The Times Grow Messier As The Last Chapter Of 'Mad Men' Begins The corseted '60s give way to the freer '70s, as Don Draper begins to fall to pieces in earnest.
NPR logo The Times Grow Messier As The Last Chapter Of 'Mad Men' Begins

The Times Grow Messier As The Last Chapter Of 'Mad Men' Begins

Maliabeth Johnson as Audrey and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the latest episode of Mad Men. MIchael Yarish//AMC hide caption

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MIchael Yarish//AMC

Maliabeth Johnson as Audrey and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the latest episode of Mad Men.

MIchael Yarish//AMC

["Spoiler" alert: This review of the season premiere of Mad Men discusses the season premiere of Mad Men.]

The first time I watched "Severance," the Mad Men episode that aired Sunday night and kicked off the show's final seven-episode run, I had one of my strongest reactions to the moment in which Don Draper boozily sneaks up behind a comely flight attendant he's chosen as his evening's entertainment, from a list of women who left messages for him. She's in her underwear; he's in a T-shirt and pants, and she's talking about how every flight has a blanket "completely soaked in urine." They laugh; he puts an arm around her; her red wine splatters on the carpet; he guffaws. She asks for a towel for the floor, but he just grabs the bedspread and covers up the stain, his shirt riding up in the back awkwardly. They start making out on the floor. She sees an earring and wonders whose it is. He clarifies that it's Megan's — "my ex-wife" — and he throws the earring over his shoulder.

That scene alone has spilled wine, a literal coverup, a lost piece of jewelry, a throwaway attitude toward Megan and, by reference, blankets soaked in urine. I looked at it and thought, "Oh, heavens. Don Draper is a gross old drunk horndog."

None of these things — the sex life, the drinking, the looking messy — is entirely new, but more than ever, the show is letting Don fall apart, not just psychologically but style-wise. Look-wise. And on a look-obsessed show, that tells you a lot. Don has sometimes looked troubled and been awful to people, but now he looks ... uncool. And in this show's world, that's how you know everything's gone wrong.

The theme of disquieting decay that's soaked into this episode isn't exactly subtle: The opening scene shows a beautiful woman in a beautiful chinchilla coat doing her absolute best to sex it up at Don's instructions, for what turns out to be an audience of executives auditioning her for an ad. The scene is arranged to make it seem like a daring, aggressive seduction until you realize it's a business transaction — and if you miss the disappointment and the anticlimax, Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" begins to play.

When we do find him with willing women, we see Don sweaty and glib, eating at a diner with his arm around a woman whose similar fuzzy white wrap connects her to the models in the opening. He's holding court about the same terrible childhood stories he used to guard so carefully, giving away everything he once used to cultivate mystique. The elegant, perfect-looking bow ties of the early '60s have given way to the ungainly bow ties of 1970. Two women sit across from him, young as the women he's always preferred (if not younger), even though he's 10 years older. And then Roger Sterling appears, with a giant mustache and a super-ruffled shirt.

The effortlessness of Roger and Don's brand of chic has given way to a labored, gauche presentation that stinks of men battling age — but now rich from the buyout of their firm last season — by slinging their arms around pretty women who don't ask questions.

Roger even tops it off by being rude to the waitress and then throwing a hundred bucks at her, which he calls an "apology" even though it isn't one. But we'll get back to her.

What's fascinating about this episode is that Mad Men, on top of its acting and writing and directing and cinematography, has always been in masterful control of its visual design, which has contributed to the show's mystique and its hold over people. Don was a style icon; so was Joan. Only characters struggling with constant humiliation in life, like Pete Campbell, were allowed things like receding hairlines. Don might be disheveled at home and messy when drunk and alone. But here, he and Roger are out at a diner, in front of people, acting like exactly what they are: men who are trying too hard.

When Don returns to the diner later, haunted by the sense that he knows the waitress, she has sex with him in the alley, which he thinks is because they are strangely drawn to each other — but which she clarifies after the fact is because his table left her $100 and she figured this was what Don expected in exchange. Taken at her word, she's saying she didn't particularly want to have sex with him; she did it because she felt obligated. Women being indifferent to sex with Don is not a theme that has interested this show much in the past. He thought this was a daring dalliance. She did not.

There are a lot of signs that time is bringing about declines in the quality and fineness of everything. Better stockings are giving way to the brand-new, cleverly packaged, inexpensive hose known as L'Eggs, creating a crisis for Joan and Peggy in handling their client, whose stockings are just a bit better and just a bit more expensive. When they go for help to their colleagues at McCann Erickson, which acquired Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce last season as an independent subsidiary, Joan finds herself sexually harassed, finding that even a position as a newly wealthy executive only means she's disrespected in different ways than before.

The best scene in the premiere happens between Joan and Peggy on the elevator, in which Joan laments the rotten way that she's being treated and Peggy glibly suggests that it's the way Joan dresses that gets her comments about her body. (This wouldn't be fair even were Joan dressed differently, but as it happens, she's wearing a conservative suit that makes it particularly clear that this is not an observation in the moment but something Peggy has been saving up in her mind, probably ever since Joan got in on the windfall.) Stung, Joan slaps back, in effect, saying Peggy isn't pretty enough to be sexually harassed, and Peggy slaps back-back, saying Joan has so much money that she shouldn't expect anyone to feel sorry for her.

It's an incredibly compact summary of the position these women are in. Joan knows she's considered beautiful but resents not being respected or allowed to do her job without interference; Peggy gets treated better on the surface, but Joan knows she's vulnerable to claims that she's comparatively dowdy. And, sadly — and perhaps inevitably — they wind up taking all of this out on each other. (It's easy to put it all on Peggy for blaming the victim, which she absolutely did, but Joan was indeed complaining to someone who effectively works for her and makes far less money than she does, which can make for complicated conversations.)

So much of Mad Men has been the story of these women getting as far as they've gotten: They started as secretaries, and now one of them is a partner and the other runs her own accounts. But here we are, with both of them discovering that advancement has its own perils, and getting into a meeting with the men who once outranked them doesn't mean that once they get there, they'll be treated like equals. It's the slide from overt, official limitations on what they can do to the creeping effects of terrible treatment from resentful, sexist jerks, and it's really sad.

In the end, though, the ultimate sign of decay in the episode is Don's startling discovery that Rachel Menken, one of the women he has legitimately seemed to love, fell ill and died, all without his knowledge. First, he dreams that she appears for the fur coat audition and says, "I'm supposed to tell you you missed your flight." And he hits her with a line that seems to be from the ad campaign: "You're not just smooth; you're Wilkinson smooth." And she leaves. But not long after, he learns from his secretary that Rachel in fact is dead.

There are a lot of ways to read the final conversation he has with Diana, the diner waitress who no longer wants him around. He tries to explain about Rachel — that he had this dream, that he then found out she had died. "Is that who you think I am?" she asks. "No, I don't think so," he says, seeming confused. She goes on: "Well, I want you to think very carefully about when you really had that dream, because when people die, everything gets mixed up." He isn't sure: "I don't know, maybe." "Maybe you dreamt about her all the time," the waitress says. "When someone dies, you just want to make sense out of it, but you can't," she says. And then she finishes: "I'm not saying this to lead you on or make you more interested, but the next time you come in here, please bring a date. I just work here."

Hoo boy. Well, Don has now gone from merely falling apart to becoming an even more unreliable narrator than before. Why did he walk into a diner and start spilling his guts about Rachel and his dream? Is this waitress really saying this oddly prophetic and seemingly random thing to him? Is he dreaming this, too? After all, we ended last season with him hallucinating Bert Cooper doing a musical number; is this diner scene a hallucination as well?

This is decay taken to an extreme: His life is actually in pieces in such a way that they may not even be in order anymore. Reality may well be mixed up with dreams. (Pete says earlier in the episode that California felt like this for him.) What was once a strictly corseted show about the dawn of the 1960s is becoming a much messier, sloppier-looking show (in an entirely intentional, meticulous way) about the dawn of the 1970s. And Don Draper isn't looking so hot.