Mad Men Recap: “Severance”

Sometimes our subconscious can scare the hell out of us, but not for the reasons we expect. Let me explain:

Most of the time when our subconscious scares us, it’s by virtue of its invention. It brews a particularly gruesome nightmare and springs it on us in the dead of night. But for me, I’m most frightened in those moments when I get a glimpse of the machinery lurking behind our subconscious minds. Last year, my girlfriend and I rewatched the cop drama The Shield, and as we ingested season two’s “money train” storyline, we made up a goofy song about the famed Armenian Money Train. It was an in-joke while we inhaled the remainder of the show, but we didn’t really talk about it once we were done.

Months later, she and I were looking for a space to rent for an event. We visited a website that rents such spaces. Moments later, I flashed on our Money Train song but didn’t say anything. I chuckled about it to myself and forgot about it. About half an hour later, my girlfriend came into my home office singing the fucking Money Train song.

She said I looked like I’d seen a ghost. I retraced our conversational steps over the last several hours to try and figure out how and why the song popped into our heads again. My best hypothesis is that while we were looking for an event space, we checked out a few venues in Koreatown, a regular stomping ground for The Shield’s main characters. My guess is that simply seeing those photos stirred something in our subconscious that led us to the same place.

Now, let me be clear: That my girlfriend and I are in such wonderful cognitive sync is beautiful. I love how we’re so close that our frickin’ brainwaves are starting to follow similar sine patterns. But all the same, when she came into my office singing that song for the first time in months, I got a glimpse into the depths of the human mind — and it was a little unsettling.

Don Draper got a similar glimpse on last night’s midseason premiere of Mad Men. (Can we just call it season eight? Probably not, as showrunner Matthew Weiner told Vulture that the arc and scope of the final 14 episodes will become clear when they’re all seen together.) Draper’s subconscious went night-hunting like a cat and delivered as tribute the remains of one of his old flames, the department store mogul Rachel Katz (Maggie Siff), who had been off his radar since season two, if memory serves. Most likely, Joan and Peggy’s work on the Topaz pantyhose account played a part in reminding him of Rachel’s existence, as did his and Roger’s trip to a cramped and claustrophobic local diner where one of the waitresses reminded him of Rachel.

This scene gives us one of the episodes recurring images: Mistaken (or multiple) identities, one of the show’s central themes. When Don asks the waitress (the ominously and on-the-nosed-ly named Di) if he knows her, she says he has her confused with someone else. More confusion arises later when Don returns to the bar to speak with Di again, and she takes him in the back alley for a quick roll in the hay, assuming he’s there to cash in on Roger Sterling’s previous 100-dollar tip. (I wonder — did she think that Don had left the tip himself, or that Roger had made it on his behalf for a later encounter? And in either case, has Roger partaken of her “back alley” services in the past? Probably.)

In any event, all of this presages Don’s big scare for the episode when he learns of Rachel’s death. Mad Men looks like a period drama, but it often plays more like a ghost story; like Harold Pinter did a polish on A Christmas Carol. Characters are often surprised by unpleasant reminders of their past that come clanking into their minds like Jacob Marleys. Sometimes these ghosts are the memories of actual people (Rachel) while other times, they’re the memories of who we used to be (Don as an identity thief, Peggy as an unwed mother). Later in the hour, newly minted millionaire Joan meets just such a Jacob Marley when she’s venting her anger about an obnoxious meeting with her new overlords from McCann-Erickson. Joan visits a downtown store where she used to be an employee and proceeds to blow a ton of money on some new clothes. The woman serving Joan recognizes her as a former co-worker and offers her the employee discount. Joan dismisses the offer, saying she has her mistaken with someone else. (Unlike Di the waitress, the store employee accurately recognizes Joan, it’s worth noting.) When Joan rejected the discount offer, I wondered if she didn’t want to be recognized as a former plebe, or if she didn’t want to suffer the “indignity” of buying high-end fashions at a discount. Probably both, and in any case — I know how she felt. It’s incredibly upsetting to be faced with an older, less appealing version of yourself, whether it’s through mistaken identity or simply running into an old friend who insists on treating you like the person you used to be.

Still more common is how reminders of the past are unpleasant harbingers of the future, i.e. death. A “low-level fear of death” hangs over this show, as the eminent Matt Zoller Seitz expertly explains, and again, this show plays as much like a horror movie as it does a drama. There’s a fairly robust body of criticism exploring this idea, including this memorable piece over at Time by James Poniewozik, who says of season six:

Season 6 of Mad Men has been filled with images and reminders of horror, public, private, and pop-culture. It’s set in 1968, so naturally the background was inevitably going to be death- and violence-haunted: the MLK and RFK assassinations, the Democratic National Conventions, the Tet Offensive. There were allusions to the way nightmare terrors were working their way into the culture. The cult TV show The Prisoner, a surreal story of sci-fi totalitarianism, appeared in the background and felt like an inspiration for the trippy amphetamine-injection episode. We saw Sally reading Rosemary’s Baby, which showed up in “The Quality of Mercy” as a scary matinee and the inspiration for Peggy’s St. Joseph’s campaign pitch. Don and Megan’s surprised unsettlement at the Satanic-horror movie echoed another example, earlier in the season, of a very different movie that dramatized social fears: Planet of the Apes, which was not only an apocalyptic vision of Earth but was read at the time as an allegory of the racial turmoil in America.”

I agree, and I’d further argue that images of gore and doom can be found all across the show’s run: Lane’s suicide, the lawn-mower incident, Don’s near fall down an empty elevator shaft that whispered with the whistling wind. More ghosts and gore populate “Severance.” When Don meets with a comely stewardess in his dark, abandoned apartment, she spills red wine on his carpet in a bloody splatter that marks the spectral grave where Don murdered a former lover in a fever dream. We also finally get a look at poor Ken Cosgrove’s empty eye socket.

Anyway, speaking of fashion, the show’s production design team continues to use clothing and appearance to tell us about the characters. Despite the onset of the 70s, Don’s wardrobe remains largely the same, and he’s resisted the impulse to grow a killer ‘stache like his colleagues Ted and Roger. Meanwhile, Peggy and Joan’s status seems to have switched back to where it was in the first couple seasons. Over at the excellent blog Tom and Lorenzo, the authors discuss the fashions of Mad Men in detail, and they’ve argued that over the course of the series, Peggy has slowly passed up Joan as the most powerful woman in the office. The showrunners have signaled this change by altering how they shoot the two women — Joan used to loom large in frame over the mousy Peggy — along with giving Peggy a better fashion sense as her stock in the company has risen. But last night, I sensed a change in that status. Once again, Joan (with her bold, solid dresses) seems to tower over Peggy and her dowdy plaids.

Finally, I want to talk about how claustrophobic this episode felt. Mad Men spends a lot of time exploring virtual headspaces — mostly Don’s — as well as creepy, Pinteresque dreamscapes. Over at Vulture, Seitz notes the continuation of this exploration in last night’s episode:

“Don is working through [childhood] traumas here, even though he might not be aware that he’s doing it; his whole story has the mix of specificity and mythological vagueness that we associate with dreams interpreted by a psychologist, therapist, or mystic. Every Don scene has a dream-logic connection with every other Don scene. Every one is about sex and death, and chances at happiness that were thwarted, or seemingly thwarted, by fate, or inattention.”

Last night’s episode made me flash on my favorite exploration of Don’s headspace, his trip down to the SCDP archives to find an old ad he designed. As happens a lot with Don, the ad included an image that reminded him of his traumatic childhood, in that case (if memory serves) the woman who sexually assaulted him when he was young. Last night, we got a more detailed look at the recesses of Don’s subconscious, and like the SCDP archives, it’s cramped and dark. Don’s gloomy apartment feels less like a bachelor pad and more like a tomb. After learning of Rachel’s death, he dares to visit her wake, where all the windows are covered, as per Jewish tradition. (My girlfriend noted that Rachel’s sister, gatekeeper for the wake, looked a little like Joan, another woman who’s undoubtedly lodged in the back of his mind.) When Kenny gets fired, Don speaks with him in a tiny telephone booth that feels like the brig on a nuclear submarine. Finally, I kept fixating on that diner and how it reminded me of Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks. You know the one:

But unlike Hopper’s painting, Di’s diner forces its patrons to enter a door that’s perpendicular to the street and make an awkward 90-degree turn to sit down. Like a lot of spaces in New York, it feels cramped, the walls close by on either side. And most important, there’s no huge window that gives audience to the street. You’re trapped, just like Don is in his own head, his own past.