Is That All There Is? Money Can’t Buy Love in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Eight
The first of the last seven episodes of Mad Men begins with a beautiful woman in a mink, looking like veteran ad man Don Draper is seducing her. In reality, she’s auditioning for a Wilkinson razor blade commercial, and Draper is coaxing a performance out of her while his rapt co-workers look on. The episode ends with Draper, jolted out of his sex and alcohol-fueled torpor, sitting quietly and solemnly at the counter of a diner that looks like it’s right out of a dystopian Edward Hopper painting.
The contrast couldn’t be more telling—our protagonists, flush with McCann Erickson cash, can buy whatever they want, but love and contentment is still elusive. Draper obviously didn’t take to heart Bert Cooper’s final song and dance, to the tune of “The Best Things in Life are Free”. When it comes to Bert’s advice, Don’s not buying. Which is what seemingly leads Don to double down on his libertine lifestyle, even employing a Richard Diamond-style receptionist to take messages for him, largely from beautiful women bearing red wine bottles in the middle of the night (one of which leaks in a blood-like pool all over Draper’s bedroom rug).
It’s a sad group, strangely disconnected from each other and increasingly bored with the business and their lives. Other than the sex- and alcohol-medicated Draper, perhaps the saddest case is Joan Holloway, now a full-fledged client services professional and really good at it. However, she still at the core is wracked by doubt about how she made partner and became a millionaire, and her insecurities are revived by three boorish McCann bozos that spend much of a meeting with her making innuendos about her physical presence (an over-the-top scene whose lack of subtlety in its presentation of an almost cartoonish chauvinism was one of the episode’s false notes). Joan’s form of self-medication is to go on a clothes buying binge at the department store she once worked at, and even that stung, as the sales person remembered her and thought she’d appreciate a price break.
The emotional core of this disturbing and somewhat uneven contribution to the Mad Men oeuvre is the death of Rachel Menken Katz, the department store heiress who was perhaps the one woman in Don’s life other than Anna that he may have truly loved. He has his assistant reach out to her to help a client, and finds out that she left the department store awhile back and shortly thereafter passed away. Don’s reaction to the news—sorrow, longing, regret, befuddlement—harkens back to the series’ legendary scene in the first season, when Don uses the emotion of nostalgia (a “dull ache”) to sell Kodak execs on his approach to marketing Carousel projectors. (It’s no surprise that the best promo for this season featured Don’s voice over from this iconic performance).
Rachel comes to Don in a dream, in much the same way that Anna comes to him, both already dead and reaching out to the emotionally damaged Draper. (Rule of thumb for Mad Men—if Don dreams about a woman, hopefully her life insurance has been paid up). Rachel comes to Don as another ingénue, auditioning for the Wilkinson commercial in a chinchilla that slides suggestively down her shoulder. (Kudos to Matt Weiner for having the beguiling Maggie Siff reprise her role as Rachel in a breathtaking two-minute star turn).
Don attends the shiva to pay his respects, and confronts Rachel’s sister (the estimable Rebecca Creskoff), who is clearly not happy that he showed up, having years ago tried to talk Rachel out of seeing him. It’s a heartbreaking scene that emphasizes the otherness of the rootless Draper. He has no past, no family and no ties to anything that would provide a sense of community. He’s even rejected as a kaddish participant since he’s not Jewish and he just fades away.
Don’s ennui and Joan’s discontent is mirrored by the other SCP principals—Pete, wearing pinstripes again after coming back East, complaining to Ken Cosgrove about how ephemeral the ad business is; Roger wearing a ridiculous white mustache that makes him look ten years older while trying to act twenty years younger; Ted, back from the West Coast, after gaining a mustache and evidently losing his family, a seeming shadow of the hotly competitive dynamo he used to be. This is not a fun group. You’re thinking that at some point they might all sing in unison the haunting refrain from the Peggy Lee song that frames the episode, “is that all there is?”
The only real winner of the night was Ken, who is axed from McCann by a vengeful senior manager, only to come back to the office as a client, having been hired as ad manager at Dow Chemical in the wake of his father-in-law’s retirement. (One of those scenes that rings most true and demonstrates that Weiner has had some real help from some agency veterans—Roger and Pete are more alarmed about Ken keeping them on as his agency than they are about the prospect of his firing them.) It’s Ken’s story line that gives the show its name, “Severance”, but there seems to be a severing of relationships across the Mad Men landscape. And, there’s a further severing of the past, in the wake of Rachel Menken’s untimely and tragic death.
Maybe Peggy gets to share honors with Ken, as she has a great first date with the brother-in-law of one of the copywriters, keeping her ego in check at dinner during a potentially awkward moment, and ending up with a drunken vow that the two will head off to Paris together the week after next. Perhaps Peggy’s story will turn out to be a happy one, after all, but I wouldn’t count on it.
The question of the night: who is the mysterious waitress (a compelling Elizabeth Reaser) who starts out the episode with a ninety dollar tip from Roger and ends up behind the building having sex with Draper during her cigarette break? She looks familiar to him—perhaps someone from his hardscrabble past. Or a reminder of the brunettes he has had affairs with—the freewheeling Midge, the smart, self-possessed Rachel, the warm and earthy Suzanne Farrell. Or perhaps she’s an intimation of his mortality—someone who’s come into his life to either end his life or turn it around. Whoever she is, she’s not saying.
And so we watch on. The nostalgia builds. I already have that dull ache that Draper so memorably conjured. Six episodes to go.
Harlan R. Teller