Warning: Spoiler Alert
Say this for Matthew Weiner. He does it his way, completely and unapologetically until the end. Other shows in the “new golden age of television,” such as Breaking Bad, Justified, The Shield and Sons of Anarchy all had a clear direction heading to the end of the run, with the lead character ending up in an entirely different place than where they started the series. If there’s such a thing as a format for shows like these, then that element is an unmistakable part of it. But not on Mad Men. Barring a very late-series change of direction, it’s actually going to end up much near where it started, surface dissimilarities about eras aside.
If you can figure out where Don Draper is headed after Episode 7.8, Severance, then your crystal ball is certainly shinier than any others in circulation, because it’s more rinse-and-repeat with another apparent existential crisis in his life. For that to be a deliberate creative choice on Weiner’s part – and since the man is anything but oblivious about the trajectory of his own characters, it has to be – is very brave on an artistic level, because most viewers yearn for a more obvious path of resolution. The Dick Whitman part of Don that is seemingly less buried with every season is a very decent person and it’s easy to imagine Don learning the lessons that he needs to learn to bring that persona to the surface full-time and earn everyone’s love and affection. After Season 6, he began the process of atoning for his sins with Sally by showing her a piece of his troubled childhood, the period that screwed him up worse than he had ever allowed himself to admit prior to that point. But then, in the first half of Season 7, he became unhinged by his hanging-by-a-thread status at Sterling Cooper and he began drinking heavily even as he somehow managed to remain on his best behavior sexually with his wife out in the Hollywood Hills. That journey concluded with Don’s redemption at work, but a divorce from his wife. Would that begin another downward spiral?
Well, while this regression is less severe on the surface than those in the past – since he’s more sober than in Seasons 4 and 6 and he’s keeping it in his pants around the office unlike Season 4 – it’s clearly there. One aspect of Don’s state-of-mind involves extracting opportunities via casting calls and other advertising “meetings” to leverage as much sex as he can from nubile young women. Cue the Facebook “comedian” reacting to a high school student having sex with his teacher by bellowing “I wish I had those ‘problems!’” But we know that Don’s conducting himself this way precisely because he’s not in a good place, because the behavior on an ongoing basis is not something that he values – having earned a disdain for it with his childhood in the whorehouse. When Don isn’t in a serious relationship, then he does not have the boundaries and the limitations that he’s been seeking his whole life in the form of the perfect nuclear family that he was denied when he was young.
In the midst of this lifestyle, however it happened, Don conjures up the image of Rachel (Menken) Katz appearing at one of his casting calls in very sexy fashion. With Ken having dropped the phrase “the life not lived” to Don – more about that later – and the song “Is That All There Is” wafting through the episode, the fact that Rachel comes as close as anyone to being Don’s “one that got away” leads you in the direction of thinking that somehow she’s going to come back into his life. But this is a show that specializes in cruel twists – think the last days of Anna Draper, the Lane Pryce suicide and other heart-wrenching moments – so the gut-punch of Rachel having actually passed away at about the time of Don’s vision carries the trademark impact. Don was so certain that she had been at the Sterling Cooper office and, earlier, in a diner with Roger, he thought that he recognized a waitress – although he couldn’t place her completely and it turns out that she simply reminded him of Rachel. Of course, this ties into his downward spiral because Roger leaves a $100 tip for being a rude customer and this waitress ends up with it by accident and assumes that she’s supposed to service Don when he shows up again. So she does and his self-loathing has to be reaching new heights. He does reach a bit of closure at Rachel’s wake, however, when her sister – who clearly disapproved of their dalliance – nonetheless warms up enough to talk about Rachel’s children and just how great her life was before contracting leukemia. And by the end of Severance, he’s about to talk to an executive at Rachel’s old department store about obtaining their advertising.
This came about because of a fascinating sub-plot with Peggy and Joan. Early on, their efforts side-by-side in a meeting with Topaz find them on the same page, but frustration erupts when their client is unhappy with their efforts and an attempted salvage meeting with McCann Erickson – to try to get Topaz into department stores, the development that leads to Don’s subsequent meeting – goes in the toilet when the parent company employees spend the entire meeting sexually harassing Joan. Peggy’s lack of empathy for being treated as a pure sex object leads to some great back-and-forth – apparently, Peggy feels that Joan dresses to show off her body and that Joan is now rich anyway and undeserving of great sympathy and Joan feels that Peggy is a hater with cankles – and Joan submerges her unhappiness in some high-end clothes shopping in grand, imperious fashion.
As for Peggy, the encounter with her oldest office frenemy leaves her vulnerable to the well-meaning set-up attempt from underling Johnny Mathis. A blind date with his brother-in-law, Stevie Wolcott, starts off poorly, but veers from the depressive to the manic quickly, as she proposes that they end the adventure in Paris. Her inability to find her passport in time leads cooler heads to prevail – with Stevie’s “little head” lagging behind somewhat in clarity – but the two seem on somewhat solid ground. But there is a hint dropped about him taking a job out of town, which may lead her to second-guesssing her decision not to be recklessly impulsive and getting waist-deep into a relationship with him ASAP.
Peggy’s possible new beau is between jobs, a status that also befalls Kenny Cosgrove once his father-in-law, Ed Baxter, decides to retire from Dow. Saddened that her father waited so long to enjoy a peaceful post-work existence, Cynthia badgers Ken to consider leaving Sterling Cooper and throwing himself into writing – reminding him that her nest egg is substantial enough to underwrite their family for quite some time. Surprisingly, Ken, who has no great love of the game, resists her suggestion, only to find that the new corporate overlords at McCann Erickson have a long memory. His departure years before with a lot of business for his return to Sterling Cooper upset them and now, with no need for Ken’s continued presence on the Dow account, they have no more need for him. Roger, who had promised in the midseason finale (circa July 1969) that he would be able to run the new Sterling Cooper subsidiary as he saw fit, was unable here (circa April 1970) to hold off the revenge firing. In a philosophical moment with Don, Ken sees the timing of events as a sign that he should heed Cynthia’s advice, although the betrayal that he feels burns him inside. And eventually, the cycle of revenge continues, as Ken appears to sacrifice what would be a happier life for a job at Dow (whose status in the war machine leaves him disdainful), where he will linger as a thorn in the side of Sterling Cooper – who will be forced to jump for him on command to keep the account.
Throughout all of this, Roger and Ted manage to rock some truly righteous ‘70s ‘staches and the firm seems to be running more efficiently than in the previous half-season – albeit with the increasing specter of being dominated by McCann Erickson. Between Sterling Cooper ending up – AGAIN – under the thumb of McCann Erickson like in the end of Season 3 and Don finding another excuse to backslide into personal excess, a cynic might argue that Weiner has engaged in Simpsons-like plot recycling to carry Mad Men down the final stretch. It’s entirely likely that we won’t know until the very end of the finale whether that is the case or not. Again, it’s one thing for him not to give us the ending that so many of us want. That is his right. But it’s all in the execution. Whether or not Don and the other characters make tangible progress in their lives, we need something more than the explanation that “these characters tend to take one step up and two steps back.” Matthew Weiner is an extremely intelligent and creative writer, so he’s clearly going somewhere with this. It’s going to be a wild trip to find out exactly where that is.