S07E08 “Severance”: Is that all there is?

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“I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to a fire?”

Don has been ramming himself into the limits of his personal progress for the entirety of Mad Men. There have been glimmers of steps forward: getting his name on the door, big accounts, big pitches, a new wife, a new mistress, but none of them are the ultimate power, none of them are the complete separation from his past.

“And when I was 12 years old, my daddy took me to a circus.
“The Greatest Show On Earth.”
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears.
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching, I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to a circus?”

But something subtle yet colossal happened in the first half of “Severance”; Don talked about his past openly and with a smile. He called the whores “boarders” and the pimp/stepfather “Uncle Mac”, but the poverty and the reality of his childhood was still all there. Don seems to have given up on running away from Dick Whitman and instead has begun to invite Dick’s life into his own. The scene is punctuated by him trying to recall the waitress as someone from his past. He has spent so long building and rebuilding his identity that there are bound to be people and memories lost in the process.

“And then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river
Or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day, he went away and I thought I’d die.
But I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to love?

Don spends the majority of the rest of the episode trying to reconcile Rachel into his life. She was one of the few that immediately saw through him and although Don always falls short of love, he is still wholly capable of nostalgia. In the very first episode, Don says “I’m living like there is no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.” Rachel is on the other side of the table when he says this. She is tempted by his nihilism, but because she was raised in a family instead of a whorehouse, she has experienced what a hopeful tomorrow actually can look like.

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, not me.
I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
‘Cause I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
That when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath
I’ll be saying to myself-

Is that all there is?”

Now Don is in the reality of tomorrow, without love or connection, hoping to second hand experience the happy life Rachel carved out for herself. When she asked “is that all there is?” she had the foresight to be content with what she had. We’re well versed that Don reacts to that question, like Peggy Lee in the song that opens and closes the episode, with booze and dance. That song is based on a short story by Thomas Mann entitled “Disillusionment”. The story stands as a simple definition of the title in the form of one man telling another about how he’s reacted to his life. About how he’s never been happy with any of it. Don being happy to share his childhood could be a sign of his breaking from this. Don turning back into Dick Whitman might be the ultimate solution.

Sterling’s known that this is all there is for a while but he is too boyish and self centered to care. His only change in seven seasons has been that inexplicable mustache. Don is on the precipice of the decision that Roger made a long time ago. Ken has the opportunity to run from the cage of advertising, but chooses to run into a new one. Joan is realizing that it will take more than her own personal power to change the misogyny of the business world. Peggy stands one choice below Don just as he is one below Roger, making her choice the most important out of any of them. Paris always seems to be a symbol instead of an actual place.

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