[This is a review of Mad Men season 7, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
More so than any other program on television, Mad Men captures the essence of (and directly deals with the consequences of) the passage of time. It is an element built into its foundation, largely as a result of the show's period setting. But while such an element opens the series up to better chronicle change and progression like too few programs do, it also allows the series to do what it does best: to ponder, and to have its characters ask the question: "What's it all about?"
That question is particularly meaningful, now that the series has launched the first of its final episodes with 'Severance', a season premiere halfway through the season, thanks to the odd split scheduling decision made by AMC. The episode is, in many ways, a typical Mad Men season premiere. There is a sense of being behind and searching for clues meant to help get the audience caught up (clues like John Slattery's silvery mustache), as the storyline unfolds without much in the way of exposition regarding what happened in between the last time Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, and Pete were all on screen.
And then, there is the sense that 'Severance' isn't a season premiere at all (because it really isn't), and so, writer Matthew Weiner is tasked with creating a hybrid of sorts, an episode that not only serves as the starting point for the final seven weeks of one of the most influential and important series on television, but it must also feel like the natural progression of what had come before in 'Waterloo'. So, rather than focus on the mundane aspects of SC&P being folded into McCann Erickson, and the lingering sentiment over Bert Cooper's soft-shoe shuffle off into the endless void, the episode picks up in the aftermath of those events, with Don doing what he does best: Talking. But the talk comes in surprising ways, as first Don's talking a woman out of her clothes for work, and then he's talking about his past with a group of party girls in a greasy diner.
The hour (which, is probably the only disappointing thing about the episode, because after the amazing two-hour premieres of seasons 5 and 6, a single hour feels like we're somehow being shortchanged) gets the ball rolling, illustrating how things are different, by showcasing the ways in which many characters are back to where they began. And while this is ostensibly true for Don, who has given himself over to the single life in the way that is typical for Don Draper, he's also changed; there's a sense that Don isn't just Don anymore, but also, finally, Dick Whitman – as evidenced by his willingness to regale others with stories about "Uncle" Mack.
There are other signs that things are back to normal, too, as Roger continues to be flippant as ever, insulting a waitress and then making it all better in his privileged way by plopping down a C-note for an $11 meal. He follows this up with a spectacular encore wherein he callously fires Ken on orders from McCann, only to have Ken forego living a fulfilling life as the novelist he was meant to be by taking a job with Dow out of spite for the way he was booted out of SC&P.
The same goes for Joan and Peggy. Joan's filthy rich (according to Peggy), but she still can't work with a group of men without being sexually harassed and hit by a barrage of repugnant double entendres. After sitting through a meeting about Topaz with the McCann guys, Joan and Peggy continue to find it difficult to see the world through one another's eyes, with Peggy unfairly shaming Joan by saying, "can't have it both ways" – which leads to a small but meaningful moment when Joan reestablishes some of her authority by exerting it over a saleswoman in the job she used to have.
Peggy on the other hand, struggles to get out of her own way when it comes to happiness. After being set up by Mathis with his brother-in-law, Stevie Wolcott (Devon Gummersall), Peggy nearly deep sixes the date when he meekly accepts a meal that he didn't order. But things turn around as soon as Stevie mentions the qualities Mathis thought would attract him to Peggy. After that, she throws caution to the wind, and nearly ends up taking the first vacation of her life, if it weren't for a misplaced passport.
All of this leads to the episode's theme of being let down because of having much grander expectations. It's a theme that is perfectly encapsulated by Peggy Lee's 'Is That All There Is?' – which plays more than once during the hour, and serves to highlight Don's exchange with a waitress (played by Elizabeth Reaser), who reminds him of Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), instigating a cameo appearance by the strong, dark-haired beauty that epitomizes the kinds of women Don gravitates towards - making the news that she died a week earlier all the more devastating and surprising.
"She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything," Rachel's sister Barbara (Rebecca Creskoff) tells Don when he brings a cake to the family sitting shivah. Unlike Rachel, it's clear that no one else is living the life they want to live. Don and Peggy are only happy chasing the next big pitch, Joan can't get any respect, Harry's as glum faced as ever, Ken postpones his dream out of spite, and Pete can't enjoy his millions because he'll have to buy an apartment building just to hold on to any of it.
There is the sense that everyone, not just Pete, is chasing more to get something out of all they already have. Underlining that endless pursuit of more, as means of experiencing something, is a great way to begin the final run of a monumental series that must inevitably, sadly come to an end.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with 'New Business' @10pm on AMC.
Photos: Michael Yarish/AMC