Monday, April 6, 2015

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x8)

The end of an era. A time to say goodbye, to think fondly back on all the memories made. A time to realize how massively you've screwed up your life. Welcome back, Mad Men. I have missed you dearly. Let's just start off with some eyebrow raising but not really a criticism, more a passing caveat. This weeks episode, "Severance," was a weird one. It's not that Mad Men hasn't done oddities before; on some level all episodes of this show are weird in that they are so carefully constructed and detailed that you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of symbolic resonance and storytelling. But this episode felt like it never quite knew where to land. I half expected it to end with Don Draper waking up and the entire thing having been an nightmare. But, of course, Mad Men isn't that crazed. It was all real and it was really that macabre. It's hard to imagine that the first half of this season ended with Bert gleefully dancing and singing while secretaries in outlandishly bright costumes twirled around him, but it did. The best things in life are free, he intoned. It was a message from beyond the grave: Donald Draper, do you have time to change your life? Do you understand that you can have it all, but only if you let go of these material things holding you back? Perhaps, only if you let go of Donald Draper? Well. Guess what? Message, not received. Because the underlying thesis of Mad Men is, and always has been, that people do not change. This Don the same Don Draper in season one. Bert's message fell on deaf ears as the money and the women and the booze begin to pile up around Don once more. But maybe, just maybe, he can still catch his flight. Grab an old fashioned cocktail and let's embark, one final time, into the dizzying brilliance that is Mad Men. 

I have said it before: Donald Draper cannot enter the 1970s. I've also said this before: I was wrong. Turns out, Matthew Weiner can almost gleefully pass right into the 1970s without anyone blinking an eye. It was rather cheeky of Weiner to pass over the remainder of 1969 in the fashion he did (no Woodstock!) especially for a show so heavily entrenched in the 1960s aesthetic, but it's perfect for the man who loves to skip months at a time to prove that these broken people at SC&P are still the same. So, having admitted that I was wrong, I want to take a look at Donald Draper's current mountain-o-crap that is infecting his life. This episode finds Don doing the same thing Don always does: he's philandering, he's boozing, he's sleeping on the job. After successfully coming back to work last half of the season, working his way back up to creative director (no fuss, no muss, his name is back on that iconic door) and he finds himself back where we somehow always knew he'd end up: lonely and alone. Money corrupts. Isn't that some sort of trite cliche? Well, for Don and the rest of the partners who turned a hefty profit when they allowed their company to be bought by McCan/Erickson, it turned them all into bitter shrews who are deeply unhappy and looking in all the wrong places for the life they really want to live. What life does Don really want to live? What life can he really live here at the end of all things when Bert's message has failed to seriously make an impact? The proposition that saved his job is slowly killing him because I think Don Draper is tired of being Don Draper. I think he's ready to be Dick Whitman.

If there was one theme that was hammered home time and time again in this episode, it was that you have to take the life you want to live, not accept the life you have. The problem is that several of the characters stumbled into this realization and then blatantly went the other way. Kenny was fired and was finally free to go live his life as an author like he always wanted, only to turn around and get another job in advertising, the job that has made him miserable and cost him an eye. Joan finally realized that she would always be seen as a sex object, an uncomfortable reminder that she literally slept her way to the top and prostituted herself for her partnership, but instead of facing it head on, she buried herself in more luxury clothing, believing that her new found wealth could ease her pain. Peggy, ever the romantic deep down inside, met a great guy and had her first true perfect date only to snub it the next morning and tell herself that aspirin would cure her of this desire she felt for something non-work related. Oh Pegs. Listen to the cute guy: you're fearless and you really can have it all. Be your Mary Tyler Moore best self and have both the career and the man. If anyone can do it, it's you. But let's bring this back to Don. And...Rachel Menken? Who, turns out to have died prior to this vision of her dressed in fur? Another ghost from the past--they aren't uncommon to Don who has seen his dead brother Adam and of course Bert.

Why is Rachel here? In a lot of ways, Rachel Menken (from season one) was perhaps Don's perfect match and the "one that got away" out of the many (many many) women Don has had over the years. She was sexy and strong and independent but also damaged much in the same way that Don was. They connected but Don, being Don, decided to go back to Betty and his kids only to find out, at the end of season one, that he has missed the train in the current Draper household but only after Rachel rejected his offer to fly off into the sunset together. Rachel Menken shows up here as a bit of a Jacob Marley-type of ghost. Once you learn she is dead, you almost hear the chains in the background warning our Draper-Scrooge to change his ways and start living the life he wants. That's the takeaway message Don gets from visiting Rachel's memorial and seeing her children. "She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything." Don does not have everything. No word on Sally and the boys this episode; Megan is now being called "the ex wife" and his work is once again only something that gets him through the day. Was Don in any way creative this episode? He did nothing but show up, drink, and whore. And this is what I mean by saying that I think he's ready to start being Dick Whitman. It's time for Donald Draper to really die. To be put in that pine box that Don once placed "Dick" in and be gone. Dick Whitman never got to live a real life. He grew up poor and unloved and abused by his father, his stepmother, and the whores he lived with and then all too soon he went to Korea and upon his return home decided he didn't want to be Dick Whitman anymore; he wanted to be Donald Draper. Dick Whitman has been struggling to live for decades now, crushed under the weight of Donald Draper. Well, Don Draper has lived a life that Dick thought he wanted, but now that's over. Those things that once made Don who he was, that carefully constructed life he built out of a deck of cards, is crumbling around him and instead of adding another fake layer to it (another wife, another business venture, another drink) perhaps he can have a proper wake up call and live the life he wants. Dick's life. Whatever that might mean. Don Draper entered 1970, but if (oh such a big word and full of such possibility, that 'if') Dick Whitman can finally claw his way out of Don Draper's carefully lad out life of lies, I wouldn't be shocked if Dick enters 1971. The best things in life are free, Dick. Go; live the life you want to live.

Miscellaneous Notes on Severance

--"Is that all there is?" Basically the other theme of the night that fits in with the "go live the life you want" theme.

--While I love Peggy and Joan tag-teaming and being badass business women, it's still very hard to see Joan being treated the way she is. Sexism has always been a motif in this show and I didn't expect it to stop here at the end, but poor Joan. She did sleep her way to the top, but she has also proven that she's damn good at handling accounts. She is more than the sashaying secretary with big boobs; she's actually incredibly competent but to to hell if men can see that. The fight between Peggy and Joan was rough to watch, but these are two women who do respect each other but often have a hard time showing it because their approach to life is always going to be different. Remember, 10 years ago (show time), Peggy was a little slip of a girl with a big box on her fist day and Joan was the towering figure of secretarial authority. Now, look at them. Joan is still treated like a sex object while Peggy gets treated "like a man" who more or less hates being reminded that she was once a secretary and not a copy chief.

--Now forget everything I said in the above note because "I want to burn this place down!" was my line of the night.

--Of course Don becomes obsessed with a woman name "Di" whom he treats like a whore. Of course.

--Let's all take a moment to appreciate Roger and Ted's epic 1970s 'stache. 

--When people die, things get mixed up. Dick Whitman "died" many years ago and things got mixed up. Fix your life Don. Before it's too late.

No comments:

Post a Comment