Mad Men 7×08 ‘Severance’: “Is that all there is?”

Mad Men 7x08 Cover

I don’t think there’s a single person out there that doesn’t wish that their lives had turned out differently.  It’s because there’s no way to really understand where our lives are going and what that means for us.  We can reach to achieve our dreams, but dreams change, and we’re always reaching for something different, a formless entity that exists only in our minds.  We’re never content because we’re always wanting, always changing, always attempting to be happy when there’s always something to pull us back from happiness.  And one thing that pulls us back is fear, the realization that life contains so many unknowns.  Making sense of life is making sense of something that inherently doesn’t make sense.  Things happen that we try to attribute meaning to, but that meaning is just our way of adding order to that which has no order.

So how do we find happiness?

Mad Men 7x08-2

Source: AMC

Mad Men has no easy answer to that question.  “Severance” starts off in April 1970, and it’s a significant time because it’s the turn of the decade, the beginning of another ten years, and a time to reflect on what the last ten years held.  And that reflection doesn’t hold a whole lot of positive realization.  The world has changed immeasurably, but not to the point that the characters are looking for.  Dreams of better lives are halted by continuing to run in circles, stuck in the same loop of delusion and self-destruction that has been turning for years and years.  There is a way out of all of it, but only to a certain degree.  The true peace that everybody wants doesn’t actually exist.

Mad Men 7x08-1

Source: AMC

The episode focuses intently on three major groups of characters: Don, Peggy and Joan, and Ken.  Ken has always wanted to be a writer, even in Season 1 when he had his short story published.  He argues with his wife about his job, as she wants him to quit and pursue his writing talents, which they both know he has.  Ken, however, is wondering about that next raise, a point that he keeps coming back around to.  He’s hoping for the next raise, the next promotion, the thing that is going to validate the life he’s living right now.  Because he receives a level of validation from his work.  He does keep rising, he does keep making money, that is, until he’s fired by Roger because of his bad relationship with McCann, which is a big deal considering that SC&P was bought out by McCann at the end of Season 7A.  Ken sees this as an opportunity to live “the life not lived”, to take his money and do what he’s always wanted to do with his life.  But those desires are dashed when he’s given a position at Dow Chemical, head of advertising, and he takes it with open arms.  He could have lived the life he has always wanted, but he would rather accept the delusion that the advertising world is selling him.  Even when the choice is right in front of him, it’s difficult to take the more difficult path when instant gratification and delusion is so readily available.

Mad Men 7x08-4

Source: AMC

Peggy and Joan are two characters who have risen to the top, secretaries that are big players in the company that they used to be grunts for.  But “Severance” exposes the lack of gratification in their lives as well.  After a meeting with McCann where they attempt to sell the idea of Topaz hosiery in department stores, they’re faced with the same rampant sexism they’ve seen for the last ten years.  The world hasn’t changed enough to really accept them for the successful, strong women they are.  And it turns them against each other; instead of bonding in the elevator about the sexism they faced, they lash out at each other because of the way that sexism isolates them and their individual identity crises.  Joan struggles with being sexual in a world that doesn’t take sexual women seriously (not a far cry from today’s world), where Peggy struggles with “the life not lived”, as she has been so focused on getting ahead in her career that she hasn’t experienced life outside of her job.  On a date, she gets drunk and talks about taking an impromptu trip to Paris with her date, but she can’t seem to find her passport.  However, when she finds her passport (which is empty) at work the next day, she dismisses the desire to travel.  She wants to experience life outside of her small world, but doing so requires her to realize what she’s lost as a result of her unrelenting drive towards moving up in her career.  She lost the ability to travel, to explore, to live life outside of SC&P, and to even fathom all that she lost is too debilitating to even begin to think about.  Better to think about all that SC&P has given her than to even consider what it hasn’t.

Mad Men 7x08-5

Source: AMC

And then there’s Don, who is now getting divorced from Megan.  He’s back where he began at the beginning of the series, an account man at SC&P who womanizes and drinks.  He has begun to accept who he was, as he told a story about his poor childhood (even though the story is somewhat amended to leave out details of living in a whorehouse).  But he spends the episode thinking about Rachel Katz, the woman he slept with in Season 1, who has recently died of leukemia.  Don has dreams of her, where she tells him that he “missed his flight”, a way for Don’s subconscious to remind him that his return to SC&P is his return to a place that only offers him delusions.  But when Don sees a waitress that reminds him of Rachel, who sleeps with him because she thought that the $100 tip given to her was payment for sex, he’s trying to make sense of Rachel’s death.  He wants to see signs, to be given reasons for that death, but it’s as the waitress says to him.  There is no way to make sense of death.  It’s random, unsparing, and it takes the order away from life.  Don is consumed by death because he happens no matter where he goes.  He’s twice divorced now, searching for life, connection, while the world offers him loneliness.  When he flips on the light to his apartment, there’s nobody, nothing but an empty room.  And that’s all that delusion has offered him: emptiness.

This half of Season 7 is starting off as bleak ever, and it begins with everybody at the top of their game, wondering if the choices they made were good enough.  “Is that all there is?”. sings Peggy Lee at the beginning and end of the episode, and what a question that is.  “Severance” alludes to severing from the life that causes you to continually ask that question, while it also alludes to the monetary package that Ken is offered when he is fired.  It alludes to the answer as well as the problem.

Because the answer to that key question “Is that all there is?” isn’t a yes or a no.  It’s a maybe.  Sit in delusion and maybe it is all there is.  But fight and push outside of the delusion the world offers you and maybe you’ll find something more, some small measure of peace that will bring you the satisfaction you crave so intently.

So what did you think of the season premiere?  Do you think Don is going to achieve a small measure of happiness at the end of the series, or is he going to lose it all and become the shadowed man falling from the building in the opening credits?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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