Blessed Are the Unsatisfied by Amy Simpson, Free for CAPC Members
Living unsatisfied is the reality we know deep down and no longer need to cover with a shiny veneer.
Each week, Alissa Wilkonson reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men.
I don’t want to Bible-juke a story that stands just fine on its own as a work of literature, but the Ecclesiastes echoes in Mad Men are building to a deafening roar. Translators often call the author of Ecclesiastes the “preacher” or the “teacher,” but in his paraphrase The Message, Eugene Peterson lets him describe himself as the “Quester,” a sort of Homeric figure on a journey. The Quester declares from the start:
Smoke, nothing but smoke . . .
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
Mad Men‘s pilot, which aired in July 2007—“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”—featured Don Draper trying to figure out how to sell Lucky Strikes cigarettes to a newly health-conscious public. Later in that episode, he first meets Rachel Menken, who owns a department store and knows what she wants from life. In some ways, dark-eyed, dark-haired Rachel has functioned as an archetype for the kind of woman Don goes to when the hollowness inside gets to be too much—like Sylvia, his neighbor with whom he had an affair in Season 6; the woman on the plane in the Season 7 premiere; Megan, of course; and in this episode, the waitress Diana.“Severance” is full of quests not taken, questers who have sucked the marrow out of life and yet can’t quite get off the ground and wind up slinging back to earth.
Rachel resurfaces all these years later in “Severance,” the mid-season premiere of the last seven episodes of the series—this time, she’s in Don’s dreams. “Severance” (written by series creator Matt Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher) opens with Don casting models for a Wilkinson Razors ad. Later Rachel shows up in Don’s dream as one of the models, clad in a fur coat and little else.
Don’t forget that Don, newly back from the war and new to his assumed identity as Don Draper, was scouted by Roger Sterling when he saw him selling fur coats. Everything comes back around to the beginning in Mad Men.
What was will be again,
What happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it’s the same old thing.
At first Don takes the dream as his subconscious suggesting he get in touch with Rachel regarding the Topaz Pantyhose account, but he’s startled and horrified to discover she died just last week. He goes to her apartment, where he knows they’re sitting shiva—Rachel was Jewish, and as Don tells her sister, he’s lived in New York City a long time. It’s a tense conversation, but he catches sight of her children, and Rachel’s sister tells Don that she had “lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.” He stands for a while and watches the backs of the men praying before he leaves.
Mad Men is a show about desire and happiness, and we’ve reached the point where these characters do have everything they ever wanted. Don used to be so ashamed of his upbringing in a whorehouse, but now it’s a pickup line, used to entertain beautiful women. “He loves to tell stories about how poor he was,” Roger says, leaving a $100 bill for an $11 check, “but he’s not anymore.”
Peggy and Joan undergo indignities at the hands of knuckle-dragging male executives while trying to have a productive conversation about business, but Joan takes the brunt of it and visibly balks. “I want to burn this place down,” she spits in the elevator to Peggy. But Peggy parrots to her the line those same men use all the time amongst themselves—that Joan can’t dress the way she does (preposterous to our ears) and expect to be taken seriously—and Joan is outraged.
“You know what?” Peggy says. “You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.” That may have sunk in, because when they call again, Joan takes off and goes shopping. When the shopgirl asks her if she used to work there—”you can probably still get the discount”—Joan smiles icily and says, “That’s tempting, but I think you have me confused with someone else.”
Oh, how I prospered! I left all my predecessors in Jerusalem far behind, left them behind in the dust . . . Everything I wanted I took—I never said no to myself . . . I sucked the marrow of pleasure out of every task—my reward to myself for a hard day’s work!
Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) has long been a Mad Men punch line, with his eye patch and his science fiction stories, but in this episode his arc functions a tightened prism through which the rest refract. Ken’s father-in-law has retired, and so everyone at Dow Chemical has moved up the ladder—and if you’re paying attention you realize in his first scene in the episode that he’s encouraging Ken to take the open job as head of advertising at Dow.
Ken’s wife, though, is unsettled. “My father is so old,” she says to Ken later that night. “Why did he wait so long to do that?”
“Honey, he loved his job,” Ken says.
“But you don’t,” she replies. “You’re bored and angry because you know in your heart it’s not what you want to do.” They have means—why doesn’t he quit his job? They could buy a farm, and he could finally write his book. “Something sad, and sweet,” she says, “for all those people who aren’t brave enough to live their dream.”
Ken is angry. But then the next day he’s fired—with a hefty severance package. He catches Don in the hallway outside the agency, and tells him about the “creepy” circumstances. “I think that’s a sign!” he says—a sign of “the life not lived.”
“Now I just have to figure out how to drag myself through those doors,” he says. I thought he meant the agency doors, the first time around. We’re meant to think he’s going to go write the book now. But when he announces to Pete and Roger that he’s taken the job at Dow, it becomes clear which doors they were, and he’s pleased with his choice, and with himself.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth.
Appropriate for a show set mostly in the 1960s, sometimes it seems like what we’re seeing on screen in Mad Men isn’t so much what the camera sees as Don’s mind floating back and forth between conscious (mostly at Sterling Cooper, although remember Bert Cooper’s parting song-and-dance number from the mid-season finale!), the unconscious (he dreams of Rachel), and some waking dream state. In this episode, Don, miserable as usual and papering it over with women—it sounds like his divorce from Megan is not yet finalized—encounters Diana, the waitress, while in the diner with Roger. He comes back later, not sure why but certain she seems familiar to him. She interprets a $100 bill Roger had left as a down payment on a future sexual encounter, and delivers.
To the Romans, Diana (“heavenly” or “divine”) was the goddess of the hunt—about the only thing that brings Don to life is the hunt—and was known for her ability to talk to and control animals, which might be why she’s able to talk Don off what may, in retrospect, have been a ledge brought on by his dreams of Rachel. “I want you to think very carefully about when you had that dream, because when people die, everything gets mixed up,” she says. “Maybe you dreamed about her all the time . . . Someone dies, you just want to make sense of it. But you can’t.”
Of course there’s more to a name than its symbol; the first time the other waitress calls Diana’s name, she calls her “Di,” and I squinted hard at her name tag because I heard it as “Dawn” (not the first time a character has been named Dawn in this show), a homophone for Don’s own name. Then again, just say “Di” aloud.
I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It’s smoke—and spitting into the wind.
Peggy is the only one who seems like she may be arcing toward happiness—in this case, the prospect of a genuine connection with a man, Steve, who seems both smart and genuinely pleased that she is, in the words of his brother in law, funny and fearless. Peggy likes that too, enough to propose a few drinks in that they just drop everything and go to Paris, where she’s always wanted to go. (She has a passport, but she’s never used it.)
In the meantime she realizes that this fling may be something more, and she tells him she doesn’t want to sleep with him the night they met. “How old-fashioned,” he says. “I’ve tried new fashioned,” she says ruefully. The next morning, she is hung over and angry at herself, but she finds the passport in her desk drawer.
Much learning earns you much trouble.
The more you know, the more you hurt.
“Severance” is full of quests not taken, questers who have sucked the marrow out of life and yet can’t quite get off the ground and wind up slinging back to earth. Peggy can’t find her passport, and for now, Paris is off the table. Don tries to find Rachel, but she’s set sail already. Joan has made it to the top, but finds herself back in that store. Ken knows he doesn’t want to journey away from what he does.
But the title belies what may be going on, because in typical Mad Men fashion, nothing is ever quite what it seems on the surface. The word “severance” means to end a connection or relationship. Maybe the real severance here is between the characters and their “lives not lived”—their choices, crystallized in Don’s glimpse of Rachel’s children, in Ken’s decision to go with Dow, in Pete’s wistful mention of California, in Joan’s purchase of the dresses and boots—to leave who they might have been behind.
I’ve seen it all and it’s nothing but smoke — smoke, and spitting into the wind.
The song that wraps around the episode is Peggy (!) Lee’s “Is That All There Is,” in which the singer tells the story of being a child and living through a housefire, only to discover that it’s not so bad after all. “Is that all there is to a fire?” she asks. “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.”
Weiner has said he toyed with using this song as the theme for the whole series. At the end of the episode, Don is sitting in the diner in yet another clear homage to Edward Hopper, and Peggy Lee comes back, singing about a man who left her. “I thought I’d die,” she sings. “But I didn’t. And when I didn’t, I said to myself, is that all there is to love?”
She goes on, over the credits: “I know what you must be saying to yourselves: ‘If that’s the way she feels about it, why doesn’t she just end it all?’ Oh, no. I’m not ready for that final disappointment. Because I know, just as well as I’m standing here talking to you, that when that final moment comes and I’m bringing that last breath, I’ll be saying to myself, Is that all there is?”
Everything’s boring, utterly boring—
No one can find any meaning in it.
Boring to the eye,
Boring to the ear . . .
Don’t count on being remembered.
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