We gave it an A-
The last temptation of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) begins with the aching adman coaching a woman through a striptease. We think he’s pitching woo to yet another sexual conquest, his numbing drug of choice. But the truth slowly reveals itself. She’s a beautiful blond model, just like his first wife, and Don is casting an ad for fur coats, a bit of business that brings the former mink hustler full circle. His cluelessness about these ironies is part of the point of this layered, wry sequence, which sets the stage for a story in which Don’s past breaks into his present and scatters him mentally, spiritually, even temporally.
Listen: Don Draper has come unstuck in time.
I am happy to report that the first of Mad Men’s final seven episodes is as fine as a silky fur, give or take a hilariously hideous period mustache and some too-on-the-nose lines and symbolism. I’d be sweating “We’ve seen all this before” tedium if this weren’t the last season. But it is, and so an episode that rephrases and forwards the show’s themes, conflicts, and concerns—especially the institutionalized sexism of our culture—powerfully launches Mad Men toward a final statement.
“Severance” finds the flawed folk of Sterling, Cooper & Partners a short time after the death of Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) and the strife that precipitated a hasty sale to McCann Erickson. They’ve become good at sucking up and sucking it up. Too good. They’re desperate for better; it’s easier to grin and bear it. The idea of “the life not lived”—roads not taken, opportunities not maximized—dogs them all. Identity crises abound. Showrunner Matthew Weiner links character transformation to social change. Ken (Aaron Staton), Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and Joan (Christina Hendricks) are brought to defining (or redefining) moments that could help redeem their world. Will they choose richer, more authentic lives or sell themselves out anew?
Meanwhile, privileged, fuzzy-headed Don meets a poor, beaten-down waitress, Diana (Elizabeth Reaser), whom he thinks he knows but can’t quite place, who taps his haunt and hunger. Recklessly chasing enlightenment threatens to further degrade them both. Weiner has her reading the U.S.A. trilogy, John Dos Passos’ epic critique of capitalist society. Interesting: The John Dos Passos Prize is given to authors who demonstrate “an exploration of American themes, an experimental approach to form, and an interest in a wide array of human experiences.” Mad Men has excelled at those values by presenting people lacking in them. Which is to say, cultural awareness, courage to break form, respect for diversity.
“Severance” ends with a shot evoking Edward Hopper’s brooding masterpiece Nighthawks. It leaves Don parked on a stool, pondering his quagmire. Will sitting in his mess inspire progress or tempt him to regress? Or is Mad Men giving a still life of change as a never-ending cycle that ultimately produces more steps forward than steps back? In six more hopefully outstanding weeks, we’ll know for sure. A–