The mid-season premiere of AMC’s highly successful television series Mad Men resumed last night after a break in the final season lasting a full year, and showed that surprisingly little has changed with the main characters. This happens despite the Mad Men series being set as one of America’s most turbulent decades, historically speaking, is quickly drawing to an end. This was one of the final six episodes of Mad Men left in the series, which is set to conclude in a matter of weeks.
The mid-season premiere episode of Mad Men, entitled “Severance,” shows the familiar cast of characters in relatively familiar places, with little changed in their lives. Don Draper, the most iconic face of Mad Men, is back to being confident and suave, and seemingly better in possession of himself than he has been in some time. In the recent past, he seemed caught up in a downward spiral of women and affairs, work trouble and rivalries, problems in his personal life, and a drinking problem that was exacerbating everything. This was on top of the numerous things that he already had on his plate that had plagued him in the past, including his false identity, as well as two marriages that have now both fully ended in failure. However, Don appears to be back on top again. This happens although he seems unusually susceptible to some demons from the past – mainly his former love interest, Rachel Katz. He eventually learns that she had just recently died. Wanting to pay his respects, he shows up for the funeral, but receives a cold reception from Rachel’s sister, who is less than thrilled with Don’s presence there, and does little to hide what she clearly perceives was his negative presence in her sister’s life.
In the meantime, Joan and Peggy, two other major Mad Men characters, are working together in a presentation for a prospective client for women’s leggings. Though, they are not only not taken seriously, but subjected to chauvinism that would easily qualify as sexual harassment in the modern era, thus the theme of Mad Men has changes very little. They pick up the account for Sterling Pryce Draper Cooper, but neither of them are particularly happy afterwards, although they make matters worse by turning on one another. Joan insults the way that Peggy looks and dresses, and Peggy responds by suggesting Joan was “filthy rich”, a charge which Joan is particularly sensitive to, since she received that money through a partnership that she gained specifically because of a sexual encounter with a male client, at the behest of the partners. Joan appears agitated for much of the rest of the episode.
As for Peggy, she goes on a blind date that a co-worker has set up, and finds herself getting carried away. The two really hit it off, to the point where they make plans to go away to Paris together, and seem to be really happy together. Though, just when it seems that they are about to go, Peggy cannot find her passport at home. As it turns out, it is in her office, and she only finds it there when she is back at work, seeming to have sobered some since that first date. However, she seems to be taking a step back and either regaining her composure, allowing the office to shackle and stifle her personal life once again.
In the meantime, Ken is being challenged by his wife to find independence from the office. She feels that he can do so much better, and they take him for granted. The very next day, Ken is fired and offered a severance package. However, instead of taking it, he maneuvers his way to the head of advertising for one of Sterling Pryce Draper Cooper’s clients. So, he marches into the office of Roger Sterling, the man who had just recently fired him, who happens to be chatting with Pete, the man who has taken over Ken’s former accounts, and whom Ken has never liked. Ken promises to give the firm a very hard time in the future. Roger and Pete appear visibly worried by this unexpected turn of events.
Mad Men has gained tremendous popularity and critical acclaim for it’s generally accurate portrayal of the sixties, which was a turbulent time when the conformity that prevailed with traditional modes of thinking clashed with the spirit of change socially, politically, and culturally. “Severance” takes place in the spring of 1970, as evidenced by a speech given by then-President Nixon, announcing a scaling down of troops in Vietnam. The speech is playing on Don’s television, although Don himself seems to hardly be paying attention to it, lost in his own thoughts as he puffs away at a cigarette. We see that not all that much has changed inside of the office, or in the lives of the main characters, despite the very tumultuous decade that has just passed. The sixties were a turbulent time in American history, with huge changes politically and culturally within the country, coming mostly as a result of protests in various forms, as well as by enormous events (many of which were incorporated into past Mad Men episodes) that shook the country to the core. Yet, despite living through all of this, the mid-season premiere of the final season of Mad Men shows that the main characters themselves have changed surprisingly little through it all.
Commentary by Charles Bordeau
Photo courtesy of Angela Natividad – Flickr License