Pima Ryan, an emotionally opaque high end photographer with a control freak bent, was entertaining enough without delving into themes or subtexts. Her detached interest in her subjects both on and off camera, almost as though she were looking through the bars at animals in the zoo, was a real pleasure. As was her bland expectation that she should play a larger part in putting together the Cinzano advert for which her work had been commissioned. Most amusing of all though, was the way she set about trying to manipulate her SC&P contacts, Stan and Peggy, into making her a more permanent fixture.

Stan was easy pickings. The character’s ongoing concern that his lack of photography chops will make him redundant was transparent right from the off – and Pima pounced immediately. First by prodding at his anxieties, then by confirming them. Only after this, when he was at his most vulnerable, did she fuck him. Not long afterwards Peggy was subjected to a slight variation on this mind-game, but this time with Pima deploying Peg’s fear of being alone against her. Needless to say it didn’t work. Later, when Peggy caught wind of what happened from a boastful Stan the whole thing backfired, Pima’s seduction techniques called out for what they were, a cheap hustle to get more work, and any possibility of future freelancing was nixed for good. So as I say, all of this made for a very enjoyable 45 minutes, however it was also illuminating. Because Pima’s real textual function apart from highlighting the concerns of Mad Men’s supporting cast, was to hold a candle up to Don’s behaviour, a guy who’s a better hustler than she could ever hope to be.

What makes Don such a good liar? He believes his own bullshit. So when he tracked Diana down, we couldn’t blame her for being taken in. The difference between us and Diana though, is that we’ve seen and heard it all God knows how many times before. The sorrowful looks, the illusion of deep communion he somehow conjures after having spent one night with his mark. All that sad fucking music. Urgh. That music doesn’t mean what Don thinks it means, because its not about the beautiful tragedy of two lost souls finding each other, not anymore. It’s about hopelessness. The worrying prospect that Don will never find a way out of his cycle, a stream of relationships doomed to fail before they start, all because he can’t relate to his lovers as living, breathing people. Which is why Megan and Sylvia feature in this episode of course, to remind us where Diana and Don will wind up if by some outside chance they make a go of it.

It’s really interesting actually, to see what time can do to Don’s old tricks. Even though at the time many people saw Don’s proposal to Megan for what it was, me included, at least back then the scenes between the two of them felt romantic, albeit in an adolescent way. Now there’s very little charge whatsoever. Don’s as eloquent as he ever was, his words perfectly timed, the content ostensibly moving, but when he tells Diana she “isn’t the first thing to come along”, that he’s “ready”, we know there’s nothing underneath. Nothing but the cheap hustle of, in Megan’s words, “a ghoul” looking to feed off a new prospect – just as Pima fed off Stan and Peggy.

Both Don and Pima put on a good show, but as Peggy and Megan point out it’s all bluff. Just a suit (which, no, Don doesn’t sleep in!), a swanky apartment and the whiff of soul. There’s the illusion of substance, that there’s something more going on, and oftentimes people fall for it, but… not this time. When Don finally gives Diana some breathing room, the spell wears off and the product is revealed for the tawdry thing it is. Two people in a room sharing what exactly? Some shared pain, some grief. Nothing to build a life on. A quick fuck in the dark, that’s all it was.

*Peggy Olson, New Business

“He loves to tell tales about how poor he was. But he’s not anymore.”

The anecdote about Uncle Mac and the toaster which as good as opens Severance counts as the second time a season premier has hit us with the sucker punch of Don opening up about his past. Caught by surprise it’s easy for us, the viewers, to miss what was said. Not that people didn’t pick up on the substitution of “boarders” for “prostitutes”, Mad Men’s fans are too skilled at close analysis for that, but I think many of us may have overlooked the meaning of this scene – exactly why Don is telling stories like this in the first place. Because it’s the form not the content that matters.

And the form is a joke, a shaggy dog story designed to please the women around him, to draw them in, the end goal sex or at the very least seduction. It may be a tale drawing from Don’s experiences in the brothel he grew up in, but it is a highly selective, rigorously edited, narrativised version of those experiences with all the painful bits left out. Compare the peals of laughter at his punchline and general intimacy of the scene with the last time Don decided to bare all in front of a room full of strangers.

The scenes are the polar opposite of each other. In In Care Of Don is compelled to speak by deep grief and alienation, whereas in Severance everything is calculated and rehearsed. Roger’s response (quoted above) tells us that this is one of many tales Don’s now spinning about his prehistory, and possibly one he’s heard before around similar tables, hemmed in by a clutch of other equally forgettable, beautiful women.

Don’s motivations, I admit, may well be more complex than I have allowed. By bringing it to bay in the form of a joke, he may be exhibiting a desire to control his past, a past which has historically always been a volatile place, erupting here there and everywhere with disastrous consequences. Don may also have become addicted to the adrenal hit that comes with sharing, the light headed “relief” he describes to Lane after catching SC&P’s doomed Finance Officer in the act of embezzling from the company. He may just want to apply the corrective of laughter to the tragedy of those years, and who can blame him? Frankly it’s probably all of the above.

What it isn’t, however, is confession. When all’s said and done we know Don’s past can’t be contained or managed, rather it has to be deeply felt and understood if he’s ever to truly, in the words of one of his famous catchphrases, “move on”. What Don’s getting here is the thrill of sharing with none of the danger, none of the emotion so vital to the healing process. His new life, all that money and freedom from responsibility to a partner, has turned even his traumatic childhood into a playground. It isn’t though, and I hope somewhere in his need to repeatedly touch on the wellspring of his pain there’s a subconscious recognition of this fact. That despite appearances Dick Whitman, repressed for too long, still wants to get out from under Don Draper’s thumb and announce himself to the world.

*William, In Care Of

At the end of The Phantom Don is approached by a striking brunette on behalf of her friend. Did they just flirt? Was there a full blown threesome? We never find out. Either way, no-one in the audience expected to see the women again. They were obviously bit part characters, who existed for no other reason than to illustrate Don’s state of mind as season five receded from view. And even though many didn’t, I felt exactly the same way about Lee Cabot at the start of season 7. Once Don banished her with the words “I’ve got to get back to work” I knew Lee was out of his life for good, the casting of Neve Campbell a clever device to make the audience feel the same sense of significance Don attached to her before drawing away, the significance Don always attaches to a certain kind of woman. So I have to admit it came as something of a surprise when Tricia, the air hostess who had a tiny roll in Field Trip, came waltzing through Don’s doorway this time around. Only I shouldn’t have been surprised at all, because Tricia illustrates something too.

What Don taking this insignificant blip in his never ending flirtation with all womankind on the floor of his apartment makes abundantly clear, is that right now the guy’s leaving no stone unturned. Just as he’s skyrocketed to the dizzy heights of professional success after being as good as fired by SC&P, so has he made the jump from near total sexual abstinence to full bore satyriasis. Last season I talked about how, for Don, Sylvia represented the last affair, all of his relationship hangups projected onto one woman, but I missed something – the ravenous sexual appetite that has fuelled his story since Mad Men began. Shorn of its romantic trappings, this is what we are looking at right now. He can’t prettify it anymore. Romance, marriage, family, business, none of these things have worked, all that’s left as a last ditch resort is to plug the hole with pure, unadorned sex. It’s desperate, and he’s flailing.

What I find fascinating is how after the deep focus that Sylvia represented everything now seems so diffuse, a parade of sexual partners, like the “cattle call” of girls that Wilkinson Sword can’t decide upon, streaming in and out of Don’s metaphorical bedroom. Four in one forty five minute episode, one blurring into another. Women who dissolve in the sunlight. Ghosts.

It is a haunted episode of course, Severance. It’s haunted by the, until last Sunday, fan favourite for a potential Don Draper related rekindled romance, Rachel Katz, the woman who kicked Don out of her life in season one and who many of us hoped would return after he sorted his shit out, me included. The writing room wasn’t having any of that though; so they killed her. They killed her because life isn’t a rehearsal, they killed her because it’s all romantic bullshit and she isn’t The One anyway. Rachel is, as dream Ted blandly introduces her, just another girl. In the cold light of day their “relationship” was only a symptom of Don’s disease, something even Rachel herself realised, much to her horror, minutes before telling him to fuck off for good, and he has no right whatsoever to be at her funeral. She won’t let him rest though…. none of them will.

It makes sense then that in Severance Don’s most significant sexual encounter is with Diana, a strange composite woman who Don’s sure he’s met but can’t quite place. Yes, she looks like Midge, but only glancingly, and in the end we realise she could be a stand in for any number of brunettes Don’s bedded on and off screen over the last ten years. The point is that she’s meant to be indeterminate, possessed of all this man’s ephemeral sexual liaisons, a haunted Vertigo-esque look to her otherwise sad, forgotten eyes.

Speaking of all things Hitchcockian, Diana puts me in mind of another fictitious woman, who may or may not be a waitress.

Mulholland Drive’s Diane Selwyn not only shares a name and possible profession in common with Severance’s Diana, she also serves a similar function within her respective text. She too is a composite person, containing, in the dream logic of Lynch’s cinema, (at least) two of the film’s other characters – the sprightly ingenue Betty Elms and her glamourous but amnesiac counterpart Camilla Rhodes. By now everyone is familiar with this almost rote analysis of David Lynch’s masterpiece, where all three women’s separability is called into question, and the various, sometimes diverging conclusions that have been reached regarding what this might mean. What many critics agree upon however, is that Diane represents a kind of baseline reality for these collided, mangled personalities. According to this reading, Betty and Camilla are idealised projections, their doomed love affair a hollywoodised mirror image of a far more banal earthbound relationship, which possibly ended in a murder, and in all likelihood suicide.

So this flesh and blood person Don has sex with in an alley somehow, in his mind, flickers between a multimillionaire heiress, a street junkie and who knows who else. She is home to multitudes. But in the end isn’t it telling that all the models and all the glamour reduces down to this one sad fuck, this pathetic attempt at connection (“My name is Don…”) with a woman who’s only doing it because that’s what she’s learned men want when they give you $100? Diana was created for one reason only, so that we might finally understand how abject this all is, Rachel included. She’s Don’s baseline reality, just as Doris, another waitress, was in Waldorf Stories. Don’s perfect woman in the end equates to his least beloved, all functions of the same sex addiction – just moving parts. Casualties of an indiscriminate and morbid lust.

Kenny and Don’s unscheduled meeting in SC&P’S lobby fills him with the idea that his dream of Rachel, like Ken’s talk with his wife and subsequent firing, must hold some deeper meaning. Only it doesn’t. In the end without true human connection, not cheap talk of running away and residing in the sunset forever, it all amounts to a big nothing.

What a gloriously unsentimental storyline this was, the past it referenced fleeting, irrevocable and ultimately desolate. Severance, a lesson in why audiences should never get what they want.

* Ted Chaough, Severance

Since McCann’s acquisition of SC&P each of the principles, with the exception of Peggy, are by most earthlings’ standards stinking rich. And as John Dos Passos warned in his USA Trilogy (featured in Diana the waitress’s pocket in the second scene), this has come at the cost of their humanity. The episode’s most gruesome severing of all, and I think the one Matthew Weiner really intends for us to reflect on, is an internal one. All the characters are alienated from their own personal stories, the progress they made over the last two seasons abandoned and left to rot.

In no particular order:

Ted Chaough, the family man who once fled New York to escape an affair, now has an apartment in the city where he hosts cocktail parties for Vogue models.

Don Draper, who up until last episode appeared a reformed man, is on fuck overload. His life is emptier than ever.

Roger Sterling, “Leader”, has consigned his predecessor’s example to the rubbish heap, firing long term colleagues without batting an eyelid. This was the man who described his old nemesis Jim Cutler’s plans for SC&P-as-it-was as “Everyone goes”. An insight which spurred Roger to sell the company to McCann in an effort to protect it. Now he couldn’t give a shit.

Joan Harris, a woman who was learning to trust other women and to play the business game on her own terms, is drowning her sorrows in dresses and demeaning other women along the way. (Many fans will be glad to see that she and Don have resumed an at least cordial relationship, but I can’t help wondering if this is cash related too. From Joan’s perspective – something I may go into at a later date – she still has good reasons to be angry with Don. The relatively pleasant scene between both of them is, I’m afraid, probably indicative of yet more unfinished business. More karma yet uncleaned.)

Peter Campbell describes his current situation thusly: “I thought I was really changing my life when I went to California. Of course, now it sorta feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real. [....] Look, here I am!”

That’s because it was real Pete, not like the reality distorting bubble of money you’re currently floating around in.

While Kenny’s story, its resolution as grim as any of the above, felt a bit pat this time around, I applaud its unpleasantness. It doesn’t just illustrate how having power can see people acquiesce to their baser urges, but demonstrates exactly what can happen when you sever or deny a part of yourself, as SC&P has just done – it comes back to bite you on your ass.

Much has been made of Roger’s ridiculous moustache, but it’s key to the whole thing. Mr. Sterling isn’t a serious man on the path of self actualisation, but a comedy general straight out of a Carry On film. And this along with all the other bad taste 70s accoutrements the show’s wearing right now, all that lurid grotesquery, is in the end not funny but disturbing. It’s a warped world, with a rupture running right through it. It was a violent, horrible episode, its totem product one of the world’s most successful razors – the kind of account that can split your soul in two.

It’s made Don Drapers of them all.

*PFC Dinkins, A Tale of Two Cities

Not only is he covering it up he’s actually fucking someone on top of it. I mean, it would be funny if it wasn’t so bleak.

Sometimes Mad Men likes to let us have it with the symbolism, and that’s fine by me.

*Pete Campbell, The Phantom

One thing that disappointed me about the commentary surrounding Time Zones was a general unwillingness on behalf of most critics to get stuck into not just Freddy’s pitch but the first scene generally. I understood why well enough, it was a depressing episode and seasoned fans have been well trained to mistrust the surface glamour of Mad Men’s premiers, which in the normal course of things turns to crap after the first half hour. But in the end that didn’t cut it for me, for two reasons. Firstly, because the opening pitch so often serves as the key to unlocking a season’s trajectory, and secondly, because Freddy’s first words, a confident and joyous starting gun on a gloomy story, were designed to nag.

“I want you to listen carefully. This is the beginning of something.”

The idea that these words heralded the beginning of the final season and nothing else seemed unlikely. Because, come on everyone, this is the final season. Every detail is important.

Initially the main effect of this nagging, this jarringly incongruous celebratory voice echoing across the ruins cheering the new day, was to force me to re-evaluate many of the scenes and plot beats most reviewers took for granted were evidence that things will never go right for Don. Then it got me thinking about the downward spiral of the season more generally, eventually concluding that this, like Don’s descent in six which led to that beautiful final scene, was probably a good thing too. I was listening, I was paying attention, and it occurred to me that the Something Terrible Don drew down with that first ad pitch in The Doorway probably wasn’t through with him yet. Megan leaving him to pursue her career in California and his getting fired was only the start of it. Things needed to get about as bad as they could before the pendulum would swing the other way.

Quite simply, I realised this season is about nothing less than the destruction of Don Draper.

How marvellous!

Mindless Mad Men: Time Tells

April 17th, 2014

Accutron ad from 1974

Last season Don Draper disappeared. This season he’s trying to come back.

Find out how after the cut

Adam and I have decided to reroute our Mad Men musings back to our spiritual home at Mindless Ones. This is the first of what will likely be many posts.

Hope you enjoy them.

Pay attention. This is the beginning of something.