"Is that all there is?"

Peggy Lee's question opens and closes "Severance," the beginning of the end of Mad Men. Like nearly every other musical cue throughout the seven years of this show, this one is perfectly placed, feeling like it was written explicitly for this episode, for this season, for this magnificent and melancholy series. (I'm going to talk about this a bit, so you may want to go listen to the whole song, or at least read the lyrics.) It's a song about expectation and disappointment, anticipation and anti-climax. It's a song about getting everything you ever wanted, and still feeling like something is missing. It's a song about always wanting more, even after you've recognized that wanting more has been your problem all along.

"What is happiness?" Don Draper once asked. "It's a moment before you need more happiness." That theme has been at the center of Mad Men since the beginning: it is fundamental to the business of advertising, it is essential to the questions Matthew Weiner is asking about America, and it is both the glory and ruin of nearly every character on the show. No matter what we get, we are always greedy for more; no matter what we have, something will always be missing. We will always dream, and we will always be disappointed—and yet, even knowing that, we will never stop dreaming.

So this is not a new theme for Mad Men, but it's playing in a different key now because this particular dream is coming, at long last, to an end. Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" is a song about endings as well, and how every experience—the most wonderful, the most terrible, the most seemingly transformative—leaves us, ultimately, both underwhelmed and unchanged. Is that all there is to a fire? Is that all there is to a circus? Is that all there is to love? 

"Now it sort of feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real." — Pete Campbell

Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in Severance

Peggy Lee recorded "Is That All There Is?"—appropriately enough—in 1969, the final year of the decade that has been the setting and subject of Mad Men. Now, as we open "Severance," the '60s are over: it is the spring of 1970, and a new era dawns for America, and for our characters.

But what did it all mean? The tumultuous '60s felt like a revolution, a period in which the old social order in America was figuratively—and sometimes literally—set on fire. But is that all there is to a fire? Because the more some things have changed, the more they've stayed the same.

It's Pete who gets to articulate this theme most clearly. "I thought I was changing my life when I went to California," he tells Ken Cosgrove. "Now it sort of feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real." California has always represented the future on this show, and here Pete's observation is an echo of everything these characters—and this country—are feeling now that they've arrived at a new decade: we thought everything was changing, but here we are, right back where we were, and very little has really changed.

But it's Peggy and Joan who get to experience this theme most brutally. They were both secretaries when Mad Men began, and their value was entirely determined by men, and almost entirely based on their desirability. Now, as a new decade begins, Joan is a partner and a millionaire, and Peggy has risen to the top of her field—but they are both often still likely to be treated like secretaries, and still treated as though their only value is as objects of desire. The meeting with three frat-boy misogynists from McCann-Erickson is not subtle, but it makes its point: as they sit there trying to be professional while they endure an endless stream of single- and double-entendres, it is clear that the revolution is far from over.

In fact—and this is common theme for all the characters—some things haven't changed because they themselves haven't completely changed. After their humiliating meeting, their frustration gets directed at each other, in a way that shows how much they each have internalized the misogyny they've both fought to overcome. Peggy indulges in a bit of victim-blaming: "You can't have it both ways," she says. "You can't dress the way you do…" And Joan, in her turn, lashes back, asserting her own value as a desirable commodity and disparaging Peggy for being less attractive. ("So you're saying I don't dress the way you do, because I don't look like you, and that's very, very true.") These two women have never really been friends and allies, always fighting the gender war on slightly different fronts, and always fighting a male-dominated society that can all too easily not only diminish them both but pit them against each other.

In the end, all Joan can do is celebrate what has changed: her own fortunes. She goes shopping, at the store where her own crushed dreams once forced her to work to scrape out a meager existence. "Didn't you used to work here?" the salesgirl asks her. But Joan—speaking through the reflection of her new self in the mirror—corrects her. "I think you have me confused with someone else," she says.

"Look at yourself. Do you like what you see?" — Don Draper

Rainey Qualley and Jon Hamm in Severance

So the question of how much America has really changed runs throughout this episode. Is that all there is for America, after living through everything that happened in the '60's? But Mad Men has always channeled its social commentary through its characters: it's a show about people, not issues, and so the deeper questions are always more personal. There is a sense in "Severance" that these final seven episodes of Mad Men are going to be an epilogue, a looking back at everything these characters have been through to ask: was it worth it?

"Look at yourself," Don tells a model (Rainey Qualley) as she faces a mirror in the opening scene. "You like what you see?" Along with the song, the mirror is the other central symbol of this episode, which is all about the characters looking at themselves, looking at their own lives and trying to determine whether they like what they see.

Mirrors are the perfect metaphor for Mad Men, representing both the characters' obsessions about their own identities and the gaze of the external eye that determines value through objectification and illusion. “Go home, take a paper bag, cut some eyeholes out of it," Joan told Peggy, back in the pilot episode. "Put it over your head, get undressed, and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.” The employees of Sterling Cooper—mostly men—have spent years looking at people—mostly women—through two-way mirrors, trying to understand them, judge them, value them. And advertising itself is a mirror, designed to reflect the customers' choices in a flattering light, as Don explained in the very first pitch we ever heard him give. ("Advertising is based on one thing: happiness," he told Lucky Strike, in the pilot. "And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is okay. You are okay.")

These characters have chosen to spend their lives gazing into that mirror, and turning it various ways to catch the light and cast it back at society. But was it worth it? As they look in the mirror now, do they like what they see? Are they okay?

Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) in Severance

Ken Cosgrove has never been completely comfortable in advertising, always thinking of it as something he did, not something he was. He wanted to be a writer, not an accounts man; he wanted to have a family, not a career. Several times throughout the series he has refused to compromise his ideals in the name of ambition, and declined to exploit his real life–his family life—to secure a little advancement. ("I don't want to be a partner," he told Roger once. "I've seen what's involved.") He is the one character who has never—so far as we know—cheated on his spouse.

Now, his father-in-law's retirement prompts Ken to reevaluate his own life. "Why did he wait so long to do that?" his wife asks, of her father's decision to leave his job. She urges Ken to do the same, and really pursue his dream instead of being a cog in someone else's machine. But Ken's initial response is typical of most of the other characters on Mad Men, who have spent their lives pursuing what is just out of reach: he is looking just ahead, to the next little reward just over the horizon. "If nothing else, I'd like to wait and see if I get that raise!" he says. "There's always going to be another hurdle," his wife says, recognizing one of the core themes of the show: every happiness is just a moment before you need more happiness. (It's a theme echoed, again, by Pete: he has the millions of dollars he thought would make him happy, but all he does is bitch about how it puts him in a higher tax bracket, and he may have to buy an apartment building. "Sounds like a real pain in the ass," Ken says, sarcastically.)

As it turns out, the universe is sending Ken a message: the day after his conversation with his wife, he is promptly fired, due to some past history with the new parent company, McCann-Erickson. "That's not a coincidence, that's a sign!" Ken—slightly unhinged—tells Don. "Of what?" Don asks. "Of the life not lived," Ken says. But Ken—who perhaps had a chance at another life—ultimately rejects this sign from the universe: he accepts a position at Dow Chemical to oversee advertising. "It's much worse than that," Ken tells Roger and Pete, when they worry he'll fire them. "I'm going to be your client." It feels like a victory for Ken, but of course it's not: it's really a tragedy, a missed opportunity to step off the wheel, to escape this world of pettiness and status.

Elisabeth Moss and Devon Gummersall in Severance

Missed opportunities abound. Peggy has a fantastic first date with Stevie (Devon Gummersall)—so good, in fact, that they impulsively decide to fly off to Paris together. "I once quit a job because I wanted to go to Paris," Peggy says, referencing the time she walked away from Sterling Cooper, back in Season Five's "The Other Woman." Paris, at the time, represented the lifestyle she thought she wanted, a perk from her work life to which she felt entitled. At the time, Don contemptuously threw money at her: "You want to go to Paris? Go to Paris!" But it wasn't about Paris: it was about status, recognition, respect, all those little hurdles and rewards to which these people are all so addicted.

And now they are all wondering if any of it was worth it. Peggy never did get to go to Paris, and she misses the opportunity now because she can't find her passport. ("I've never actually used it," she says.) Peggy has had a career, but has she been happy? Has she actually had a life? Her passport—the symbol of adventures not taken, and happiness unfulfilled—is buried in her desk at the office, of course, and by the time she's found it the impulsive moment has passed. She has too much work to do, and the demands of business make spontaneity impossible, and so she and Stevie tentatively postpone their happiness: this week, next week, maybe. Like Ken's quiet life as a novelist, it becomes another escape route untaken, another dream of happiness deferred, another life not lived.

I confess, on first viewing I thought Stevie wasn't worthy of Peggy. Brought the wrong food at a restaurant, he starts eating it instead of sending it back—a decision Peggy can't fathom. She is, as he says, "the kind of girl who doesn't put up with things." But in truth, Stevie's approach has a lot to be said for it: he ordered the lasagna, and he got the veal, and he decides to be happy with it. Being happy with what you have—instead of always wanting what you don't have, or what you think you deserve—is a rare quality on Mad Men, and one that might, in fact, lead to more happiness than anyone on this show seems to enjoy.

"I'm supposed to tell you you missed your flight." — Rachel Menken

Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) in SeveranceWhich brings us, at last, to Donald Draper, the king of never being satisfied with what you have. For seven seasons we've heard Don define happiness as wanting, and we've seen him personify that belief in how he lived his life: he has never gotten anything he thought he wanted—a client, a position, a woman—without immediately wanting something else, something different, something more. He has constantly reinvented himself, setting fire to his previous life in order to chase something better. Now, as the 1970s begin, his life seems to be a constant flux of nameless women: there are steady streams of models coming through the office—the client, significantly, can't choose among them—and so many women calling Don for dates that he needs an answering service to manage them.

Rich, powerful, desired, and with infinite choices, it could look like the perfect life to some men—but what has he sacrificed to achieve it? He gets a reminder of that in a vision of Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), one of the first "better lives" we saw him pursue, back in Season One. Of all the women Don has been with—and there have been many—Rachel was one of the best: strong, smart, a savvy business woman, she was every bit Don's equal; in fact, she was almost certainly his better.

She was also, importantly, the only one I can think of that dumped him. (Both his wives eventually decided to divorce him, but only at the point when he had done everything he could to push them away.) Rachel is the one who got away precisely because she ran away from Don when she saw him for who he truly was. He offered to begin a new life with her. "We'll go somewhere else," he told her, desperately, in Season One's "Kennedy vs. Nixon." "We'll start over, like Adam and Eve." But Rachel very wisely realized that all he really wanted to do was escape his old life: he was using her to reinvent himself, yet again, and she wanted no part of it. "What are you, fifteen years old?" she asked him. "What kind of man are you? Go away, drop everything, leave your life?…You don't want to run away with me, you just want to run away. You're a coward." Chasing the clean state, the fresh start, the promise of new happiness: it's what he did with Betty; it's what he did with Megan; it's what he has always done, in his profession and in his life. Rachel, to her infinite credit, was smart enough not to let him do it with her.

And so of course she haunts him now, when a new decade finds him largely back where he began. "Maybe you dreamt about her all the time," the waitress Diana (Elizabeth Reaser) tells him now. (More on her in a bit.) And now, discovering that Rachel has died of leukemia, he wonders—as Ken does, as Peggy does—about the life not lived. He shows up at Rachel's apartment while the family is sitting shiva, and is met by Rachel's sister Barbara (Rebecca Creskoff), who—like Rachel did—knows exactly who he is. "How's your family?" she asks him, tensely, and he is forced to admit that he divorced, and remarried, and divorced again; he has reinvented himself half a dozen times since he knew Rachel Menken, and it just confirms her suspicion that he was a shallow adolescent, always running towards something and then running away from something.

Rachel, meanwhile—though she died tragically young—lived a life, unlike Don, or Peggy, or Ken. "She lived the life she wanted to live," Barbara tells him. "She had everything." And she had everything precisely because she could be happy with what she had, and because she knew enough to stay away from the chaotic uncertainty that Don represents. "I'm supposed to tell you you missed your flight," Rachel tells him in the dream. He missed his flight, he missed his chance, he missed out on living a rich and full life because he was always so obsessed with the life he didn't have.

The mirrors in Rachel's apartment, of course, are covered. It is a Jewish tradition when someone dies, but, in the context of this episode, it is also symbolic of the different choices she made. The mirror represents the world of advertising, but in a larger sense it represents the constant cycle of wanting, of reinvention, of never being satisfied with who you are. Rachel didn't spend her life gazing into the glass, gazing through the glass that separates the rest of these characters from a true and honest existence: she knew who she was, and she lived her life, and so she had everything that Don has missed out on.

 "Do I know you?" — Don Draper

Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Reaser in Severance

Finally, what should we make of Don's encounter with diner waitress Diana?

It's a strange storyline, and I confess I don't quite know what to do with it. Is this going somewhere? Does Don actually know this woman, from somewhere in his crowded and complicated past? Or is this just one of those poignant, dreamlike one-off encounters that Don has been prone to throughout the entire run of Mad Men?

Certainly, it's a commentary on the class and gender inequities that still exist in this new decade. (Roger is a rich, privileged ass in his encounter with Diana, and then tries to make up for it by leaving her $100 for a $12 bill. When Don returns to the diner, she assumes he has come to get his "hundred dollar's worth" out of her, and gives it to him in a joyless, businesslike coupling in the alley.)

But there's something else going on here as well. The woman is, apparently, at least a part-time prostitute, judging from her reaction to the $100. Don knows prostitutes: he grew up among them, and in fact is telling a story about his childhood in a brothel in the very first scene in the diner. (It's interesting to note how this past—once the deep, dark secret of his life—is now fodder for funny stories.) Does he see in her something of his own life, his own background and upbringing? Does he see the women he knew, and even, perhaps, a ghost of the mother he never knew? Is she, to some extent, a mirror for him, a window into yet another life not lived—the one he might have had if he had stayed Dick Whitman?

Perhaps. What I think is most interesting about this scene, however, is the change it marks in Don's life. Women, to Don, have always represented a clean start, a new beginning, the promise of a bright and unsullied future. But now, surrounded by new and young women to choose from, Don is casting his eye to the past. He is remembering Rachel, whom he once could have loved, and with whom he might have lived a richer and fuller life.  And he is drawn to Diana, not because she is new and different—not because she promises a fresh start—but because she reminds him of someone old, someone familiar.

And so we are reminded of what may still be Don's greatest pitch, from Mad Men's first season finale, in which Don explained that sometimes old can be more powerful than new:

"My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old pro copywriter. Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is 'new.' It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, 'nostalgia' literally means, 'the pain from an old wound.' It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone…"

Don Draper's entire life—his business, his relationships, his very identity—has always been about the new, but as the decade (and the series) draws to a close, new just ain't what it used to be. ("I've tried new-fashioned," Peggy says, when Stevie calls her old-fashioned.) Now Don finds himself looking more and more to the past, wondering what was real, wondering if he made the right choices, wondering what we all eventually wonder: is that all there is?

Peggy Lee's song asks what it all meant, even as it knows that the answer will be, inevitably, disappointing and unsatisfying. As we approach the finale of Mad Men, it is a question we will all be asking, and Matthew Weiner is almost warning us that the answer cannot possibly live up to our expectations. By now we—like Don, and the rest of these characters—have very little faith in new beginnings, in reinventions and revolutions. There is little hope of substantial change for any of these characters, and little hope that the end of Mad Men will offer startling revelations or satisfying catharses. For all the apparent progress that comes with time's passing, things don't really change; for everything they go through, these people—most people—don't really change. Even when they understand their own foibles and flaws, they keep making the same choices, keep perpetuating the same patterns, keep chasing the same unreachable dreams. Mad Men once seemed like a show about change, but in the end we may find it was never anything more than a mirror.

But, as Lee sings, "I'm in no hurry for that final disappointment." We have spent seven years with Mad Men: it has been the warmest fire, the most wonderful circus, and the sweetest and most rewarding of love affairs. And yet, when the final episode fades to black—just six short weeks from now—I suspect every one of us will be asking the same thing:

Is that all there is?

Additional Notes and Favorite Bits

  • Welcome (back) to my weekly coverage of Mad Men. I wasn't able to find time to write about it over the last couple of seasons, but I love this show and I couldn't imagine sitting out the final seven episodes. I've got a loaded schedule this spring, so timing may still be tricky once other shows return. This week was easy, but starting next week I expect to post Game of Thrones reviews on Monday or Tuesday, and Mad Men reviews on Tuesday or Wednesday. Please bear with me.
  • During Peggy and Joan's meeting with the neanderthals at McCann, I said, "I want Joan to set these guys on fire." So it was a delight to have her first line after the meeting be, "I want to burn this place down." Mad Joan is absolutely a show I would watch—especially if she carried a flamethrower.
  • It's a nice echo of the old/new theme—and the transience of happiness—that Topaz Pantyhose is in trouble. In Season Four's finale, "Tomorrowland," Topaz was the first "new business," the account Peggy and Ken secured to "save the agency" after Lucky Strike left. Now, they're the old account the agency can't keep happy. (Much in the same way that, in that same episode, Don proposed to his new love, Megan—who now, of course, is already his next ex-wife.)
  • Though it took me a while to recognize him, Devon Gummersall is familiar to most of us as the eternally unrequited Brian Krakow on My So-Called Life, and—to a lesser extent—as a creepy rapist on Felicity. Could Mad Men be the show where he finally breaks his disastrous TV dating streak?
  • Ken has spent a lot of time thinking about how good his eye-patched face will look on a book jacket.
  • I can't even comment on the facial hair this episode: for those of us who remember them, the '70s were bad enough the first time around. Thank god Don doesn't chase trends that way—in fact, it's an interesting point that Don never really changes with the times: he's a little older, a little grayer, but he doesn't look or act substantially different than he did in 1960. For the rest, I'll just repeat here a prediction I made on Twitter: that, based on the facial hair, Mad Men will end with the dissolution of SC&P, and the formation of the Doobie Brothers. Takin' it to the streets…

Next: Episode 7×09 – "New Business"


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2 thoughts on “MAD MEN 7×08: "SEVERANCE"”

  1. Reading this after binging this show in 2020. This episode was a bit confusing to me, fortune brought me to your essay. What a insightful, well written synopsis- I look forward to reading more of your articles. Thank you for choosing this path.


    1. Hi, DD, and welcome. I'm glad you found us, and I thank you for the kind words.

      Your comment led me to go back and reread this review after so many years, and I remembered how much I miss writing about this show. I only covered a couple of seasons, but it's on my list of "someday" projects to go back and write about it from the beginning. One of these days…

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