'Mad Men' Season Premiere Recap: Is That All There Is?

Death, mourning and change color the beginning of the era-defining show's final lap

Jon Hamm and John Slattery in 'Mad Men.' Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

And so it begins.

The second half of Mad Men's final season kicks off the same way its first half ended: with a death. It's been nearly a year since Bert Cooper's abrupt passing — a glimpse of Nixon's televised speech about Cambodian troops levels places us in April of 1970 — but you'd scarcely know it from the premiere episode (titled, all too appropriately, "Severance") where time practically seems to fold in on itself. As one of the characters says, "When people die, everything gets mixed up."

This time, it's Don Draper's old Season One flame Rachel Katz, née Menken, who's passed on, though not before — or is it after? — visiting him in a dream. It may be the only part of the episode that's explicitly unreal, but the whole hour has the feel of a fevered hallucination. Peggy Lee's suicide note-cum-pop song "Is That All There Is?", with its lurching tempo and startlingly bleak lyrics about "that final disappointment," plays over the opening scene closing credits, but listen closely during Don and Roger Sterling's visit to a diner early on and you can hear it played as almost subliminal background music. There's a beginning, a middle and an end here, but not necessarily in that order.

"Severance" eases us back into Mad Men's world with a familiar image of fantasy: a beautiful woman, not quite naked beneath a $15,000 fur coat. Don is directing her, as he has so many females, sculpting the dream for his (and our) pleasure. But the illusion won't quite take hold. Don seems trapped. He's in his shirtsleeves, gripping a cup of lunch-cart coffee. This is work.

Don's not the only one discovering that money can't buy happiness. Joan is, as Peggy observes, "filthy rich," but that doesn't stop the jeering fratboys at McCann from harassing the both of them with crude double entendres. She responds to a crack about her figure with a blistering "Excuse me?" but Peggy doggedly returns the subject to her information sheet, as if bringing the conversation back to dollars and cents might will away the distinctions between the women on one side of the conference room table and the men on the other. Way back in Season Two's "Maidenform," Joan advised Peggy to "stop dressing like a little girl"; now the latter turns it around, effectively telling the former that she was asking for it. "So what you're saying is I don't dress the way you do because I don't look like you," Joan shoots back in the elevator. "And that's very, very true."

Cash ruins Ken Cosgrove's life, then nearly saves it, and then ruins it again. After his father-in-law retires from Dow Chemical, Ken's wife suggests he quit the advertising business, which is slowly eating away what's left of his soul. "You gave them your eye," she points out. "Don't give them the rest of your life." As if heaven-sent, a McCann executive forces Roger to fire Ken — who, in fairness, did once refer to his former colleagues as "retards" — the very next day. He's aghast at his boss's inch-deep loyalty, then quickly sees the bright side. Maybe this would-be Salinger actually will write that Great American Novel after all. Unfortunately — and, entirely typically — Ken's wounded pride and competitive instincts take precedence over both his happiness and his spouse. He returns to Sterling Cooper & Partners' office as Dow's new head of advertising. Rather than go for the quick kill by pulling their business, he promises to inflict long-term pain as the client from hell.

Peggy gets what might be a shot at happiness when Mathis sets her up on a blind date with his brother-in-law, who turns out to be cute, charming, and, perhaps most critically, neither a loser nor a career-driven monster. The man is a pushover, but he's also easily contented: When the waiter accidentally brings him veal instead of lasagna, he's too weak to send it back. Were it not for Peggy's waylaid passport, their first date might have ended up in Paris, and planning for a second one proves cumbersome — he's got job interviews up and down the East Coast, while Peggy's schedule remains as unforgiving as ever. But perhaps Matthew Weiner & co. have a happy ending in mind for at least one of their protagonists.

Will it be Don? That's hard to imagine. In the time we've known him, he's gone from king of the hill to the side of the road, watching life pass him by. His fear, so crushingly expressed in the earlier Season Seven episode "The Strategy," that "I never did anything, and I don't have anyone," lingers like cigarette smoke in a motel room. The first time he had drinks with Rachel Menken — perhaps the only woman Don ever loved as an equal, and the first one smart enough to how troubled he was and run like hell — she told him she'd never realized until they met how hard being a man must be. Mad Men began at the last untroubled moment of white male supremacy, before civil rights and feminism changed the country for good, and Don has never really found his footing in the new world. On some level, he's still Dick Whitman, the terrified young private ducking machine guns in Korea, the shamed son of a nameless prostitute. ("He loves to talk about how poor he was," Roger quips in the diner.) Don Draper, whose first and last names both suggest covering up, is an empty suit — or at least that's what he fears. Without his masks, there's nothing left.

It's been eight years since Don saw Rachel, enough time for her to marry, have two children, and lead "the life she wanted she wanted to live," as her sister tells him. Her family is sitting shiva, and Don has a passing familiarity with Jewish custom ("I've lived in New York a long time," he points out). But he's not mishpocha, as is underlined when Rachel's husband goes looking for a tenth man to form a minyan. As they pray, they turn their backs to Don. He's shut out, a man with no family, no community. He has only his Clios to keep him warm.

That's not quite true, of course. As Ted Chaough says, "There are three women in every man's life," and even if Betty, Megan and Sally aren't present in this episode, they're still connected to Don, however provisionally. And he still has a long list of women waiting for his call, like the pretty blonde stewardess who spills red wine on his rug. (Not an ominous symbol at all!) But when he wants more, as he does from Diane the diner waitress, he can't get it. She may pull him into a back alley for a quick hump, but she's just paying off the perceived debt incurred by Roger's flashy gesture of leaving a hundred-dollar bill for a $12 tab. Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Diane — her co-worker calls her "Di," another entirely non-ominous symbolic gesture — is a perfect not-quite match for Maggie Siff's Rachel, like the Betty clone who breezes by in Season Two's "The Jet Set." There's a fitting irony in an ad man being constantly surrounded by visions of things he can't have. Whether that will change for him or not before the series takes its last bow is something we'll know soon enough.

Previously: The Best Things in Life Are Free