Frank Ockenfels/AMC
Melissa Maerz
April 06, 2015 AT 03:19 AM EDT

Is that all there is?

It’s a question that Don Draper is probably asking himself right now. You know the old saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it? Well, we see that happen again and again on Mad Men, perhaps most clearly with Don, who can’t seem to break the cycle of marrying a beautiful woman, cheating on her, downward-spiraling into a very dark place, and starting all over again. Even at the beginning of “Severance,” he’s back where he started: selling minks like he did years ago, gazing at a beautiful woman who’s modeling gorgeous clothes, just like Betty used to do when he first fell for her.

In the background, we hear Peggy Lee’s version of “Is That All There Is?,” a song about someone who, like Don, becomes so disillusioned with love that the only comfort is booze. As Lee sings about a childhood home burning down—a good symbol for the childhood that Don lost early on, setting him up for a series of disappointments—Don’s stubbing out his cigarette.

Where there used to be fire, now there’s only smoke, and everyone wants that fire back again. Don’s remembering how good it felt to be with Rachel. Peggy’s trying to rekindle the love life she back-burnered for work. Ken wonders if he can revive his old dream of becoming a writer. Everyone’s thinking about “the life not lived,” as Ken puts it.

Even Don’s scenes at the diner feel like a trip to an alternate universe. When we first see him there, he’s telling a story about his adoptive mother, Abigail, who got a toaster for her birthday long ago, “fixed” the chord by letting her boyfriend wrap copper wire around it, and ended up blowing a fuse. “He loves to tell stories about how poor he is,” Roger says, and he’s right. It’s just the type of funny, sentimental story that Don might use to sell actual toasters. But it also reminds us about the life his real mother never got to live: She was a prostitute who died in childbirth. It’s no accident that Don keeps asking the waitress at the diner if he’s met her before. She has sex with Don as payback for Roger’s $100 tip. Maybe she reminds Don of his mom.

In a way, everyone’s selling sex for money in this episode, whether they want to or not. Don’s using half-naked women to sell furs. Ken earns a job at Dow because he’s married to a former exec’s daughter. Joan can’t land a big account without dodging double entendres about her body. When John Mathis tries to set Peggy up with his brother-in-law, Stevie, she assumes he’s asking for a raise. When Roger comments on the book that the waitress is reading—The U.S.A. Trilogy by John Don Passos—it’s like he’s planting the idea in her head that she owes him something. In Volume 2 of Dos Passos’ trilogy, two men find themselves in a diner, being served by a middle-aged waitress who picks up her tip from the table by “hoisting her skirts and picking up the coins between her legs.” After watching the trick, one of the men declares, “Sex is a slot machine.” In other words, you put something in, and you never know what you’re gonna get in return.

Rachel Katz learned that lesson the hard way. In some ways, her relationship with Don was the ultimate combination of business and pleasure, but it was doomed from the start. It’s obvious why she appears as a sexy model for the mink campaign in Don’s dream. But I’m curious about the only line she speaks out loud: “I’m supposed to tell you, you missed your flight.”

Airplane imagery has always been a big deal for Mad Men, and there are some compelling theories about what that might mean for the show’s ending. Whatever you believe, though, the idea of “missing his flight” is symbolic for a man who’s always jetting off to Los Angeles. California is another symbol of a life not lived, and not just for Don, either. “I thought I was really changing my life when I went off to California,” Pete later tells Ken. “Of course, now it sorta feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real.”

NEXT: The women of Mad Men

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