Based on Mad Men‘s final midseason premiere, I’ve come up with a working theory about the series’ Brylcreemed protagonist, Don Draper.
Here goes: He’s got undiagnosed syphilis.
Think about it before you dismiss me out of hand. Don has been having indiscriminate sex with anything with breasts for as long as we’ve known him. A lot of indiscriminate, often hot, usually ill-advised sex that has led to, among other things, heartbreak, job loss, divorce and strangulation. (OK, that last one was just in a dream, but still: disturbing.)
Is it that far a reach to think that one of those hook-ups gifted Draper with the spirochete that keeps on giving? (Probably not.) Following that, is it a step too far to think that, as the bacteria multiplied in his bloodstream and Swiss-cheesed his brain, the illness manifested as Don’s recurring dreams about dead people? (Most likely, yes, actually. Eh, like I said, it’s a working theory. Also? Everything I know about medicine I learned by watching Doug Ross, so there’s a little room for error.)
Before I get started on my suspicions about Roger Sterling and cirrhosis, let’s review what happens in “Severance.”
SMOOTH AS SILK | We open on Don, in April of 1970, purring to a lovely young woman wearing what he says is a $15,000 chinchilla coat. As he tells her not to talk, coaches her through looking in a mirror and says, “Show me how smooth your skin is,” it seems like we’re back in Don and Sylvia’s Hotel Room of Domination. But in the next shot we see Ted, Pete and two other guys ogling the woman, too, and it becomes clear that we’re watching a model casting session at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
Next we see Draper, he’s chatting up a couple of lovelies at a diner with Roger — they’ve all been at some fancy event — and telling a heee-larious story about his brothel upbringing. (Going from hiding his real identity to using it as cocktail-party chatter fodder is evolution of a sort, no?) Roger, sporting a moustache so epic it truly deserves its own spinoff series, is a jerk to the waitress but leaves $100 on a roughly $12 check as penance. Meanwhile, Don is sure he’s seen her before. (So am I; she’s played by the Twilight films’ Elizabeth Reaser.)
HELLO AGAIN | Don seems to be weathering his divorce from Megan pretty well, but he’s shaken when he learns that Rachel Katz (neé Menken) very recently died of leukemia. You’ll recall that Rachel (played by a pre-Sons of Anarchy Maggie Siff) is the department-store heiress with whom Don once thought of running away. She’s also the star of a dream he has during the episode; Dream Rachel shows up as another hopeful model at SC&P, telling Don, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” (Mad Men conspiracy theorists of the Interwebs, have at it!) (Also, side note: Don’s secretary, Meredith, is a gem. Lots of Meredith in these final episodes, please.)
Upset, Don returns to the diner, where the waitress assumes he wants his eggs scrambled, if you catch my drift. I certainly don’t think a quickie was his reason for returning, but he’s Don, so he’s got her against the alley wall faster than you can say, “Order up!” After, she’s dismissive; “You got your hundred dollars’ worth,” she says. “You can go.” Icky.
L’CHAIM | Later, he attends the shiva for Rachel, but her sister is hesitant to invite him in. “Oh, I know who you are,” the sister says, confirming that the two children Don sees in the apartment are Rachel’s kids. “She lived the life she wanted to live,” the sister says, before indicating that he should go. “She had everything.” (Don’t worry; if you didn’t pick up on this episode’s theme then, you’ll be hit with it a few more times before we’re done.)
Against the waitress’ wishes, Don comes back to the diner and feels compelled to tell her about Rachel. Maybe he dreamed about her all the time, but just remembered this dream, she suggests. As he looks bereft, I try to envision Don being assimilated into the Menken brood and living a happy alternate life with Rachel by his side. I don’t get very far.
WALKING ON L’EGGSHELLS | Now, let’s have the SC&P minutes. Peggy, Joan and Harry meet with the Topaz nylons people, whose business is taking a beating from the inferior — though packaged-in-a fun-plastic-egg — L’Eggs. Off a suggestion from Don, the ladies meet with three Neanderthals at McCann-Erickson (which bought SC&P right before the midseason break) to ask for help getting the nylons sold at department stores. The men are total pigs, particularly to Joan, who fumes in the elevator afterward. Peggy makes things worse when she says, “You can’t dress the way you do” and expect any other reaction, which infuriates the redhead… which, in turn, sets Peggy off. “You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t wanna.” That partnership still stings, does it, Peg?
Later, Joanie takes out her frustrations with a lot of retail therapy. (Side note: for some reason, seeing former shop girl Joan live a life in which she can buy whatever she wants makes me so happy.) And Peggy goes on a date with Mathis’ brother-in-law. They drink too much, kiss a lot and — even though they don’t make it to Paris the way they drunkenly plan — they seem to really like each other. (We get so few moments of unguarded Peggy during the series; that scene tag where she beams after he leaves her house is lovely.)
DOW TO BUSINESS | Finally, Ken’s father-in-law retires from Dow, causing Cynthia to urge her husband to quit his job, write a book and live the life they’ve imagined. Guess what, Cyn? Roger has beat you to it! The higher-ups at McCann-Erickson, for whom Ken briefly worked and from whom he took a lot of business when he left, want him out of SC&P now that his link to Dow is gone. So he angrily shores up accounts with Pete, who tries to be comforting in that douche way of his, but doesn’t quite help. Still, Ken wins when he announces he won’t need his severance from the firm, because he’s the new head of advertising at Dow. “So you’re going to fire us,” Pete says. “No, it’s going to be way worse than that: I’m going to be your client,” Ken says. “And I hate to tell you, I’m very hard to please.” But what about those of us who are waiting for the next captivating installment of Dave Algonquin’s The Man With the Miniature… series?!
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the last Mad Men premiere ever? Did you, like me, just put together that Mathis’ name is Johnny Mathis? Do we think Peggy and Mathis’ brother-in-law stand a chance? Were you shocked to see Siff on your screen again? Did you pick up on the little meta-joke when Pete remarked that life at an ad firm is “boring”? Rate the episode via the poll below, then sound off in the comments!