Over the years, many improbable things have happened on Mad Men: Lois ran over Guy MacKendrick’s foot with a John Deere; the Chevy guys shot Ken Cosgrove in the face; Bob Benson existed. But tonight we witnessed what may prove to be the least probable event in series history: An apparently observant Jew mistakes Don Draper for a viable 10th man for a minyan.* With that goyishe punim?
The midseason premiere finds many of our old friends in familiar places. The merger with McCann has made wealthy men of the partners, and they’re enjoying their prosperity. Roger is doubling up and dropping big tips. Pete is whining, wonderfully, about the burdens of his new tax bracket. Don is … well Don is doing pretty much exactly what you said he’d be doing, Hanna. You wrote last week that you expected to meet “a louche middle-age man who is ‘self-actualized’ in a glib ’70s way but not actually transformed by his self-knowledge.” That’s an eerily spot-on surmise: Don’s got an answering service overflowing with lady callers (Laura, Maxine, Trisha), and he seems to be at peace with his past, at least his distant past—regaling his and Roger’s dates with earthy tales of the brothel life. Of course, this being Mad Men, it’s soon revealed that Don has merely tossed the proverbial comforter over the proverbial blood-red carpet stain, and there’s still plenty of inner turmoil lurking below this outwardly happy hedonist. (Still feeling hopeful, Julia?)
More on Don in a bit, but first I want turn to poor Kenny Cosgrove. As Julia knows, Ken’s always been my favorite character in the series, ever since he lit a bonfire of jealousy in the heart of Paul Kinsey by publishing his short story “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning” in the Atlantic Monthly back in Season 1. (Hanna, why haven’t your friends at the Atlantic ever commissioned a short story to go with this exceptional title? It would be the ultimate Mad Men fan fiction.) Ken’s struggle to maintain a life outside the office—and a life of the mind, at that—has been one of the stray plot threads that lend Matthew Weiner’s TV tapestry its multicolored splendor. Like Ken’s wife, I’ve long rooted for Dave Algonquin—Ken’s (second) nom de plume—to defeat Cosgrove, accounts man, in the battle for Kenny’s soul, and I thought for a moment that he might finally buy that farm and write that “sad and sweet” book his wife describes. But it wasn’t to be, even after the retirement of Ken’s father-in-law gives that lout “Ferg” the cover he needs to purge Cosgrove from the company. (By the way, has Ray Wise ever channeled Leland Palmer quite so vividly in his role as Ken’s wife’s dad? It looked like he was murdering that Pop-Tart, not toasting it. Lent a nice bit of Lynchian portent to the proceedings.)
Later, I felt a momentary thrill when Ken contrived to make himself a nuisance for Roger and Pete by taking the job at Dow, but the victory rang hollow. He chose the manufacturer of napalm over the literary life that had once been his dream: a symbol, perhaps, for the dying idealism of the historical moment in which the episode unfolded. As I predicted, we’ve jumped ahead from the summer of ’69 to April 1970, leapfrogging the Woodstock highs and landing squarely in the post-Altamont bummer.* The episode’s title is “Severance,” which of course literally refers to the severance package Ken ends up forgoing, but it might also suggest a more metaphorical break, with the 1960s and all they stood for. Disillusionment is also the none-too-subtle theme of Peggy Lee’s late ’69 hit “Is That All There Is?,” which opens and closes the episode. Something tells me it’s an idea we’ll be returning to over the next couple of months. (Disillusionment with the ’60s, that is. Let’s hope we won’t be saying “is that all there is?” after the finale.)
One final note on Ken. Our colleague Forrest Wickman once posited a slightly out-there yet compelling idea that at a certain point Cosgrove became a kind of allegory for America’s involvement in Vietnam. You could argue that Forrest got some good fodder for his pet theory in this episode: Ken’s admission of defeat at SC&P, followed by his invasion of Roger’s office as the new head of advertising at Dow, echoes contemporaneous events in Southeast Asia. Richard Nixon’s speech, glimpsed briefly on Don’s TV, announced that the drawing down of troops in Vietnam would be accompanied by a ramping up of cross-border actions in Cambodia. For Ken’s sake, I take some solace in the fact that Mad Men will presumably end before the Fall of Saigon.
Back to the others. Peggy Lee’s advice, if that is all there is, is to keep dancing, which is how Don, Roger, Pete, and Ted seem to be playing it. But that’s easy for them—they’re as rich as Croesus and can afford the finest ruffled tuxedo shirts and most luxuriant moustache waxes. There was an interesting divide in this episode between the SC&P-ers who got the payout and those who didn’t. Ken’s still striving for that raise; Peggy dismisses Joan’s simmering rage after their meeting with the frat boys from McCann on the grounds that she’s “filthy rich” and doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to. Julia, Hanna: Why do you suppose Joan sat there and took that retrograde-even-by-Mad-Men-standards abuse from those Neanderthals? Here and elsewhere, it seemed as if SC&P might have traded an ominous amount of autonomy to make its partners all that scratch. That was part of it. But I also I couldn’t help wondering whether Joan was also kept at bay by her original sin, the deal she made with the devil to make partner. Did a memory of her willingness to trade on her desirability keep her from giving Huey, Dewey, and Louie the throttling they deserved? Or does it go deeper than that? Even flexing her new financial muscle at Bonwit Teller, she can’t escape her past, as the clerk recognized her as a former colleague. I’m curious if Joan’s past will keep her down in a way that Peggy’s past won’t. Pegs, on her date, seems almost proud of having started out as a secretary with no college degree, or at least not hung up on it.
Don’s “work” casting the chinchilla ad certainly doesn’t seem to be giving him any retail flashbacks to his days in fur sales. His department store memories are of a totally different stripe—he’s seeing good old Rachel Katz née Menken in his dreams. I’ve already gone on too long, so I’m going to hand the baton to you, Hanna, and let you explain what the story is there. What does Rachel represent to Don? One that got away? Or a woman of more substance and sophistication than the parade of models and flight attendants currently marching through his life? (No offense to models or flight attendants.) Or is she just a convenient casualty of Mad Men’s constant need to remind Don of his mortality? Also: What’s with the modernist moll at the diner? I confess that whole thing had me a bit flummoxed.
*Correction, April 6, 2015: This post originally misstated that Don Draper was mistaken for a viable 12th man for a minyan. He was mistaken for the 10th man. (Return.) This post also originally misstated that the summer of ’69 was the Summer of Love. The Summer of Love was in 1967. (Return.)