Spoiler warning for Mad Men series 7 episode 8 – ‘Severance’
In Mad Men, where long scenes can pass in silence and significant moments are communicated in eyebrow twitches and pheromones rather than dialogue, it’s always refreshing when it bluntly state its themes on the soundtrack. Like an opera, what can’t be said is easier to sing. And so…
“Is that all there is? Is that all there is?”
What do you want when you have it all? It’s not a question many of us wrestle with, but one Mad Men has asked constantly, repeatedly and with different emphasis over the last decade. As we rejoin SC&P, everything is going great. Joan and Peggy are high-powered women making bank, which is great. Don is sleeping off his hangovers on the office couch, in between casting couch sessions with young models, which is awesome. Ken Cosgrove is still missing an eye, but has a great family and a great career going great and Roger has the most fabulous moustache you ever did see. Break out the booze and have a ball.
But surprise surprise, no-one’s happy. Mad Men walks a fine line when it comes to sympathy for its characters. They are all ship-launchingly gorgeous and they are all, in their own ways, utter dickheads. What’s more, they’ve rarely struggled for money. Yet here they’re really swimming in it: laying down $100 bills like they’re OGs, wrapping models in $15,000 chinchilla coats. In today’s money, that’s about £400 for a cup of coffee and £60,000 worth of dead hamsters.
“You’re filthy rich,” Peggy spits at Joan. So what if three idiots keep going on about your breasts? You can do anything, buy anything, screw whatever waitress takes your fancy. What else do you want? A medal? What else is there?
Maybe artistic fulfilment, maybe? Or someone to go home to at night? Or coming to terms with the past?
Or maybe not. Peggy doesn’t hop a spontaneous romantic flight to Paris. Ken turns down the great American novel to sell “poison and weapons” and mess with his old colleagues. Most startlingly, Don isn’t simply open about his lowly past, he’s using it as a pick-up line on girls half his age. Maybe that’s all that’s left of the past: anecdotes.
We’ve been here before. Off the top of my head there was Pete’s orchestra in a box, Betty’s trip to Rome and Don’s whole ‘happiness is the moment before you need more happiness’ spiel. After a certain point, Mad Men started referencing old images and episodes like a chorus. And so here the fur coats go back to Don’s first job and the spooky reappearance of Rachel Katz echoes the spooky reappearance of Anna Draper and Adam Whitman and any number of people Don left behind.
Interestingly both of the Rachel stand-ins Don encounters –the waitress and her sister– refuse to comfort him. Rachel is dead now but ‘lived the life she wanted’. Don and the rest are in paradise (or is that Dante’s purgatory?) but still searching for something better. And what’s the definition of Utopia?
That’s right, series one Rachel, it’s the place that can never be.
After eventually draining all glamour from Don, Mad Men has been making its case through repetition: people don’t change, they simply spiral in on themselves. With Peggy Lee opening its final six episodes, the show seems to be daring us to be underwhelmed. Is that it? Is that all Mad Men has to show us?
Don’t believe it. In its own nihilistic way, Lee’s song is a triumph, a defiant shrug. Staying the same even as the world changes around you is its own victory. And even if that is all there is, Mad Men bows out as one of the greatest television shows ever made. Maybe all there’s left to do is just keeping dancing, at least for a little bit longer.