“Is That All There Is?” became a hit for Peggy Lee in August 1969, the month that followed the July 29 moon landing featured so prominently at the end of the first half of Season 7. Though not much time has gone by, the televised Nixon speech that comes later in the episode dates it at April 1970—just enough time for Roger to have nurtured his luxuriant, albeit fake-looking mustache. The show has kept its characteristic and elegant slowness rather than making an unseemly rush for the exit. But the sense that the end is nigh is hard to separate from a general sense of disillusionment—the title (“Enttäuschung”) of the Thomas Mann story that inspired the Lieber / Stoller song.
Disillusionment fits nicely into the aesthetic practice observed by Lauren Goodlad and Caroline Levine in the last half-season, and perhaps by others before then: what goes on inside the story is designed to echo how the show itself is doing, or how Weiner and company hope or fear it might be doing. (The success or failure of Sterling Cooper = the success or failure of Mad Men, and so on.) Many fans are no doubt as disappointed or fatigued with the show itself as its characters are with the lives they have achieved or stumbled into during their years together. The gambit here seems to be that the revealing of their onscreen disillusionment might give the series the jolt of energy needed to bring it home in high style. Like Don’s recently recollected “I banish you!” to the tobacco companies, it’s risky, and it may be less principled than it looks.
The title of the episode, “Severance,” turns out to refer most directly to Ken Cosgrove, an eye-patched would-be writer and minor character, rather than to Don or Peggy, characters whose commitments to or alienations from their work we care more about. Ken is abruptly dismissed by McCann, now (as per the financial machinations of the mid-season finale) the parent company of Sterling Cooper. Ken’s wife has been urging him to give up advertising and follow his old dream of writing. She has reminded him that advertising for a company like Dow Chemical means being a cog in a great violence-producing machine. (I remind the younger generation that Dow was notorious for manufacturing both napalm and Agent Orange.) Dow is also her father’s company, a connection that, despite Ken’s reluctance, has bolstered his career.
But his father-in-law has gone into a golfer’s retirement, and Ken is fired before he can quit. He makes noises about this being a good thing after all. But his slice of the episode ends with him standing over Roger and Pete and telling them that he will not be taking Sterling Cooper’s severance package because he is now working for Dow itself. He will be the client they have to please. He will not be an easy client. All Pete can say when the door closes is, “Shit.” The audience may well be saying the same thing. It’s a moment of disillusionment. Rather than opting for literature and its perhaps fantasmatic alternative of making money by means of stories that are sad and sweet and therefore innocent, Ken chooses to make himself an even more integral part of the violence. Of course, literature has never been as real to him or to anyone on the show as, say, face-to-face triumph over adversaries within the firm. And neither has the part of the ’60s counter-culture that was less about experimental life-styles than about, say, anti-war politics.
“You don’t want to see what happens when it’s really gone.” This is what Don has told Ted in the previous episode when Ted, too, was ready to say no to advertising and drop out. Since this is a pitch (aimed at saving his own career), we can’t say it’s what Don really thinks about work. And we can’t say it’s not. What we can say for sure is that, deep down, the shows is existentially interested in work.
Don has his office at the firm back and, it would seem, his old authority as well. But we don’t see him being Creative again. Instead we see sex, both public (the casting for the fur ad) and private. Megan having told Don to stop trying to make the marriage work, the parade of anonymous beauties through his bedroom can resume. This is fun, but it probably can’t count as meaningful. On the other hand, we do see Don again in full Quest of Meaning. His vision of Rachel Katz modeling a fur coat (another revenant, as it turns out, like Bert Cooper doing his song-and-dance at the end of the first half-season) and his fascination with the waitress who is reading on the job (mocked by Roger, so as to underline how differently he and Don live their class privilege) are presented as somehow linked to each other and to a mysterious something lurking behind the handsome planes of Don’s face. We may or may not be told eventually “Who is Don Draper?,” a conundrum that the show itself long ago gave up on, but these clues recall the time early in the show when we were all quite compelled by it, by the world of sordid poverty Don climbed out of and what it might have to do with his present. And this mystery too sends us looking for meaning outside the domain of work.
Many of us have been tempted to think that work is Don’s one true love. If so, we should not expect any redemption, if such a thing is plausible, to come in the form of, or even accompanied by, romantic attachment. This episode makes you hesitate. His darkness is again being channeled through dark-haired ladies. And something more than desire is clearly involved. When Don pushes open the door of what you think will be the Vogue party and instead finds himself sitting shiva for Rachel (actually, standing), redemption no longer seems out of the question. That mirror is the episode’s only one in which the face of a woman does not appear.
Is work in advertising meaningful? For some time now, anyone who cared to ask what the show thinks would look for answers to the women, Joan and especially Peggy. Here they too seem to be suffering from disillusionment. Facing the representatives of McCann on behalf of Topaz, an account that Peggy had helped bring in, an early and notable success for her, they run into a solid wall of sexist innuendo. Suddenly it seems as if nothing has changed, as if neither of them ever rose out of the secretarial pool, as if the world still belongs to the most obnoxious and unreconstructed of the men. When the ordeal is over, Joan says, “I want to burn this place down.” Peggy may feel the same, but the possibility of an alliance evaporates in the elevator when Peggy blames the experience on Joan’s provocative clothes.
It’s a bad moment for Peggy, but a good, grown-up moment for the episode (which by the way manages to get through its TV hour without children—it seems confident that the adults are interesting enough on their own). Peggy has been rising in our esteem, especially after her masterful presentation to Burger Chef, while Joan has been falling, especially after siding with Accounts and voting to throw Don out. This is a mini-reversal. It leads Joan to go clothes-shopping, where she contemplates her glory in the mirror but also lords it over the shopgirls who unwisely try to remind her that she used to do the same work they do. (Note the contrast with the egalitarian Don.) Peggy is still flush with her huge Burger Chef success, but this scene leads her to ask, in effect, if that’s all there is. What about her private life? She reconsiders the self-imposed austerity of her own wardrobe and accepts, belatedly, a blind date she has been offered by a subordinate who is doing his best to suck up to her and succeed in business, in the classical manner, without really trying. The blind date, which starts badly but gets much better, gives Peggy a chance to say that she has never taken a vacation. In other words, she hasn’t asked whether there are any limits to how much her work should matter to her. She and her date don’t end up flying to Paris immediately or even sleeping together, and the subordinate who has arranged the blind date comes around to smirk and crow. Yes, mixing work life with private life gets complicated quickly. Private life is complicated enough. We leave Peggy still without one, asking herself the familiar professional-woman question: can you have success in your career without giving up everything else?
What even she does not ask, of course, is whether advertising is something that is worth doing or something that should be done. The question would seem unfair except that Mad Men itself leads us up to it again and again. Then it puts us off. The ’60s radical critique of the system is made to seem as ridiculous as the example that stands in for it in Season 7, Ginsburg’s crazed belief that the computer is controlling his mind. He is taken away on a stretcher, still ranting. So much for Dow and Agent Orange.
Peggy belongs among the “difficult women,” many of them spies and detectives, who are distinctive bearers of the public interest in our time and pay a price for it in their private lives. Consider her relations with Julio, the charmless but needy neighbor kid of earlier episodes. The fact that Don is good with children seems of a piece with his talents as a Creative. Peggy is equally talented, as she has shown. But when Julio needs a hug, Peggy doesn’t know how to administer it. Easier to like than other difficult women, like them she is nonetheless awkward, lacking in “ordinary” social skills, as if this were the necessary sacrifice a woman would have to make in exchange for access to higher commitments. Yet are her commitments higher? Unlike her male colleagues, she never puts her personal vanity before the interests of the firm. But has she once looked beyond the interests of the firm? If she were a detective in a Nordic thriller, she would be thinking of justice. But not in the US. The logic here seems to be that justice is guaranteed or at least preempted by gender. Women are underdog Cinderellas who start at a large disadvantage. Therefore the female protagonist can be granted a free pass, morally speaking, as to what she may have to do to make space for herself in a hostile masculine world. For example, tell the big lie that torture allowed the US to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. She may suffer for it in her private life, but we will not ask whether anyone else suffers for it. Is that really all there is?
Much of the most ambitious television of the past decades has asked how much bad stuff a protagonist can get away with without forfeiting the audience’s sympathy. In shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, the bad stuff was done at work, in a manner of speaking, and the question was re-focused on the meaning of work: can work justify actions that might otherwise seem unjustifiable? In terms of its moral ambitions, Mad Men belongs in the company of these other shows; it too asks whether it’s good to do something if the public consequences are ultimately harmful. Along with the glamour and the fashion and the media buzz, this may explain why Mad Men is not just a soap opera for people who would never watch soap operas. (It’s not, right?)
Matthew Weiner has said that his ambition for Mad Men was to create “water cooler moments.” There is something beautifully reflexive and even paradoxical about the idea. The water cooler is where co-workers meet briefly, in the midst of work. It’s a place for the interruption of work. In that sense, it’s the stationary equivalent of Aaron Sorkin’s “walk and talk” on The West Wing: you are working, and you’re not. Like The West Wing, Mad Men is something people see while enjoying their leisure. How strange that we devote our leisure to watching other people work! Less strange, maybe, that what we seek in doing so is some sort of interruption, a chance to ask whether that’s all there is.