April 12th, 2015
“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
May 15th, 2014
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.