Don Draper’s first job as Don Draper was selling furs. It’s how he met Betty, who was modeling them; it’s how he met Roger, who was buying one for Joan, and thus got his start at Sterling Cooper. And so the final season, or rather the second half of the final season, of the show that’s fundamentally Don Draper’s story takes us full circle. It’s more than fifteen years later, the spring of 1970, and Don is once again selling furs—a $15,000 chinchilla, to be exact—as the co-head of creative at a (semi-)independent subsidiary of McCann Erickson. How he feels about it is summed up by the episode’s opening and closing song, a choice that’ would be on the nose if it weren’t so beautiful: Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”
In the wake of his second divorce, Don Draper is about where anyone would expect him to be: dating models and TWA stewardesses with Roger Sterling and Ted Chaough as his wingmen (the two now share identical mustaches as well as bachelorhood), coming home to very big, very empty apartment at night, and putting on a brave front by holding the world’s most sexually charged casting calls. Two women interrupt the ennui: a Dos Passos-reading diner waitress, played by Elizabeth Reaser, and none other than Rachel Katz, née Menken.
When she appears to him in a dream—”I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight”—Don calls her up (he also happens to need a department store to sell Topaz pantyhose, allowing him to pass it off as business). Rachel, unfortunately, has just died of leukemia. Don turns down the opportunity to mourn tastefully via hospital donation and shows up unannounced at her shiva; in one of the more bittersweet lines of the premiere, Don knows exactly what a shiva is because he’s “lived in New York a long time.” Her sister Barbara gives him the cold shoulder (“How’s your family?”), but ultimately tells Don what he wants to hear, which is arguably worse: “She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.”
Don’s grief over what Ken Cosgrove, in a very different context, calls “the life not lived” is something not even anonymous sex with Reaser’s waitress can’t fix. Reaser is one of the more enigmatic presences in “Severance”; Don insists he recognizes her, possibly because she bears a strong resemblance to a certain strain of Draper women (a less glamorous Rachel or Midge, for example) and possibly because, in her words, “When people die, everything gets mixed up.” Either way, the end of “Severance” leaves Don Draper where he pretty much always is: alone, and unknowable even to himself.
Meanwhile, Cosgrove is the relatively minor player up for bat this week. His father-in-law is retiring from Dow Chemical to travel the world and learn to cook Pop-Tarts, and Mrs. Cosgrove urges him to do the same, or at least get the hell out of advertising and back into writing. For a brief moment it looks like he’s going to do it, too; a brutish McCann exec with a grudge fires him from Sterling Cooper, and though Ken’s rightfully put off by Roger’s unwillingness to even pretend he put off a fight, he’s actually relieved. But this is Mad Men, so he takes the low road instead: Ken is now yet another “cog in a giant machine that sells weapons and poison,” the head of advertising at Dow Chemical.
Earlier this week, editor-in-chief Judy Berman wrote about Mad Men as a warning that work will not redeem us. But even when characters realize this, she points out, advertising has a way of sucking them back in—take Don, who seduces Ted Chaough back into the fold only to turn him into yet another philandering creative. Ken’s Don is none other than Pete Campbell, who motivates him not with money and women but with the cheery smarm we all know and hate. Jokes about Ken’s eyepatch on a book cover are fair game, but his “I have nothing but good things to say about you,” delivered over the accounts Ken’s giving up without a fight, sets our golden boy over the edge. So he takes the job at Dow out of spite, giving up a shot at his dream for a shot at making Roger and Pete’s lives miserable.
Spite looks much better, literally, on Joan Holloway, who experiences firsthand the signature McCann brutishness Ken hints at. (“I never fit in there. I’m not Irish. I’m not Catholic. I can read…”) Topaz is getting priced out from below as a drugstore pantyhose, so Joan and Peggy approach their corporate overlords about getting their client Marshall Fields to sell Topaz in their department stores. McCann, of course, doesn’t even bother to read the fact sheet before jumping right into comments about spreading legs and removing “panties.” The meeting becomes what might be the second most degrading thing we’ve seen Joan endure for business.
The subsequent conversation between her and Peggy in the elevator deserves its own recap, but suffice it to say that Peggy’s greatest weakness is her inability to translate her own hardships into solidarity with, or even empathy for, those of others. Joan wants to burn the place down; Peggy stops just short of saying she asked for it. Mad Men has always used Peggy and Joan as foils, but it’s never quite contrasted the forms of workplace sexism they’ve faced so directly. Peggy may be attractive in her own way, but she’s never been subject to the kind of objectification Joan has—to the point where she asks Don to his face in “The Suitcase” why he never made a pass at her. Peggy has never been called a “work of art” in a business meeting, and she has a toxic mixture of indifference and envy towards those who have.
For her part, Joan gives as good as she gets. Even before the exchange gets nasty, Joan’s already icy: “I don’t expect you to understand.” “You’ve never experienced this before?” “Have you, Peggy?” Where Peggy’s approach to business has been assimilation—dressing and acting masculine—Joan’s, like Bobbie Barrett’s (“You can’t be a man. Don’t even try. Be a woman. Powerful business when done correctly.”), has been to double down on her femininity. The two approaches can be complementary, yet both have their ugly sides—Peggy’s victim-blaming, of course, but also this burn from Joan: “So what you’re saying is that I don’t dress like you because I don’t look like you. And that’s very, very true.” The tragedy, of course, is that Peggy and Joan and the millions of women like them don’t choose these approaches (to their personal lives or, on a much larger scale than Mad Men is interested in dealing, to feminism) so much as the approaches chose them. Peggy couldn’t be the office sex symbol if she tried, and neither could Joan hide her body.
Joan, however, at least has the option of using her partner money on a shopping spree. Peggy, on the other hand, can’t assert her independence by skipping a meeting with her sexual harasser; as she tells her date, she hasn’t even taken a vacation—ever. Which is why the spontaneity of escaping to Paris on a whim appeals so strongly to her, and why she’s so crushed by having to settle for a planned getaway instead. It’s spot-on that Peggy, not Stevie, is the one inclined to back out (I had many “If this were another show…” comments in my notes, but “If this were another show, she would have never heard from Stevie again” seems the most important). Stan, ever the affable office id, encourages her to go anyway, but odds are it won’t. Peggy’s not the type to get swept away by romance, and besides, she’s got work to do.
That’s all for “Severance,” and boy, does Mad Men have a lot of ground to cover in the next six episodes. We haven’t even seen Betty, Sally, Megan, or either of the Draper boys yet, nor have we given California Pete the mourning he deserves. Until next week, when we’ll doubtless learn more about what’s going on outside the Sterling Cooper—or SC&P, or whatever it’s called now under McCann—office.