Monday, April 27, 2015

Mad Men S7E11 - Time And Life

It has been said that you can never be too rich or too thin and that those who would tell you otherwise have never been poor or fat. Money can solve many problems, but as what appear to be charter members of the "most unhappy millionaires club," Roger, Don, Joan, Pete, and Ted discover that money does not hold all the answers either. 

After beginning the show's final "half" season mining the seemingly bottomless pit of Don's despair, of closing the loop on the (second) Draper marriage, Glen Bishop's whereabouts, and the demise of Rachel Menken, Time & Life was an episode about a story now thrice told. The set-up was familiar to any long-time viewer of the show. Just as SC&P was about to be absorbed into McCann (so much for independent subsidiaries), our intrepid group (which now includes Ted, but not Jim Cutler, who, Roger confirms, took the money and ran) tried to pull another stunt where they snatch their freedom away from the impending "tragedy" of working in a corporate monolith with such blue clip clients as Buick, Nabisco, and Coca-Cola

If this all seems like so much deja vu it is not. The same Scooby squad that alit from Sterling Cooper in 1963 to avoid McCann's clutches [1] ran into their arms six years later to avoid having the firm broken apart [2]. In the balance, a merger between SCDP and CGC occurred to secure Chevrolet. [3] The only difference is that the shotgun marriage Roger brokered in 1969 left the team with millions in profit, but with the misguided belief that they would be left to do their work, shielded by the conflicts that would have McCann giving up millions if they ever folded SC&P under the corporate banner. 

But as they say, history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. While SCDP successfully launched, the merger it swung to land a major car account ended with two partners deceased and the firm itself torn apart by its partners. This caper falls flat, not just because the newly ensconced head of advertising (some guy named Ken Cosgrove) at Dow Chemical tells Roger and Pete to fuck off, or that Pete thinks he's saved the day by securing trusty old Seacor Laxatives, but because McCann bigwig Jim Hobart tells the group the their attempt to cherry pick conflicted clients to maintain a small outpost in California was a waste of time. It turns out the initial post-acquisition freedom he offered them was simply a tryout to make sure he was getting what he paid for. Once done, the SC&P team would be brought in house and offered the largest accounts in the world - acknowledgement of the group's excellence and skill.  

But even as their professional walls are crumbling, Roger, Joan, and Ted are all able to find succor in the arms of loved ones. Ted, decades before Facebook exists, manages to reconnect with an old flame after his own marriage dissolved in the California heat (another plot line closed). Joan has the gallant Richard swooping in on the red eye from California to comfort her. Roger has Marie Calvet, recently separated from her Canadian husband. Indeed, the writers offered a subtle wink to long-time viewers. As the wake for SC&P broke up, it was left to Roger and Don to close down the bar. Here, as they did years ago after bidding Freddy Rumsen "fare thee well" [4] there is much discussion about love and loss, but instead of Don telling Roger about moving forward in life, Roger needs no lesson. He has (for now) found happiness, leaving Don scrambling back to the dumpy apartment building where he left Diana, only to find she has disappeared without a trace. 

Even Pete has the opportunity for a small grace note. When he and Trudy's daughter Tammy is denied entry into an elite school, he pops the schoolmaster in the mouth after the man speaks ill of the Campbell family name. Later, at their former marital home in Cos Cob, he tries to lift Trudy's spirits about her own plight, which, for now, has to do with fending off married men in the suburbs but later, she fears, will involve being alone and unappealing. While it is hard to believe these are the seeds for marital reconciliation, at least Pete was able to feel like he had a connection with someone and for a reason he thought important. Not so for Don. His after hours messaging service may still offer temporary comfort, he is a man without a home and no long-term plan. 

Meanwhile, a click below on the corporate food chain, Peggy and Stan struggle to cast a child to act in one of their advertisements. Here, we see a continuation of a conversation these two "work spouses" have been having for some time now - about the workplace and a woman's role in it and careers and love and all of the things that we fill the intimate space in our lives with those we care about and cherish. Once upon a time, as Peggy made her way at CGC, she and Stan would talk late at night as each toiled in their respective offices, [5] but now, their conversations are more pointed and direct. Stan's observation that Peggy does not like kids hits a little too close to home and in the middle of an extended back and forth about what sacrifices a woman needs to make in the workplace of the 1960s/70s, that having children would have precluded Peggy from attaining the position she has secured, she reveals to Stan the fact that she gave away a child, but even in that confidence, she slightly pulls her punch - not revealing that Pete is the father [6]. 

Every point Peggy made hit home and in that scene, you felt the weight of her choices, of the frustrations she inevitably feels that sometimes leave her crumpled on the floor in tears [7] and at other times, lashing out at underlings [8]. That Peggy Olson has succeeded without an Ivy League degree is acknowledged by the headhunter she hires to help her find other jobs as the reality of the pending McCann move sinks in, but that does not give her a free pass to pay her corporate dues, as he counsels her to suck it up for a few years at McCann before moving on to other opportunities lest she take a less prominent position for less pay elsewhere. 

But Peggy has long been on the outside looking in at what others have. Whether it was observing long ago how much material wealth Don had accumulated [9] or spitting venom at Ted about the luxury he had of making choices [10] when he broke off their affair (and broke her heart), Peggy is constantly chasing both career and personal happiness but rarely finding either one. Working with children simply underscores the weight of the decision she made to give up her child long ago and dismissing Joan's complaints about the workplace is just a reminder that for all of Peggy's talent, she is still just an employee without the "fuck you" money that would allow her to tell off people who bother her. 

In the end, her kindred spirit is that enigmatic man in the corner office. While Roger, Joan, Ted, and possibly Pete are at least able to have some happiness in their personal lives, neither Peggy or Don seem to have such luck. If the show's climatic ending was teed up by last night's episode - that the clock is ticking on Don in two ways - with SC&P's pending absorption into McCann and his need to move out of the Park Avenue penthouse he has called home, both things conveniently occurring at the "end of the month" (based on Don's tan suit, one can assume it is a summer month) the references to California were perhaps not coincidental. Ted is right, Don has always had a special fondness for California. Whether it is because he associates it with his life after the war, when he was making due selling used cars and the foundation of his relationship with Anna Draper was built [11], or the visits he made to escape the mess he inevitably left behind in New York [12], and the beginning of his relationship with Megan, [13] the idealized version of California holds great appeal to Don; however, the reality of it was polluted by his failed attempt at a bicoastal marriage to Megan, who walked off with one million of his dollars. 

Of course, this is of a piece with the rest of Don's life. He likes "the beginnings of things" [14] but rarely has the patience (or interest) in sticking around to see things to the end. For a man who has made a lifetime out of reinvention, Don's final Houdini act should be interesting.

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1. Shut The Door, Have A Seat, Season 3, Episode 13. 
2. Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7.
3. For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6. 
4. Six Month Leave, Season 2, Episode 9. 
5. The Collaborators, Season 6, Episode 3. 
6. Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13. It is also worth noting that Peggy infers she gave her son up for adoption; however, the last we heard or saw of him, he was being raised by Peggy's sister. Three Sundays, Season 2, Episode 4. 
7. Time Zones, Season 7, Episode 1. 
8. A Day's Work, Season 7, Episode 2. 
9. The Fog, Season 3, Episode 5. 
10. In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13. 
11. The Gold Violin, Season 2, Episode 7.
12. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12, The Good News, Season 4, Episode 3. 
13. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 

14. ibid.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review - America's Bitter Pill

More than three hundred pages into Steven Brill's deeply sourced and wonderfully written book America's Bitter Pill, about the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, he elliptically touches on the central frustration many of us who believe in universal health care as a right and not a privilege had about the ACA. As the countdown to the launch of draws near, the bureaucrats and government officials note the irony of the avalanche of criticism and scare tactics utilized by Republicans against a law that was based on an idea hatched at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. After all, the simpler fix, converting our entire health care system into a single payer model instead of maintaining the bifurcated system where some people receive "government health care" (the elderly, disabled, poor, and military/veterans) while the rest of us are left to the predations of the private market, was never more than a pipe dream. Instead, a Democratic President and Democratic Congress passed a Republican health care proposal and then got the shit kicked out of them by those same Republicans for doing it. 

Brill manages to balance the tick-tock of how the ACA was passed into law with the real world consequences of the inequities of our health care system. The book is itself a longer form meditation on a piece Brill did for TIME that focused on the vagaries of cost in our system - that obscure hospital administrators called "charge masters" can bill one amount for say, a CT scan if you are insured by Medicare, but an entirely different amount if you have private insurance or none at all. Other, even less savory elements of the pre-ACA world, of debt collectors who harass people after costly treatment is rendered but goes unpaid and consultants who literally require a credit card payment before you are treated in an emergency room, reinforced the predatory conduct against people at their most vulnerable. 

Brill's story introduces us to some unsung heroes, people like Liz Fowler, a senior staffer for Senator Max Baucus, who works tirelessly to get the ACA passed only to see her name dragged through the mud when she eventually leaves government to take a lucrative job at Johnson and Johnson; and other, less heroic profiles of people like Jeanne Lambrew and Nancy-Ann DeParle, senior staffers at HHS and the White House who seem more interested in winning bureaucratic turf fights than focusing on the nitty gritty of implementing the myriad regulations, rules, and yes, the website, that would form the backbone of the ACA. 

Along the way, Brill debunks a few Republican (and media) talking points - to wit, he reports that President Obama had eight one-on-one meetings with Senator Olympia Snowe in the lead-up to Senate votes on the ACA (media myth - Obama needs to reach out to Republicans more) and that more than 140 Republican amendments were ultimately included in the final bill (GOP talking point - the ACA was negotiated in private and "rammed through" Congress). He also levels fair criticism at the Obama team for its sometimes tin ear to the politics of the ACA  - not emphasizing the low cost of many plans after subsidies were included - and the poor management of the website. On the other hand, Brill highlights the largely below-the-radar screen effort in blood red Kentucky to launch kynect, the state-run health care exchange and to gladly accept the Medicaid expansion offered under the ACA that, combined, allowed the state to significantly reduce the number of its uninsured and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run. 

Indeed, it is one of the central paradoxes of not just Brill's book, but the overall Republican reaction to the ACA, as to why an initiative that largely relied on the private sector for its success and would save states billions in health care costs was so widely reviled. Then-Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota issued an executive order prohibiting any state agency from working with the federal government on the ACA and when Brill called one of Senator Ted Cruz's offices in Texas asking for information about the ACA, the staffer who took his call bluntly told Brill no assistance was forthcoming and he should contact HHS directly. These are just the one-off examples. The years-long litigation that resulted in the Supreme Court's ruling that upheld the ACA and follow-along lawsuits about contraception coverage and whether subsidies are available to those who got their coverage via the federal exchange instead of a state-run exchange are just so much clogging of the system and draining of resources that would have otherwise been dedicated to implementation of the law. The question of why so many were so opposed to people having access to health coverage is left largely unanswered. 

Brill also points out that the health care industry, in the main, has significantly profited from the Affordable Care Act. Health stocks have gone through the roof since the ACA was enacted and because lobbyists aggressively fought for tweaks in the law and the subsequent HHS regulations, their bottom lines have been largely protected with the added benefit of having millions of new customers who must now purchase insurance or face a tax penalty. Indeed, the sacrifice of cost controls at the altar of expanding coverage is the most significant flaw Brill identifies in the ACA. 

That costs, and estimates of future costs, have gone down more than the initial CBO estimate is simply a happy coincidence. On the other hand, he points to the hue and cry over a small tax on medical device makers as one of the great inequities of the ACA debate. That industry's profit margins are particularly high, yet the modest tax levied on those devices is inevitably raised as a target for repeal. The pharmaceutical industry, which already received protection from cost controls when Medicare Part D was passed, successfully protected its members (and their profits) by agreeing to offset some costs under the ACA while receiving gifts like extended patent protection for biologic products. 

It is these back room deal and lobbying efforts that Brill points to as eroding the value of the ACA. Another example is the so-called Medicare "doc fix," which was kept out of the ACA for fear it would negatively impact the law's overall impact on the budget (Democrats were fixated on getting the CBO to "score" the ACA as saving the government money at best or revenue neutral at worst) but passed without much fanfare just a few weeks ago while adding at least $141 billion to the long-term deficit. Was this idea horrible five years ago and suddenly great in 2015? Of course not. The only difference was in which party controlled Congress. Rest assured that had Democrats attempted to slip the "doc fix" into the ACA, Republicans would have howled in anger. Now that they are in control, Republicans can blithely add this bill to the government's credit card and not fear any political reprisal. 

Of course, the dirty little secret of the Affordable Care Act is that with all its complexity, the lockstep Republican opposition, and some of its stumbles, the law has been an enormous success, you just would never know it because the media only took the time to report on its missteps, not its triumphs. Perhaps no clearer example of this is the website. While there is no question the development and roll-out were done poorly, the problems were entirely resolved within a few weeks. Indeed, the heroic work of a team of coders Brill discusses would be worthy of its own book. The only difference is that while the media provided wall-to-wall coverage of the failings, they largely shrugged their shoulders once the problem was fixed and millions of people successfully accessed the site to get covered. 

And that is truly too bad, because the story of the ACA's success deserves to be told. To Brill's credit, he does attempt to highlight some of the real world consequences for people like Tommy and Viola Brown, a Kentucky couple in their early 60s who live in a county that went for Romney over Obama 2:1 and who had a litany of illnesses (she is a diabetic, he had an untreated broken neck and 2 bouts with cancer!) and could not afford health insurance before the ACA, get it under the Medicaid expansion - a literal life saver. On the other end of the spectrum, Brill mentions Sean and Stephanie Recchi, small business owners who are struggling because of the cost of treating Sean's cancer, but skeptical that Obamacare can help them (spoiler alert - it does) because of all the negative things they heard about the law on TV.

Where Brill falls short is in the final section of the book, where he proposes to turn over the entire health care industry to oligopolies of hospitals cum insurance companies. The idea would make health care single payer to a large degree, except the payee would be a government approved oligopoly restrained (to some degree) by regulations like profit margin (limited to 8% annually) and strict billing oversight. Brill points to places like New York and Pittsburgh as cities where what he proposes is, to a certain degree, already happening, but it is unclear if his model would play as well in Peoria or other, more rural parts of the country that do not have ready access to world-leading medical care facilities. Why not just go single payer? Medicare is a low-overhead (3%, as compared to 25-30% in the private sector) insurance product that is able to significantly bargain down the exorbitant prices charged in the health care system and is incredibly popular. Plus, we already pay into it through our paychecks and would streamline what is a too complicated system. 

It is not surprising that the advocates of the law had difficulty "selling" it to the public - the primary beneficiaries of the ACA, those around the poverty line, and the random assortment of part-time workers, employees at companies where health care was not offered, and those denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, are not a vocal or powerful voting bloc. They have no lobbyists trolling the halls of Congress to insert language into legislation that will save them millions in taxes or secure their financial bottom lines, but they are our fellow Americans and did not deserve to experience financial ruin or a preventable death because our health care system is ridiculous. 

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Mad Men S7E10 - The Forecast

"It can be greeted with terror or joy, a tantrum that says 'I want it the way it was,' or a dance that says, 'Look, something new!'" - Don Draper, on "the future." Love Among The Ruins (S3E2)  

For someone who has become a millionaire several times over by selling aspiration to the masses, when Don Draper is handed what you would think is a paint-by-numbers assignment by Roger Sterling to write a speech articulating his view for the future of the company, Don hits a dry well. Ted's big hope is to land a pharmaceutical account and Peggy aspires to Don's seat as Creative Director (a point that has him sit up a little higher in his chair with pride), but when he glibly dismisses Peggy's desire to leave behind something of value, she writes the entire conversation off as one of his sour moods, a bait and switch where she exposes herself and he pockets that information without reciprocating.

The Forecast, the tenth episode of Mad Men's seventh season, differs from the prior two episodes, which had an ethereal, almost dream-like aspect to them. Don's fast, but odd "relationship" with Diana (the Sad Waitress) could have easily led to Internet speculation that this whole half-season occurred as a hallucination, or a vision Don has just as he is about to leave this Earth. But in The Forecast Don's feet are more firmly placed on the ground if his heart and soul are not entirely there. 

In keeping with his theme of reinvention, a million dollar check will not suffice to reboot Don Draper 3.0 (or is it 4.0? At this point, most of us have lost count), he must also unload the penthouse apartment he and Megan moved into when they married. Of course, he can't be bothered with details like having the carpets cleaned or staging the massive family room with anything but the deck furniture. For someone in advertising, he is more than happy to critique the poor sales job of his real estate agent, but his half-assed effort to sell his apartment is on par with the just-enough time he spent with his sons blending milkshakes, sticking around just long enough for other people to finish the job. 

When it comes to things Don does care about, he is a little more assertive. His attempt to mentor Mathis ends poorly, with the young man misreading the room both in apologizing for an outburst to a client and in confronting Don for the failure. On his way out the door after being fired, Mathis kicks Don in the shins, dismissing an old war story about Don resuscitating himself before Lucky Strike as nothing so much as revisionist history, his presence with the closeted executive Lee Garner a product of his looks, not his acumen. It is not surprising that Don is not well-suited to mentorship. Like a great athlete who is easily frustrated by coaching lesser talent, the fairy dust Don sprinkles on clients can only be appreciated by wunderkinds like Peggy, not run-of-the-mill types like Mathis.

That Mathis is even given any airtime is of a piece with the rest of the half-season's motif of providing what seems like a disproportionate amount of time to bit players and long ago characters. This week, Glen Bishop reappears to let pen-pal Sally know he's shipping off to Vietnam, but it is only when he returns to the Francis mansion once she's gone that he discloses to Betty that his enlistment is a way to cover up his flunking out from school and, in the balance, getting the respect of his step-father. It is a sad little storyline. When Glen notes that Betty looks the same, he accidentally stumbles on a larger truth. What he probably meant as an offhanded compliment is literally true. If you last saw Betty Draper in Ossining in 1963 and then ran into her as Betty Francis in Rye in 1970, it would appear as if time stood still. Her future, which she pins on returning to school, may or may not occur, but an entire decade has passed her by. 

Meanwhile, Lou Avery is still around (who knew?) darkening the sunshine of SC&P's West Coast office while Joan meets a mystery man during a visit to the company's left coast outpost. Richard is a wealthy, older man with a recent divorce under his belt and his children have been raised and are on their own. Joan shades the truth during their brief tryst assuming she will never see him again, but when he pursues her to New York, she comes clean, which does not sit well with him (his wide lapels didn't sit well with me, but that's another story). Ultimately, Richard expresses interest in being in Joan's life, even with a child (and a live-in mother, not to mention a groovy babysitter) in tow. 

But like Diana, Richard's introduction is a bit of a head scratcher. I mean, if Joan wanted to shack up with a rich older man who was going to pay lip service to his willingness to be in a small child's life, the boy's actual father is working down the hall from her. And as viewers, what are we to make of the steady stream of new plot lines even as the sands in the show's hourglass continue to dwindle? If this entire half-season is a sort of coda for the show, with Waterloo its actual ending - of the partners getting filthy rich and the entire crew falling under the McCann banner - that is fine so far as it goes, but I would have hoped for either a more concentrated story line (Pete has barely been present this season even though he is one of the "core four" from the firm) or something completely out of the box, like an entire half-season of flash forwards to random years that closed each character's loop. 

Ultimately, for a guy who, when we met him, told Rachel Menken that love was something created by guys like him to sell nylons, as Don has aged, the future does not look like something to be greeted with hope and excitement. While Don is temporarily uplifted by Sally's friends, who have a powwow over Chinese food about their hopes and dreams, she has one "fast" friend, who clumsily flirts with Don and embarrasses Sally. Sally lashes out at Don as she boards a Greyhound bus, thinking he was tempted by her seventeen-year old friend, but she misread the situation. It is no matter, it is understandable that Sally wants to get as far away from her parents as possible. She has seen and heard them do awful things and has not received what anyone would consider strong parenting. If she had any doubt, Don's tepid wave as she boards the bus and the fact he does not even stick around to watch it pull out of the terminal pretty much confirms her entire critique. 

Meanwhile, the episode ends on another forlorn image of Don. The penthouse apartment he was so eager to dump has been sold and he has thirty days to clear out and figure our what his future holds. Given that time and the place he is in his life, is not a comforting thought.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring In Princeton

The weather in New Jersey was perfect this weekend. Saturday was sunny and close to 80 degrees. Sunday was sunny, but cooler, about 65 degrees. It was a great opportunity to get out and explore the world after such a wretched winter. 


I took a nice walk along the D&R Canal with one of my friends who had spied a bald eagle earlier in the week. Sure enough, we spotted him/her in an aerie at least 100 feet in the air, but thanks to my 50x zoom lens, I was able to get a couple of great shots. 

Along the way, we also saw turtles basking in the warm sunshine.


Sunday morning, I decided to cruise by Princeton (Borough) Hall, where there is a large statue of George Washington. It's as big as day and with the cherry blossoms in bloom, looked really nice. Along with the statue is a stunning weeping willow (also in bloom). The last photo shows each in relation to the other. 

My final stop was, naturally, Prospect House. I needed to see if any flowers had bloomed and sure enough, there were some daffodils and tulips in fine form. The last photo is of a magnolia tree on the Prospect House grounds. 

All in all, a great weekend and a great way to start what I hope will be a full season's worth of amazing photography. 

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Mad Men S7E9 - New Business

"You people think money solves every problem."
"No, just this particular problem."

Gene Hofstadt and Don Draper, My Old Kentucky Home (Season 3, Episode 3)

Don Draper has never been bashful about using money to solve problems (or remind his underlings that it is their reward for hard work, as opposed to say, praise) but going from slipping his father-in-law a few bucks when his five-dollar bill goes missing to cutting his ex-wife a one million dollar check is a different story altogether.

New Business is an ironic title for the ninth episode of Mad Men's seventh season, because it had a much stronger feel of tying up loose ends. It turns out Arnold and Sylvia Rosen do still live in Don's building and have observed the rotating cast of characters Don has been bringing up to his penthouse apartment. Megan and Don's marriage, which appeared to sputter to an end during the first "half" of this season was made official with that aforementioned seven figure send-off. The petty backbiting at the attorney's office and Marie's own decision to extract a pound of flesh (if not a lot of Don's swanky furniture) notwithstanding, that type of behavior is standard fair in an acrimonious divorce. Of course, when you can blithely write such a large check, perhaps it is unnecessary to do any navel gazing or score any cheap points on the way out the door.

None of this reflected Megan in a particularly good light. We all know Harry is an odious troll who preys on young actresses, so his clumsy attempt to bed the now available Ms. Calvet was unsurprising, but here, Roger had it right when he recalled the acrimony of his divorce from a much younger woman who claimed he had stolen her best years even as she milked him for a new apartment. [1] The smug attitude Megan took with her sister after receiving her payout told you everything you needed to know. In a moral universe, is this justice? Who knows, but in love and war, things are rarely clean cut.

Having disposed of that particular problem, Don was free to focus on his new lady friend, Diana. Introduced as a possible Rachel Menken doppelgänger, it turns out she's a runaway from another life of suburban domesticity interrupted by the tragedy of the loss of a child. Don has been filling his mommy void with a steady stream of brunettes for the entire time we've "known" him, but there's a pathos to Diana that is particularly acute. Perhaps it is Don's own backstory of reinvention that piques his interest, or his knowledge that you cannot allow your past to define you, but there is something almost paternal in his attitude toward the younger woman. He gifts her a guidebook to New York City, but she can only look as far as the doorway to her one room apartment and the bottle of vodka she is using to drown her past. 

In this otherwise Don-centric episode, there was a quirky little B story between Peggy and Stan. These two, whose work relationship began so unpleasantly, are now what we today consider "work spouses" - good friends who know each other well and share intimacy, just not of the physical variety. [2] Here, they are more competitors than collaborators when a hip commercial director named Pima Ryan hits the scene, she stirs Stan's dormant interest in his own art outside of work (photography) and creates tension with Peggy over what images best catch the camera's eye. While Peggy rebuffs her advances [3] Stan give in to them, lording his prowess over the copy chief until she mentions that she too was the target of Pima's interest. 

But as the clock ticks down to the end of the show's run, through two episodes the dominant theme, other than each character's emotional struggle, is a sort of box checking - what happened to Rachel Menken? (died of leukemia). Kenny Cosgrove? (in house at Dow Chemical). Are the Rosen's still around? (yes). Megan? (filthy rich and never to be heard from again). Don's sudden interest in a diner waitress may be because he views her as a kindred spirit or just simply someone who will be nice enough to show up at his apartment at 3 a.m. to satisfy his emotional and physical needs, but much of his interaction with Diana is backward looking - explaining the number of coats in the closet or the length of time he has been separated. There is nothing "new" in this, or in his "type," the question, one supposes is whether this is just history repeating itself well past tragedy or farce.

PS - Betty as a psychologist is just exactly perfect.


1. Unlike Roger, who then defiled that apartment by having sex with Jane in it, one assumes Don won't be flying out to California any time soon. Dark Shadows, Season 5, Episode 9. 
2. This did not stop Stan from trying to make a play for Peggy while he was under the effects of the "Dr. Feelgood" B12 shot provided by Jim Cutler's doctor. The Crash, Season 6, Episode 8. 

3. A skill she initially cultivated with another photographer, Joyce, some years ago. The Rejected, Season 4, Episode 4. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Mad Men S7E8 - Severance

More than anything, the barometer of Mad Men is gauged by where Don Draper is on the spectrum between riding high and scraping the bottom of the barrel. In the wake of SC&P's acquisition by McCann, Don and Roger are flush with cash (and in Roger's case, some newly acquired, and unfortunate facial hair) and behaving badly. The Don we meet in Severance is safely ensconced back in his familiar corner office and cycling through women in a manner unseen since Betty kicked him to the curb at the end of Season 3. [1]

Money and the past are recurring themes throughout Severance. For those who got rich in the acquisition and those counting the money of those who got rich, money does not appear to be making anyone particularly happy. Roger is dismissive of a waitress at a coffee shop but attempts to make amends by leaving her a $100 bill on an $11 check. When Don returns to the same diner, she assumes it is to get his "money's worth" and they have an a quickie in the alley. She thinks it is one thing, he is so accustomed to women throwing themselves at him, he misses the connection and by the end of the episode, just wants to sit at the counter and mope. 

Pete has what we now term "first world problems" as he scurries to hide his fortune from the government, a problem for which Ken feels little sympathy. Joan is still dismissed as a sexpot by the middle managers at McCann, who demean and belittle her as she and Peggy try to bridge a gap for the little account that could - Topaz - which is having its lunch eaten by L'eggs. [2] But Peggy's tolerance for Joan's disgust is limited. Not only did Peggy try to deftly parry the slimy commentary of their McCann peers, but she did not become a millionaire when SC&P was acquired, so she dismisses Joan's carping by observing that Joan does not even need to do the work because of the great fortune she received when SC&P was acquired. [3] 

Meanwhile, the past continues to haunt Don. More than using the company message service as his own private after-hours hook-up line, there is a subtle wink to Don's past in Severance, the main client is a fur company, a sales job from which Roger "discovered" Don nearly two decades before. [4] We also hear a name (and see a face) long forgotten - Rachel (Menken) Katz [5]. Way back in 1960, Don and Rachel carried on a furtive (and ultimately futile) affair that started with his swaggering proclamation that love was created by ad men like him and her distaste for his arrogance and ignorance that somehow melted into passion that curdled when Don's past was discovered by Pete and he wanted to run away with her to Los Angeles. [6]

Don has a dream that he sees her, only to discover that she has recently passed away. When he appears at the shiva he is snubbed by her surviving sister Barbara, whose long memory is triggered as soon as she greets him and hears his name. [7] There is much to be said for Don's tortured experiences with death [8] but the not-so-subtle twist of the knife given by Rachel's sister, asking after Don's family, telling him that Rachel had everything she wanted in the world, and questioning his presence there, chip away at Don, who visibly sags as he acknowledges his two divorces, hands over the cake he has brought to the mourning, and looks balefully on as the men begin prayer services. 

This second-half opener gives Peggy an opportunity to dip a toe in the dating waters, getting overly tipsy with Mathis's brother-in-law and, in the cold light of the morning following drunken plans for a trip to Paris, feels slightly regretful of her conduct. As for Ken, he both gets and gives the shaft - first, as he's let go for some long ago offense his first time around at McCann and then turning the tables by securing employment in house at Dow Chemical, and instead of firing the firm, he decides instead to be a thorn in their side as an overly demanding client. 

As is typical of Matthew Weiner, who wrote the seventh season's eighth episode, a lot of chum was sprinkled in the water without providing a clear direction for these final shows. Having skipped past the joy of Woodstock and the horror of Altamont and moved the narrative into the early months of 1970, [9] Weiner took a pass at certain social commentary. Ken's firing aside, there were few fireworks, but more a sense of reorienting the audience to the new normal - no Jim Cutler (no loss there), Ted and Roger's porn star quality mustaches, Joan drowning her frustrations at being an account woman in high end spending, and Don on a mostly upswing - if you ignore the quickie in the alley with the waitress, his return to the bottle, haunted expression over a love lost, and apparent interest in marking more notches on his bedpost. 

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1. See, e.g., Christmas Comes But Once A Year, Season 4, Episode 2, Waldorf Stories, Season 4 Episode 6. 
2. As Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce teetered on the brink, Peggy and Ken brought in Topaz Pantyhose. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13.
3. In inflation adjusted dollars, Joan's $1.5 million stake is worth somewhere between $10-15 million in today's dollars.
4. Waldorf Stories, supra. See also, Field Trip, Season 7, Episode 3. 
5. We last saw Rachel with new husband Tilden Katz in The New Girl, Season 2, Episode 5. 
6. See, e.g., Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1, Babylon, Season 1, Episode 6, Nixon v. Kennedy, Season 1, Episode 12. 
7. Babylon, supra. 
8. Don has a vision of his half-brother Adam while under anesthesia, The Shadow, Season 5, Episode 13, of Anna Draper in his office, The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7, and Bert Cooper doing a soft shoe, Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7. 

9. The speech given by President Nixon shown during the episode occurred on April 30, 1970.