Mad Men: Is That All There Is?

The midseason premiere dwelled on the disillusionment that comes with facing reality.

Justina Mintz/AMC

Every week for the seventh and final season of AMC's hit period-drama Mad Men, Sophie Gilbert, David Sims, and Lenika Cruz will discuss the possible fates facing Don Draper and those in his orbit.

Gilbert: “This is it. This is all there is.” So said Don Draper to Rachel Menken all the way back in season one of Mad Men, while attempting to overcome her reluctance at having an affair with a married man. The sentiment was classic Don—nihilist, existentialist, manipulative—so it’s only fitting that it came full circle via Peggy Lee at the opening and closing of “Severance,” the first episode of the second part of Mad Men’s final season. “Is That All There Is?” hit number one on the Billboard charts in October 1969, and judging by Nixon’s speech on Don’s color television, it’s now April 1970, six months later. Don seems to have become a sweaty modelizer following the demise of his second marriage. Peggy’s looking for love. Joan continues to be underestimated by everyone. Roger has a very, very dubious mustache.

“Is That All There Is?” is a paean to disillusionment—to watching “the whole world go up in flames” and being underwhelmed by the experience, or falling wildly in love, but being left unmoved when it’s all over. “If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing,” Lee sings. “Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.” Throughout Mad Men’s seven seasons, Don’s seen his world implode countless times, from the end of both his marriages, to Pete’s revelations regarding his history, to being forced to take a leave of absence from his job. Each time, he seemed less and less affected by the experience. But in “Severance,” he appeared to be genuinely jarred both by his dream about Rachel, and by the news of her death.

There was more than one nod in the episode to Don’s love affairs from season one—Rachel of course, but also Peggy’s drunken plan to run away to Paris with her dinner date, which echoed Don’s long-ago proposal to Midge that they do the same with his bonus check. But how to explain Diana (Elizabeth Reaser), the diner waitress reading John dos Passos who has sex with Don in an alley thinking he’s come to redeem a $100 tip? Mad Men has always had a prominent vein of surreality running through it, which is why Don’s dream sequence involving Rachel was so disturbing—for a moment, it seemed like she was back in the picture, sporting a $15,000 chinchilla coat and purring about the smoothness of a Wilkinson shave. (Trivia: The model auditioning for the part in the episode’s opening scene was played by the country singer Rainey Qualley, daughter to Andie MacDowell and sister to The Leftovers’ Margaret Qualley.)

As ever, mortality hovers over Don like an ash cloud. The red wine the stewardess spilled on his bedroom carpet looked uncomfortably like blood, and Nixon’s speech brought to mind the countless Americans who died in Vietnam. Then there was Rachel’s sister, sitting shiva in her apartment, and silently reproaching Don for his belated interest (far too late, in fact) in someone who died seemingly content without him. “She lived the life she wanted to live,” the sister told him. “She had everything.” How does that compare with Don, who’s had more than everything and let it all slip through his fingers, willingly?

My other takeaway from this episode was that fashion was a more explicit presence than it’s ever been before on the show—the mentions of David Bailey and Oscar de la Renta and Vogue parties and hemlines going up (again), as well as the professional preoccupation with stockings and fur coats. Joan’s unsatisfying moment of retail therapy, in which even the salesgirl failed to take her seriously, came after an infuriating meeting in which she and Peggy were belittled by some juvenile bros with a department store account. “I want to burn this place down,” Joan hissed, again echoing the destruction by fire theme. “You can’t have it both ways,” Peggy replied, implying that you can’t dress in an overtly feminine manner and come across as a person of stature in the boardroom. The salesgirl’s assumption that Joan used to work in retail (which she indeed did, at Bonwit Teller) only added weight to the slight. But the glory of Joan is that she dresses for herself, not for a potential husband she’s hoping to snag. The world might not yet be ready for her, but she sees no virtue in changing her wardrobe to make herself less attractive. Clothes are armor, and appearance is power—think how oddly vulnerable Don seems whenever his hair’s remotely disheveled.

David and Lenika, what did you make of the ghosts of girlfriends past, and Peggy’s dinner date, and Ken’s newfound power? Is Don’s world going to end in fire, or in ice? Does Peggy really love veal, or was she just being polite?

Sims: Sophie, you’re spot-on about the focus on fashion, especially given that 1969 is wrapping up and good taste seems balanced on a knife-edge. Roger’s mustache is beyond corny, those ruffled dress shirts are starting to creep into use, and suddenly people who've looked iconically stylish for seven seasons are descending deeper and deeper into kitsch (although Stan pulled off that neckerchief quite well, I thought). It’s the older guard—Don and Roger particularly—who are starting to look uncomfortable in their own skins, although as you noted, all it takes Don is a swift combing of his hair to restore order to his own personal universe. Meanwhile, the male reps at Macy’s can snicker all they want about Peggy and Joan’s Topaz pitch, but once they look at the figures in front of them, they understand it’s something they have to pay attention to.

Of course, Joan and Peggy did have to grin and bear it through those braying jokes, for all Joan’s money and Peggy’s influence. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose—SC&P might be under new management and the times may well be changing, but so many of the same institutional forces are still there. Models are still walking through the door for a chance to take off a chinchilla coat, and that’s the one scenario where Don still seemed in his element, particularly in that long, quiet opening scene where he commanded the model as if she were his latest sexual plaything. But it’s all facade, and for the rest of the episode Don felt haunted, mostly by the ghost of Rachel, visiting him in a dream and (more obliquely) through the waitress played by Reaser, who seemed like an echo of an echo of someone he once admired.

Of all Don’s lost flames, Rachel was by far the most impressive, and the one who most efficiently called him on his self-delusion, rejecting his plea to run away with him in the first season as a symptom of some deeper-seated issues. Don has always been drawn to women who seem to understand him on some primal level, but Rachel was even more than that—someone who immediately knew him better than he knew himself. Of course she was never going to run away with him, and, as her sister said, she lived the life she wanted, with kids and (one assumes) a more devoted husband. The shiva scene was beautifully played for how much wasn’t said—Rachel’s sister clearly viewed Don as something of a monster, but didn’t quite have the heart to lay into him, partly because of the solemnity of the occasion and partly because of how obviously lost he seemed. Divorced twice, wondering at the fate of old flames, gazing wistfully at two young children who've been robbed of their mother at a young age.

Don’s such a pathetic figure that he didn’t even fully realize the waitress at the diner was prostituting herself to him; perhaps he thought she was another echo of the past who appeared as if in a dream. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to feel sorry for Don, as Rachel’s sister (sort of) did, since he seems so divorced from reality in the wake of losing Megan and almost losing his livelihood. These last seven episodes of the season will likely serve as a sendoff for many beloved characters (and some not so beloved) but it’s hard to imagine Don will stay adrift throughout—he’s just looking to be rescued, and remembers Rachel as a someone who could have saved him, even if she never wanted any part of that dynamic.

The only real character who got a send-off this week, though, was Ken, summarily fired when his father-in-law retired at Dow Chemical, giving McCann no reason to retain an employee they thought of as disloyal. It was hard to know what to make of his note of triumph, let go by the firm and then hired by Dow as their new liaison to SC&P, but it felt like a particularly melancholy one. Like so many characters throughout the history of the show, Ken was given a chance to say goodbye for good, encouraged by his wife to live on her family money and return to writing. He seemed prepared for that path, taking his firing as a sign in the grand scheme of things, but then he got sucked back into all the pettiness he could have walked away from. This was similarly felt in Peggy’s plot, where she was energized by the concept of fleeing to Paris with her date and was brought back to earth when she couldn’t find her passport. As we head into the sunset, all of our characters seem to be at the front of the boat, vainly searching for whatever salvation they thought was promised on the other side of the ocean.

Cruz: David and Sophie, you both touched on a few different things that also stood out to me in this episode. For one: the profusion of facades, masks, and veils. As Sophie noted, Mad Men frequently plays with the idea that there’s incalculable power in visibility and appearances: The show does, after all, center around an advertising agency. So it felt appropriate that the episode opened with Don ordering a beautiful, young model to “look at yourself. You like what you see?” Joan similarly gazed at herself in a mirror with admiration as she tried on new clothes, as did dream-Rachel (Did you notice how Pete Campbell quietly replaced Ted Chaough in that dream?) Hence, also, the episode’s explicit focus on the reassuring sheen of fashion, however gaudy the neckerchiefs, or questionable the 'staches.

And yet Don himself, as we know, is a master of concealing things, of negotiating perceptions, of looking away. Especially when it comes to his own life. (Just imagine someone commanding him to look at himself in a mirror and asking if he likes what he sees). When he got home after the night out with Roger, he turned on the lights only to flick them back off again to avoid having to look at his empty house. When Tricia spilled her wine on the ground, he threw his bed sheet over it to hide the stain. And so when Don went to Rachel’s shiva at the end and saw all the mirrors covered up, per Jewish tradition, it felt not only like an extension of Don’s discomfort with self-reflection, but also like an indictment of his appearance-centered life. Mourning calls for contemplation, redirecting attention away from the external—something Don, and the others, frequently fail at. (Notice also the episode's reverence for Jewish practices, compared to the earlier episodes' anti-Semitism, which gave way in "Severance" to anti-Irish sentiment.)

So much of this episode dealt explictly with the nebulous gap that exists between the surface and the reality beneath, hence the related theme of interchangeability: Don’s model cooed about the mink that was actually chinchilla; Peggy and her date Stevie traded their cannelloni and veal. Ken complained that his father-in-law was just a replaceable cog in a machine (listen to how he recited the shuffling around of employees from plastics, to metals, to marketing) only to offer himself up as a cog in that same machine. This arbitrariness—of people, of names—also highlighted how slippery identity can be on Mad Men (the crowning example being of course the erasure of Dick Whitman). Joan lied and told the sales girl she'd confused her for someone else. Don envisioned Di as a vision of a younger, living Rachel. The Topaz executives toyed with the idea of changing the shell of their product to a plastic gem, to which Peggy replied, “I’d never recommend imitation as a strategy. You’ll be second, which is very far from first.”

And yet, so much of Mad Men deals with aspiration, tackling the belief that copying someone else or having what someone else has can make you like them (also the principle on which advertising operates). “I look around and think, 'I want what he had.' You have everything, and so much of it,” Peggy told Don in the third season's "The Fog." Notable throughout the series has been Peggy's gradual adoption of Don-like qualities (impulsiveness, ruthlessness, deception, devotion to work), and yet becoming like him has also hurt her. The scene when she scrambled to find her passport at home was a callback to season five’s “Far Away Places,” when she and Abe got into a fight because she couldn’t find the violet candy Don gave her (incidentally the same episode where she ditched work and hooked up with a stranger in a movie theater, à la Don). In both cases, she found what she was looking for in her office drawer; each time, work found a way to wedge itself into personal life. But I guess we’ll see whether Stevie ends up calling her after his interview in D.C.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning again the surreality of this episode; Mad Men has a tendency to turn dreamlike when it comes to mortality. Think no further than Bert Cooper’s swan song-and-dance that capped the first half of season seven, or of Don’s visions of his brother Aaron after the latter hanged himself. Was his strange dream about Rachel “a sign,” to borrow Ken’s words? Maybe, but it was at least an echo of his drunken vision of Anna Draper mere hours before he learned of her death (also from cancer) in season four’s classic episode, “The Suitcase.” Naturally, he’d convince himself that his dream about Rachel happened the day before she died, even if those details weren't exactly true.

“When someone dies you just want to make sense out of it,” Di told him, simply. As David noted, Rachel was the first character on the show to truly call Don out on his delusions; it made sense for her end to come in an episode that was so transparent about the show’s obsession with the limitations of appearances. And yet I imagine the clutches of myth, as they weave their way into daily life, won't quite loosen on the show anytime soon, if ever. “Now it feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real,” Pete told Ken about his time in California. It was a bit of a throwaway line that in retrospect, like so many other throwaway lines on the show, had surprising resonance.