Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Mad Men 7-8: Severance

“Is that all there is?”

Only “Mad Men” would have the balls to frame its final (half) season premiere with a song lyric that could also serve as a perfect query for the show. Not that it matters. Because the answer to that question, it’s always been strongly implied, is “yes.”

For these people at this time—yes.

But maybe for us, too?

There’s a tendency to see “Mad Men” as a form of anthropology, or at least an objective deconstruction of a bygone era. I don’t think it would exert the power it does, though, if viewers didn’t feel a more immediate connection tying us to its characters and their quest for self-fulfillment. After six and a half seasons, we know these people, their dreams and disappointments, their most and least appealing qualities, more intimately than we might know some of our friends. We take an interest in these exquisitely styled fictional creatures, not because they’re sympathetic (for the most part they are not particularly, something I rarely tolerate in TV shows), but because they could be us. Strip away our sense of presumed superior self-knowledge, our historical hindsight and cultural enlightenment, and most of us will find the same struggle between the desire to live a better life and the inertia of our habitual desires, our learned patterns of behavior, and our own worst, most self-destructive tendencies.

Still, you’re far from alone if you're shaking your head as you watch our Mad Men and women cycle yet again from elation to deflation, from comity to friction, from generosity to pettiness and spite. Most of us at least subconsciously expect TV drama characters to progress in a cleaner, clearer fashion than ourselves. “Mad Men” doesn’t just subvert such expectations, it couldn’t care less about them. There are few shows in which the arc of a character’s development is so long it’s not clear it’s bending towards…well, anything, for good or for ill. Certainly not towards justice.

Take Don, for instance. Everything about his life, or at least the decade of it we’ve observed, could be encapsulated in his brief, marvelously telling interaction with Rachel’s sister. She knows who he is, or rather who he was to Rachel, and has no reason to think kindly of him. Nor does he have anything to show for the intervening years that would prove her wrong. As he admits, he’s had two marriages fail since he and Rachel parted ways. His eyes say Rachel was important to him, maybe more important than either of his ex-wives, but what is that to her (or himself) now? He hadn’t spoken to her in years, he was with a different woman the night before and he’ll be with a different woman the night after, and he’s seeking a connection with a mysterious, evasive brunette. The more things change…

And yet, some things have changed. In the diner, he’s willing to tell a story from his childhood – Dick Whitman’s childhood. Certain details are excised, but, as Roger notes, not the fact that he came from a dirt-poor background. And we’re reminded that this background, the shameful secret that prompted his disastrous attempt to run away with Rachel so many years ago, is now out to the world. Has he become reconciled with his past? Possibly. But he still doesn’t appear to know how to be happy with the present.

Then there’s Peggy and Joan, each seemingly at the peak of her career, only to find that its most precious fruit, professional respect, can still be snatched away and cavalierly tossed around by a roomful of leering cretins from McCann Erickson. (That scene was almost cartoonish in its awfulness: it’s as if the McCann boys’ club never got out of season 1.) Rather than uniting in the face of such piggishness, the two women lapse into old, familiar mutual resentments: Joan seething at being “appreciated” for all the wrong reasons, Peggy frustrated at not being appreciated at all, each bitterly convinced the other will never, ever understand what it’s like to be her. And let’s face it, they don’t and perhaps can’t understand each other’s grievances because they’re too different; their entire lives, as we’ve witnessed, have been a study in contrasts. They’ve always been more allies of convenience, or frenemies, than true friends, and at this point it’s hard to see that dynamic changing.

Whether they can at least change how they see themselves is a more open question. There’s some hope for Peggy judging from that delightfully giddy date, where she discovers she can be both very much herself and someone quite other than herself—the kind of person who would fly to Paris on a whim. But she wakes up hung over, back to being the Peggy who blanches at the idea. Joan, meanwhile, finds some solace in the fact that she can now buy the kind of luxuries that she once could only receive as gifts from men. She surely hasn’t forgotten, though, that the path to her newfound purchasing power included a calculated decision to sell herself at a critical juncture. How can she forget, when she’s still constantly reminded that to many a male eye she’s nothing more than a body to be possessed?

And finally, there’s Kenny Cosgrove, once one of the more likable figures on the show, who’s been edging towards the rancorous darkness ever since he lost an eye for (to?) the Man. Now, shoved unceremoniously out of the firm by a McCann exec with a long memory (longer than mine – I’m still not clear on whether we’re supposed to know what Ken did to piss him off), he seems poised for a fleeting, glorious moment to seize the freedom his wife envisions for him and return to the sunny-tempered yet contemplative, fiction-writing Ken we once knew. Alas, given the choice, he chooses revenge instead. That, at least, is a new character development for him, as his career-induced PTSD from last season gives way to the gleeful bomb-throwing cynicism of someone with nothing left to lose. It should be entertaining to watch. It doesn’t, however, offer us much hope for the “life not lived” he was so ready to celebrate. Perhaps the life not lived was never anything more than an illusion. Perhaps the life being lived, however well or poorly, is all there is.

Random observations:

-Holy facial hair! We’re now in 1970, and does it ever show, in the increasingly unfortunate fashions (why, oh why, were houndstooth checked jackets ever a thing?) and even more unfortunate hairstyles of the men folk. Roger’s and Ted’s mustaches, while magnificent, both pale next to the showstopper that is Stan’s head of hair, which now resembles nothing so much as a lion’s mane. Don, of course, ever old-school, remains clean-shaven.

-Don’s interaction with Diana, the sullen waitress, had a distinctly surreal, almost David Lynchian vibe. But on a more prosaic note, I wonder if Roger’s joking callout to “Mildred Pierce” has any implications for her relationship with Don. Then again, it’s entirely possible we may never see her again.

-If you’re wondering why Devon Gummersall, the actor who played Peggy’s date, looks vaguely familiar, you may remember him as Brian Krakow from “My So-Called Life” – the Ducky to Angela Chase’s Andie.

-Wonder of wonders, Meredith is still Don’s secretary. Even more wondrous: she actually seems almost competent now!

-That last shot of Don sitting alone at the diner counter was very Edward Hopperish.