Mad Men – Severance
Known, even by those who don’t watch regularly, for beautiful cinematography and fashion, it’s the characters and the writing that make Mad Men the standout show it is. But you can’t talk about Mad Men without talking about the handsome and suave but tormented Don Draper. Viewers either love him or hate him. Don has the same issue with himself, alternating between arrogance and self-hate.
The first few scenes of Severance tell us much about who Don has become. The first is the suave Don Draper. Smoking a cigarette, drink in hand, looking at a beautiful woman in full-length mink coat. She speaks a bit and then he makes a statement that has been repeated many times throughout the seasons and that is the source of man of his problems – “You’re not supposed to talk.” He just wants her to do what he directs her to do and look pretty. She does, like most women do for him. As the scene ends, the camera pans out and she walks toward a chair. Cue the music – “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee. It plays as she puts a foot on the chair and allows the mink to fall away from her leg. She runs her fingers up her legs and the music continues. The camera pans out more to reveal four other men in the room. The woman has been auditioning for an ad campaign. The music plays us out to the end of the scene, as another woman enters the room to do what Don tells her to do. Because that’s what women do.
The music continues quietly in the background into the beginning of the next scene in which he and Roger Sterling (sporting his long classic 70s moustache) in a diner with three beautiful women, all of them young enough to be their daughters. They both look a bit sloppy, a bit disheveled. They look like a couple of aging rich men clinging to youth by keeping company with women half their age. Don is sharing stories of his troubled childhood, a childhood he used to hide at any cost. Roger leaves the waitress a $100 tip, an apology for his rude behavior toward her he explains to everyone but the waitress. A waitress Don finds familiar. The music plays quietly in the background as they leave the diner.
When Don arrives home that same night he calls for a girl who arrives with a bottle of red wine. They proceed to get very drunk. On their way to the bedroom she spills wine on the carpet. He pulls the bedspread from the bed and uses it to cover the spill. In a show full of symbolism, this scene is about not only the obvious, his promiscuous lifestyle, but also about blood spilled in his life and his attempts to cover it up. He climbs on top of the woman and she discovers an earring on the floor. “Another woman you’re sleeping with?” she asks. “No, that’s the woman I’m not sleeping with. My ex-wife,” he answers and tosses the earring over his shoulder, dismissing it as he has Megan. He has stopped trying to fight his demons and is instead indulging them and being open about them. He is still, however, dismissive of women in general.
There are a handful of women of whom he is not completely dismissive. He dreams about one of them while sleeping after the wine and blanket encounter – Rachel Katz. She is wearing the mink coat from the audition scene, but he does not tell her what to do. He simply watches her, mesmerized. He seemed to truly love Rachel. She was one of his women who may have been a good match for him given different circumstances. The day after he dreams of her he learns she recently died and it saddens him. He attends her shiva and sees her children for the first time. He spends his time speaking with Rachel’s sister and manages to irritate her. She ends their conversation by telling him Rachel “lived the life she wanted. She had everything.”
Don returns to the diner, curious about how he knows the waitress. They have a few minutes of passion in the alley behind the diner. He thinks they have some kind of mysterious connection and gives some significance to their sexual encounter but learns from the waitress that she did it for one reason. “You got your $100 worth,” she tells him, in reference to the $100 tip left for her on his previous visit. The man who sleeps with woman after woman with no emotional attachment, sometimes fully aware that they attach more significance to it than he does, has just had the tables turned on him.
He returns to the diner one more time. It’s the setting for the final scene. The waitress tells him they are not going to have a repeat performance. He shares his dream with her, a stranger. “Maybe you dreamed of her all the time,” she says. He raises his eyebrows, nods, and says “Maybe.” She tells him maybe he’s returning to the diner because he thinks she is Rachel. “I don’t think so,” he answers. “When people die we want to make sense of it but we can’t,” she says. When she tells him she just works there and to please not return with any expectations he says, “I just want to sit here.” And he does as she goes back to work. The camera pans out and the music starts again “And then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in the world,” sings Peggy Lee as Don Draper just sits and stares at the wall behind the diner counter. “And then one day he went away. I thought I’d die, but I didn’t. And when I didn’t, I said to myself, ‘is that all there is to love?’” We go to credits, where the song continues. Classic great Mad Men with music and conversation full of symbolism referring to the past, present, and possibly the future. The complex and fascinating Don Draper.
Music choice is always intentional in Mad Men. It always has some relevance to the scene. The song “Is That All There Is” is the theme of this episode, both literally as it’s played throughout and figuratively in the message it sends. The threads holding Don Draper together at the seams are slowing unravelling. He has made the same mistakes over and over with different women and different people. He has accepted his flaws and his weaknesses and is now indulging them instead of fighting them. At his core, Don is a broken man who wants to do the right thing but doesn’t know how because no one in his fractured childhood ever showed him how. He’s ashamed of his mistakes and still deeply hurt by his past. He has pushed himself to get where he is now. He tries to cover the “whore child” he still sees in himself with money, booze, and women. But it isn’t enough. On the outside he has everything any man could ever want, but inside he’s wondering if that’s all there is.
Where will the writers take us with Don Draper this year? How will things work out for him? Will the crumbling continue until the end when he’s left in pieces and alone? Will he rise victorious over his demons and vices? His family was completely absent from this episode. Where will his relationship with them go? Peggy Olson was also absent from this episode. Another woman he does not dismiss but for entirely different reasons. They have a connection that’s fascinating to watch. Where will that go?
I hope everything isn’t all tied up neatly in the end. That would not be true to the character of Don Draper. He is at heart a broken man. He puts on a good face and avoids anything real. I’d like to see him begin to face things, real things. I’d like him to end up with someone who knows his flaws and loves him in spite of them. Someone who will fight the fights with him. I have my thoughts on who that might be. But we’ll see how it plays out. Wherever we go on Mad Men this season, it’s guaranteed to be a great ride full of great lines, plots and characters with layers, and the fashion and cinematography that is the delicious icing on the cake.
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