Severance

 

Lionsgate’s above attempt to plant nearly premise-less Adaline on Don Draper’s coattails isn’t just witheringly tacky, its superficial focus on secrets is one and a half seasons too late. Don’s come clean, under various degrees of duress, to Betty, to Megan, to Pete, to Bobby and Sally, and finally to Hershey (anyone else?), such that he’s not so much desperately protecting his secret identity as he is left with the traumas incurred while he was busy doing just that. Post-disclosures, Don is so taken aback by the unpredictable wellings-up of his own emotions that the show’s juiciest “secret” remains precisely his interiority, from himself.

Season 7B opens on a hyperfamiliar scene: Don and a beautiful woman held in discrete close-ups as he gives specific orders: open the coat; not too much. It’s the Don of leaving Sylvia dressed up in the hotel room, at the height of his experiments with (scenic component) domination. The woman wears a fur she thinks is mink but it’s chinchilla. It’s the pre-advertising Don of fur sales making a desperate play for Roger’s attention. It’s the eternal Don of projecting desire, writ large, onto the pitch.

We might think, when the shot widens and “reveals” that we’re not alone, and in casting, that this is that instead of a scene of seduction, but the cut from the next actress strolling into the room to the woman under Don’s arm much later in the diner signals the futility of said distinction. There is no difference between casting an ad and casting a life. We know this when we see Don see then-secretary Megan clean up Sally’s spilled milkshake at Disneyland, and faced with a close-up of her un-Betty-like performance of kindness, he mistakes his relief for love.

Don thinks the diner waitress looks familiar because in this sense she is Megan, but also Sylvia, the artist in the Village, the schoolteacher, maybe Neve Campbell, and definitely Rachel Menken, whose feature in his dream recalls Tony Soprano’s tender visions of Gloria Trillo, also always most alluring once she’s gone. “This is another girl,” Ted/Pete says by way of introduction, and he’s right insofar as Don’s turned his head for a series of maybe interchangeable sad-eyed brunettes, but wrong in the sense that Rachel is not just one in a sequence, but the prototype. As her sister points out, she was the moment when Don could’ve broken from Betty, back when their splitting seemed more impossible than inevitable.

The distance from one (impossible) to the other (inevitable) measures time within and beyond the show, and like a kind of Christmas Carol, “Severance” has everyone explicitly grappling with their past. After years of shared cigarette breaks leading each closer to loving the other woman, Peggy and Joan’s repulsive “meeting” with McCann dredges up the worst false versions of themselves: Peggy as dreary spinster, Joan as sentient tits.

It’s heartbreaking–if also familiar–to see insecurity and abuse turn an occasion for women’s solidarity into a vicious competition. Peggy rejects her spinster ‘self’ by embracing romantic spontaneity with Mathis’s brother-in-law, at least until work the following day. But Joan’s reaction is more complex. Responding to Peggy’s dig at her personal style, she takes herself on a high-end shopping spree at the very Bonwit Teller where she moonlighted in sales when ex-husband Greg failed to secure his promotion. Confronted with the salesgirl’s recognition, she replies to her reflection in the full-length mirror that she’s being confused with someone else. Joan’s attempted reassertion of power comes both from selecting the de la Renta, and from not needing the employee discount. She’s not just an ‘After,’ she is no longer the shop girl. Yet what Peggy sees as her perhaps ill-advised or attention-seeking comportment is Joan’s ongoing refusal to become someone else in order to feel safe.

“Is That All There Is?,” released in 1969, is a song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with a second life in the long-running (2011-current) immersive NYC Punchdrunk production, Sleep No More, in which characters in discrete spaces lip synch to different recordings. I’ve seen SNM three times and the Peggy Lee lip synch is one of my favorite moments to catch, not least for the so wrong/right Lynchian anachronism. Wikipedia tells us that its lyrics were inspired by the 1896 Thomas Mann story Disillusionment, wherein Mann’s narrator “finally feels free when he sees the sea for the first time and laments for a sea without a horizon.”

So Don/us hearing a non-diegetic “Is That All There Is?” over the episode’s initial casting performance? It’s a little on the nose. Don has long escaped into women, down the mouths of bottles, and above all to California, from which it’s always surprising to see him return. “Did you hear the ocean?” he drunkenly asks after his doorman’s near-death experience. I wanted to be near the ocean, he tells real estate agent Bonnie, but we [read: Megan] rented a house in the Hills. And most prescient is Anna Draper reading Don’s tarot in S2E12, “The Mountain King”:

Don [indicating the Judgment card]: That can’t be good.
Anna: It is.
Don: It’s the end of the world.
Anna: It’s the resurrection. Do you want to know what this means, or not?
Don: No, I don’t. I can smell the ocean.

Though Anna goes on to lay some serious meaning on Don–that his fatal error is or will be perceiving himself as alone in the world–he’s not yet ready for resurrection. Standing shirtless in the ocean, he faces out.

My feeling is that, in its final season, Mad Men will use whatever’s at its disposal to continue the S6-7A trajectory of turning Don back toward shore, including but not limited to the ghosts of “Severance,” actual and figurative. Of the opener’s more striking images (can we talk about how Ken simply has no eye?), I keep thinking of the laid-over flight attendant, having spilled her red wine, bending to clean it up in her underwear–an explicit throwback to one of the more potent, less legible scenes of Don and Megan’s marriage. Clasping at the present, Don throws a blanket over the ominous stain. It’s a matter of time before the series pulls the blanket back.

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Thanks to Corey Atad, Javier O'Neil-Ortiz, and Ayesha Siddiqi.

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