Warning: The following review contains spoilers!
The second half of the final season of Mad Men has been billed as “The End of an Era.” The show’s eight year run and the end of the 1960s certainly feels like the times (they) are a-changin’. Throughout the first half of season seven, Don Draper was knocked down to size (Conrad Hilton doesn’t seem so bad now, right Don?). Don had to report to Lou Avery, a creative director who is just about as interesting as watching paint dry. He wrote copy and tags for Peggy Olson, his former secretary and now the copy chief. Finally, most of Don’s partners sought any kind of excuse to oust him from Sterling Cooper & Partners because his antics have cost the company millions. After the death of Bert Cooper, Roger Sterling finally got in uniform, fixed his bayonet, and made a deal with McCann Erickson, the company Don spurned ten years ago. SC&P is now an independent subsidiary, Roger is President, Don is creative director again, and the world is back in balance. In the final scene, Don was nearly brought to tears as he watched Bert do the song-and-dance number of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Does this signal Don’s state of inner peace as he sheds his business responsibilities to focus on just the creative work? Or is Bert’s farewell song a foreshadowing and a warning? After all, even though Bert is the wise man archetype, he also lived and died by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
In this season’s opener titled “Severance,” creator Matthew Weiner, in his typically slow but methodical manner, is laying the groundwork for the beginning of the 1970s by going full circle. We open on Don being the same old Don as he tells a beautiful woman to look at herself in the mirror as she models a $15,000 chinchilla. As Don warns her, “You’re not supposed to talk,” it is reminiscent of the episode “Man with a Plan” when Don masochistically keeps Sylvia in a hotel room for his pleasure. Then as Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” begins to play, lo and behold, the record scratches and we see four other men in the room. Don is just casting for a commercial and he’s doing the other thing he does best, advertising. However, what is interesting about this scene is that Don is back to selling fur coats. Just to refresh your memory, Don hustled his way into Sterling Cooper after Roger walked into his store to purchase a mink for Joan. After imbibing on hard liquor, Don tricked Roger into hiring him. Don went from being a happy-go-lucky salesman to a high-level salesman up on Madison Avenue. Is this the utopia Don’s been searching for all his life?
This scene is also very much about Roger. Although his name is up on the lobby, Roger was never taken seriously because he inherited the company and Lucky Strikes from his father. Roger’s new leadership role is instantly put into question when he fires Ken Cosgrove, the head of accounts. Ken’s father-in-law is retiring from Dow Chemicals and SC&P and McCann believe he is no longer needed for his service. But really, McCann is out for revenge after Kenny left them a few years back and called them “black Irish thugs.” Roger wants all of Ken’s accounts to be transferred over to Pete Campbell. If all goes according to plan, Ken will receive a handsome severance. Ken, who was going to quit anyway after his wife rekindled his passion for writing, decides to take revenge. Little did Roger know, Dow hires Ken as their head of marketing. Instead of firing SC&P, Ken’s is going to make their life a living hell.
Meanwhile, Joan and Peggy are being put to the test as well. Topaz, the account Peggy won when Sterling Cooper was on the brink of folding in season four, is last in sales because their competitors have developed a cheaper product with an interesting packaging. Their solution is to get their product into Macy’s and the only way to do that is through their connection with McCann. Of course, the men at McCann don’t take them seriously, especially Joan, as they constantly flirt and throw sexist remarks. This spurs an argument between Joan and Peggy. Peggy accuses Joan of inviting such treatment by the way she dresses while Joan calls Peggy ugly. I have to side with Joan here because like Don, her clothes and appearance is an armor. She purchases an Oscar de la Renta dress not to pick up men but to showcase her power. The only problem is that she is still not being taken seriously.
The entire theme of the episode, and perhaps the rest of the season, is the idea of “the life not lived.” Returning to Don, this episode shows him still in search of something. After finding out that Rachel Menken Katz died of leukemia, Don is once again sucked into a downward spiral. As a reminder, Rachel was perhaps the one who got away. In season one, it wasn’t Betty or Midge who Don felt closest to, it was Rachel. As Don attends her shiva, Rachel’s sister tells Don that she lived the way life she wanted and she had everything. Of course, Don’s trajectory ran opposite with his two divorces. In his attempt to search for meaning, Don keeps returning to a diner where a waitress, Di, reminds him of someone. Is it his prostitute mother? Perhaps Rachel?
While Don is lost in disillusionment, he wonders if he gave up on a life not lived. Throughout the entire series, Don has a penchant for turning away everything that could potentially make him whole, including Rachel, his brother Adam, his children, and Megan. Even Ken, who has the opportunity to do the one thing he loves, falls into the same trap in order take revenge on SC&P. Peggy, who hits it off on her date with Stevie, Mathis’s brother-in-law, also misses an opportunity when she impulsively decides to fly off to Paris with him but can’t because her passport is missing. It was stashed in her office all this time. Peggy’s ascension in her career has always been similar to Don’s. Yet, perhaps her personal life is in danger of following Don’s path as well.
Mad Men has always been steeped in American history. Based on the televised speech of Richard Nixon, in which he addresses his decision to send troops into Cambodia, this season’s timeline starts on April 30th, 1970. Things have definitely come full circle since season one, when the entire office celebrated during election night but watched in disappointment as John F. Kennedy defeated Nixon for the presidency. It’s been a decade since then. While Don and SC&P are prospering, the political climate seems to be regressing as the protest and riots of the ’60s have done little but put Nixon in power. Mad Men loves symbolism and the book Di is reading in the diner is very telling. She’s reading the U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos, a radical American novelist who studied socialism in the Soviet Union. Dos Passos took a sharp right turn in his political identity and began supporting figures lke Barry Goldwater, Joseph McCarthy, and Richard Nixon. Identity, specifically Don’s, has always been the show’s central theme. Don has had to compromise and sacrifice his past to sustain the “Don Draper” persona. The question is whether Don will find what he is looking for this season or will he continue to wonder, “Is that all there is?”
*I will not rate each episode of Mad Men this season. Each episode is a microscopic view of the entire season, and it would be unfair to critique them without seeing the entire picture. Instead, I will give a detailed rating of the entire season when the series is over.