April 1970: Nine months since man landed on the moon, Sterling Cooper & Partner became an independent subsidiary of McCann Erickson, and all the partners became millionaires. Nine months since Don Draper had a vision of the dearly departed Burt Cooper singing “The Moon Belongs to Everyone.” Nine months, and Don is back in the Mad Men season 7B premiere, “Severance,” with another vision, this time as a dream: Rachel Menken Katz, a former lover, attending a casting call at the office. Awake, Don thinks to set a meeting with her, only to learn cancer took her the week before. “She lived the life she wanted to live,” Rachel’s sister, Barbara (Rebecca Creskoff), tells Don. “She had everything.”
Peggy Lee’s hit “Is That All There Is?” opens and closes the premiere, written by creator Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher, to great effect, just as fashion trends and changes at the offices are used to clue us in on the time jump. (We know it is April 1970 because of the Nixon speech playing in the background in one scene.) Don and company may be richer (and some, unfortunately, mustachioed), but they aren’t necessarily happier. Don, especially, has teetered on the precipice of contentment for a while now, taking in messages such as, redemption is possible; family comes in all forms; the best things in life are free; and that you can’t go looking for a utopia to solve your problems — Shangri-La doesn’t exist. He hears it all, but he’s not really listening. He made progress throughout 7A, learning to take his licks at work and becoming a better partner and mentor, but Weiner, even this close to the end, isn’t ready to let him change too much, if ever.
If Mad Men is about the struggle between doing what is expected of you to do and doing what you want to do, then Don is still in the former realm. He’s living up to everyone’s expectations of him, and the bar is low. Nine months have passed in the show’s time since we saw Don last; 10 years have passed since we saw him first. He’s back on his game at work; he’s sleeping around with beautiful women. “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing,” the song goes. He’s dancing, all right, but he’s far from care-free. It’s that look in his eyes as he talks to Barbara that’s different — that inkling of a notion that everything he has isn’t actually worth a damn. Rachel had everything; he, as Donald Draper, has nothing.
Interesting that Ken Cosgrove is presented as being in the opposite position as Don — with a chance to get out of the rat race and follow his passions — and he doesn’t take it. Sure, seeing him become head of advertising at Dow Chemical after being ungraciously sacked at SC&P, only to turn around and still be a client at the firm, feels like sweet justice. But it was an about-face from the epiphany he’d had that the events were all a sign — that now was his chance to do what he loves. If anyone would escape, you’d think it would be Kenny, but this twist seems shrewd on Weiner’s part. Perhaps it’s the first in a line of lessons we’ll witness as the series draws to an end, watching these characters either find a path toward a better life, or not.
Joan is in a similar stasis as Don, even more successful and rich yet still belittled thanks to her sex and her looks. Even Peggy gives her ill-conceived grief, as if Joan’s outfits invite the type of sophomore remarks thrown her way by those McCann hacks. She’s climbed just about as high as she can go, and for what? She still gets the same treatment she received a decade ago. She’s no longer the shop girl waiting on patrons at the department store; she’s the patron buying Oscar de la Renta dresses and asking the shop girl to unzip her. “I think you have me confused with someone else,” she tells the girl, denying her past as if that will change her present.
For her part, Peggy is mostly living in self-doubt, appearing to have recovered from her Ted heartbreak but still uneasy at the prospect of risk, of jumping at new opportunities. Maybe the spontaneous trip to Paris isn’t the best idea, but her second-guessing points to deeper damage. It pleases and surprises Peggy that Mathis described her as “funny” and “fearless” to his brother-in-law, Stevie (Devon Gummersall), before their blind date. She’s always struggled with the need for affirmation, and she’s gotten it professionally. She’s had people in her life to remind her that yes, she is talented. What she needs is someone to remind her that yes, she is loved.
Don’s encounters with the diner waitress, Diana (Elizabeth Reaser), point to a similar desire for some sort of connection. He doesn’t equate sex with intimacy or romantic love, and he certainly doesn’t do well on his own. His life post-Megan has him going through the playboy motions, preferring to keep the lights off at the apartment so as not to really notice that it looks the same as when Megan last had it decorated. Cover up the wine stain on the carpet with the bedspread — everything’s fine. Seeing Diana, though, sparks his memory, or rather conscience.
The quintessential, dark-haired Draper type, she reminds him of Rachel. She seems as broken and lost as he is — like a fallen version of the her goddess namesake — ready for an alleyway tryst but writing it off as Don getting his money’s worth from the big tip Roger when he was there with Don and a gaggle of beauties a few nights before. Diana doesn’t soften when Don tells her she reminds him of someone who died, but she doesn’t brush him off as easily. “When people die, you just wanna make sense of it, but you can’t,” she says. Life just is until it isn’t, leaving one looking around at all the ‘is’ and asking, is that it?
What started as a stylized look at life in 1960s America, delivered in a manner that sometimes winked at the viewer a little too hard, has turned into a poignant look at life in general. Weiner’s story has always been simple, and human: It’s about the search for absolution. It’s about the struggle to not only love and be loved but to understand how one is even worthy of love given their flaws, big or small. It’s what the young Dick Whitman was told by a pastor trying to save the inhabitants of the whore house where Dick lived: “The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you.” It’s the flip side to Peggy Lee’s question: That’s all there is. We do the work; we do our best; we screw things up; we try to do better. Don is close — hell, he seemed close nine months ago — but will he get there? Will any of us?
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.