This post contains spoilers for season 7, episode 8 of “Mad Men.” If you haven’t seen it…what are you waiting for?
The final half-season premiere of “Mad Men” was all about women: Models, stewardesses, diner waitresses, career women — in the guise of Peggy and Joan — and socialites all made an appearance. But ironically, the plot centered around one conspicuously absent woman. A Jewish woman.
The first scene in “Severance,” as the episode is called, shows a woman eyes — is it me or did she look a little like Bar Refaeli? — before the camera pans down to her almost naked form, covered only by a $15,000 chinchilla fur coat. “Show me how smooth your skin is,” an oily Don Draper purrs.
Okay. So, 1970 hasn’t done much for the objectification of women.
And speaking of our old friend Don, he’s on a roll: five minutes into the episode, he’s already successfully creeped on four different women (not to mention the diner waitress that he repeatedly visits in one of those typical Weinerian “Is this a dream?” sequences).
The hairstyles change; the hemlines rise, but Don’s trysts are really nothing new. The real twist comes when he has an eerie dream about his old Jewish flame Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), clad in the very same fur coat as the model from the opening shot. “I’m supposed to tell you your missed your flight,” dream Rachel says (Calling all “Mad Men” conspiracy theorists!), echoing her response to Don’s season one request that they run away to California.
“You don’t want to run away with me,” she answered then. “You just want to run away. You’re a coward!”
Now, almost ten “Mad Men” years later, Don asks his secretary to set a meeting, only to find out that Menken, now Rachel Katz, died of leukemia just the week before.
Visibly shaken, he shows up at the shiva — with cake! Ten points to Gryffindor — and comes face to face with Rachel’s sister Barbara, who gives Don the ice queen treatment once she realizes he’s that Don Draper. When he brings up the two kids sitting quietly in the corner — Rachel’s children — Barbara fairly spits out: “She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.”
This line is significant. “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner has said in the past that Don, like Rachel, craves assimilation. They both want to belong.
“They’re both there with their fake success suits on,” he told New York’s Matthew Zoller Seitz during a Q&A at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in March. “They’re both one generation from living without plumbing … I wanted there to be a correlation from the pilot that they were having a similar experience, and that Don had responded with this posture of existential bravery, and that Rachel was like huh, I know what it’s like to be disconnected. Her existentialism is rooted in being a minority: a woman and Jew, and fitting in and passing.”
In death, Rachel has found her place. Don is still on the outside, looking in, a point that is driven home when Rachel’s widowed husband, Tilden Katz, asks if he can be the tenth man in the minyan. “He can’t; he’s not Jewish,” Barbara answers.
If the episode’s theme was “having it all” — or not at all — Don isn’t the only one left wanting. Back at SC&P, Peggy and Joan are realizing that no matter no amount of money, promotions or creative success will change their male coworkers attitudes towards them.
A meeting at McCann-Erickson turns ugly when the overgrown frat-boy bosses across the table are total pigs to Joan (“Why aren’t you in the brassiere business? You should be in the bra business. You’re a work of art.” ). Things get even worse in the elevator when instead of showing support, Peggy basically accuses her of asking for it because of the way she dresses (Can that argument just die already?). Let’s just recall that this is a woman who has been repeatedly harassed in the office, raped by her doctor fiancée who she then married to save face, and who slept with the disgusting Jaguar dealer association head to secure that client for the company. Not cool, Pegs.
Joan counters that Peggy is too plain to dress like her, Peggy shoots back a: “You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna,” and they storm out.
Joan drowns her pain in a new dress, while Peggy goes on a blind date to get over her Jewish ex, Abe.
Once again, plus ca change. If you put aside Roger’s fantastic mustache, Joan’s avocado paisley and Ted’s mustard turtleneck, it’s clear that nothing much has changed in the “Mad Men” universe. Everyone is still searching, and just falling short. As Peggy Lee croons throughout the episode, “Is that all there is?”