an intelligent person just has to wonder.

And so it makes sense that Don would dream of Rachel Menken being ushered in as the next model-in-waiting in mink (chinchilla, actually). She was probably the most challenging and potentially rewarding of Don's past inamoratas. Now in middle age, with two broken marriages, Don wonders about paths not taken, lives not lived.

We met Rachel in Season 1, learning her to be a very smart, well-educated department store CEO. She was a little exotic for Don on account of her Jewishness, more cosmopolitan than he but in touch with the earthier side of life for being just slightly removed from the emigre experience.

Don directs his secretary to set up a meeting with Rachel, which actually has a business purpose in helping solve a problem for Joan and Peggy -- a subplot mainly about Joan suffering sexual harassment from boorish McCann Erickson colleagues -- only to learn that Rachel has just passed away from leukemia. Saddened, he goes to her memorial service, where he learns that the potential Don Draper path in Rachel's life was not fondly remembered by her family.

While Rachel's untimely passing marks a severance of potential for Don's life, the literal severance of the episode's title is that of Ken Cosgrove. He's unceremoniously fired per McCann edict, and for no good reason, just as he and his wealthy wife contemplate him quitting to pursue his writing career. But rather than take the general severance package offered by Roger, he opts for a bigger signing bonus -- and revenge as the client from hell -- as advertising chief at his father-in-law's old firm. Dow Chemical. No good can come of this.

As for Don, he has his mojo back, and all the fruits. But is that all there is?

Don, incidentally, has turned his deep shame over his very hard scrabble past into a series of vignettes. As Roger Sterling, who looks more than a little like Mark Twain with his longish white hair and billowing mustache, puts it as the two men have dinner with three young beauties, "Don likes to talk about how poor he was. Was." After decades of denial, Don has turned at least some of his angst into shtick.

Cancel the high dive.

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