Mad Men Review: The Final Episodes, Severance

Is That All There Is? – Peggy Lee (1969)

If that’s all there is my friends

Then let’s keep dancing

Let’s break out the booze and have a ball

If that’s all there is

You’d literally have to be living under a boulder not to know Mad Men’s final seven-episode run began last night on AMC. The show’s biggest stars and creator Matthew Weiner have been everywhere; from television to radio to magazine covers to various interviews across the Internet. Last week, one article called the end of Mad Men the conclusion of the last great television drama, which is a stretch. You’ll find very few people who are bigger fans of the show than me (my mother is one), but let’s be serious. We’re living in a golden age of television; and while Mad Men is one of the two finest dramatic shows of the time period, we’re still going to have plenty to watch seven weeks from now. Superlatives need to be handled with care.

Mad Men, above all else, has been about identity and evolution, both literally and figuratively. Don Draper or Dick Whitman, Peggy Olson the secretary or Peggy Olson the advertising executive, Joan Harris the eye candy or Joan Harris the bad ass, all of these questions and many more have been at the core of the show’s success. As we enter the final stretch, Mad Men opens up in 1970, with all of the usual suspects still in place on Madison Avenue.

(We know it’s 1970 because of the Richard Nixon address on increased military withdrawal in Vietnam. The speech he references making a few days before included plans for a 150,000-troop pullback effort. It’s a decent bet we won’t get to 1972 before the end of our journey, but we might end up around that point. I’d REALLY like to hear a drunk Roger’s opinion on Watergate.)

“Severance” is a literal and figurative theme from last night, not to mention the episode’s title. Ken Cosgrove was fired, offered a severance package, and ended up turning the situation on its head and signing as the advertising director for Dow; a client of his former firm. It was a well-crafted moment to see Cosgrove stick it to the people that let him go. I was kind of hoping to see him write that book; maybe it will still happen. But, the Cosgrove storyline is nowhere near big enough for Weiner to have selected that word for his title.

What “Severance” is really concerned with is what the show has always been focused on: Don Draper. Throughout the hour, which was a good, but not a particularly memorable episode, was on the changing landscape of characters we’ve gotten to know for several years. Peggy and Joan are working together to help Topaz combat Hanes’ economical Leggs hosiery brand (and still finding the reality of being women in corporate America to be a challenge), Pete is studying and attempting to get up to speed with Ken’s accounts (and still being tone deaf to those around him), and Roger Sterling is drinking, wining and dining, and cutting costs. He’s also sporting a ridiculous mustache that we’re never going to forget. Times have changed in all of these people’s lives, but with the exception of the latter, it feels as if they’ve all shifted to match those times.

Back to Cosgrove for a minute, as his conversation with Don in the phone booth is extremely important. He tells Don, after describing the crazy events of the last few days in his life, that he’s ready for the future. He was fired the day after his wife asked him to quit his job and told him he was wasting his life. He was strongly considering doing it, but the company beat him to the punch. “That’s not a coincidence; that’s a sign…(of) the life not lived. Now I just have to figure out (pause) how to drag myself through those doors.” Indeed Kenny my boy, and Don Draper heard every word. Did it have any effect? We’ll find out over the next two months.

Roger and Don are two peas in a pod; they’re watching the world fly in front of them and they haven’t stepped on board yet. With the Summer of Love in the rearview, the protests have begun to move from the streets and college campuses to capitalist consumer merchants like Menken’s or Macy’s. While nearly every character we encounter throughout “Severance” showcases something new, Don Draper illustrates the same old shit, and it’s by design. He’s still bedding every hot woman he can find, and, as a result, he’s still drinking coffee alone in a local diner. He’s showing up late for work, he’s napping in his office, and he’s not seeing his children all that much. Or, if he is, the show isn’t giving us that impression.

The season opens with another nameless, ridiculously beautiful woman, modeling a fur coat for Don, who instructs her on how to entice him as a buyer, or a man. Peggy Lee’s voice sings “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing” and we quickly move to Don, Roger, and three women at a restaurant late at night. None of these women have names; Sterling demeans them verbally in jest, and they exemplify the emptiness in both men’s lives. They’re drinking to their own demise, and they don’t even realize it.

Don Draper’s existence and his conscience seemingly stopped its growth, outside the occasional pharmaceutical or sexual experiment, early in the 1960s. Since that moment, his growth has been marginal at best, and lateral more often than not. He’s the same guy in a world where he means very little. He’s the old book in the library that still has something to offer, but you usually just blow the dust off it and forget its there. He might have money, but he has no semblance of happiness. Waitress Diana is drop dead gorgeous, and she allows him to ravage her in the alley on her break, but afterward, when he might like to get to know her better, she simply says, “you got your hundred dollars worth.” Don Draper is a man in a gigantic, unforgiving maze; increasingly finding himself more and more lost with every passing day. He doesn’t fit into the new world around him because he was concerned with his next drink or his next fuck.

Peggy, Don’s other half in many ways, has a moment of clarity after her awkward blind date. She likes the gentleman, but slows her physical urges down in order to permit an actual feeling to grow above her waist. Maybe she’ll take the trip to Paris she was ready to do on a whim, or maybe we won’t see this guy two weeks from now. She still has to find her passport first. But, Peggy stopped and considered the future of a relationship shrouded in prurience and excess and chose something with potential longevity and a foundation.

Don daydreams of Rachel Katz showing up as part of his fur coat casting call, then finds out she passed away of leukemia. Here we have another of Mad Men’s many dream sequences, but this one never felt real, so it wasn’t quite as jarring. Overall, other than one more chance to see the always-awesome Maggie Siff, why did we see this at all? Simple. Don is living in the past.

Rachel has children, and as her sister tells him at her wake, “she had everything.” What does Mr. Draper have, other than the cake he brought for the occasion? He’s got nothing of any consequence in life. Don Draper’s possessions and triumphs are either entirely material or rapidly fleeting. God that blonde was hot in his apartment, like George Costanza “give up red meat for a glimpse of you in a bra” hot, but Don won’t remember her in two weeks. She might remember his touch, but he has no effect on her life. Don Draper’s actual footprint, at least what he can see, is a cloud of smoke.

The major song chosen for “Severance” was Peggy Lee’s 1969 Grammy Award winner, “Is That All There Is?” If you’re unfamiliar, the lyrics are among the bleakest in history. The singer is disappointed in her life, with everything in it, and with a collection of experiences from childhood that she believed would be special but were average at best. As a result, we should all just party and drink, because, well, that’s all there is. She talks of suicide but concludes she won’t take her own life – not because she’s against it – but because it too would be a disappointment. Take those concepts and apply them to Mad Men’s main protagonist.

How many parties can he attend, how many pairs of silky-smooth pantyhose can he roll down, and how many one-night-stands can he have before he needs more in his life? His evenings are fireworks shows, in every sense imaginable. They’re fun to watch, but over quickly. Do you remember any fireworks show that you’ve ever seen? What color was your favorite burst? Do you remember how it sounded? Do you remember anything about it? Do you remember who you were with when you saw it? The last one is important, because for Don Draper, the fireworks are the people. It means that in the end, he remembers nothing. He’s always, eternally, brutally alone. What’s the end game? How does he stop the ride, or maybe step onto it for the first time? What will all of these failings lead Don Draper to do in our final few weeks spending time with him?

They may drive him back to his first wife; something many have thought since the divorce. They may drive him somewhere else, including out of a window plunging towards the asphalt. Or, maybe he’s nearing his own eureka moment. The questions are fun to think about, but six episodes isn’t much time to tie everything up. Remember, Matthew Weiner has openly said he hopes to stun and shock everyone with his finale; but so did his buddy David Chase on The Sopranos. Come to think of it, Chase succeeded, but many fans would argue that wasn’t a good thing.

The one problem with “Severance” is that with just six episodes left, as it faded to black, I don’t feel a sense of direction. I trust Weiner knows where he’s going, but I’m unsure of where that is. It’s possible that the episode will mean much more once we see the next six. That’s a reality both thrilling and mildly disconcerting. We saw not even a frame of Betty or the kids and bounced around a few B-level storylines. No question, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the hour, but it’s not going to have a lasting impact on me. This was a good way to spend a Sunday night, as it always has been, and Weiner, who wrote the episode, had to place his characters in the right framework to get to his finish line. It was a solid introduction, but not one of the show’s landmark episodes.

It’s just good to have Mad Men back; that much is incontrovertible. We’ve got six more weeks to enjoy this special piece of storytelling and this incredible work of art. Next week, I anticipate that key path beginning to come into view, and I look forward to discussing it with you again then.

Happy (Late) Easter!

I’m @GuyNamedJason on the tweets. Follow me…shut the door…and have a seat, won’t you?

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.