Sunday, April 12, 2015

GH's Throwback Thursday, Mad Men Edition: "Severance"

"Being Alive" by Stephen Sondheim for the musical "Company" (1970)

Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To ruin your sleep.

Someone to need you too much,
Someone to know you too well,
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell.

Someone you have to let in,
Someone whose feelings you spare,
Someone who, like it or not,
Will want you to share
A little, a lot.

Someone to crowd you with love,
Someone to force you to care,
Someone to make you come through,
Who'll always be there,
As frightened as you
Of being alive,
Being alive,
Being alive,
Being alive.

Somebody, hold me too close,
Somebody, hurt me too deep,
Somebody, sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep
And make me aware
Of being alive,
Being alive.

Somebody, need me too much,
Somebody, know me too well,
Somebody, pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive,
Make me alive.

Make me confused,
Mock me with praise,
Let me be used,
Vary my days.
But alone is alone, not alive.

Somebody, crowd me with love,
Somebody, force me to care,
Somebody, make me come through,
I'll always be there,
As frightened as you,
To help us survive
Being alive,
Being alive,
Being alive!    


When Stephen Sondheim's "Company" opened last spring, Clive Barnes completely missed the basically idealistic and optimistic point of the show, namely: that despite whatever difficulties there may be in any deep relationship, we all risk losing our membership in the human race if we fail to make an emotional commitment to somebody.

Now Mr. Sondheim has given us "Follies," and once again Barnes has missed the point, has failed on not one but two viewings of this show to mine any of its gold.

He says of "Follies": "It carries nostalgia to where sentiment finally engulfs it in its sickly maw." What Barnes fails to see is that the sentiment is supposed to engulf us as it engulfs the characters in the show. It is precisely this mindless nostalgia and sentiment, this rose-colored hindsight, this longing for "the good old days" that prevent the people of the story from facing the problems of their present lives. Here is that universal human failing of yearning for something you can never have and for a time you can never return to. And Mr. Sondheim shows us the "folly" of that failing with consummate brilliance. You do not solve the problems of your 45-year-old marriage by taking your wife to see "No, No, Nanette" simply because you were so happy and so in love in 1925.

As for Sondheim's music, it will be sung and remembered long after everyone has given up ever finding a quotable line from a Barnes review.

Remak Ramsay, New York

This letter was written to the New York Times to complain about a bad review given to Stephen Sondheim's "Company" after it opened in April 1970. The show's plot? A single man who's unable to commit to marriage, much less a steady relationship.

Sounds familiar.

The start of Mad Men's Episode 7.8, "Severance," was really about the end of things. Look at the word itself. Merriam-Webster defines "severance" as: "(n) the act of ending someone's employment; the act of ending a relationship, connection, etc."

Many viewers expressed dismay that this long-awaited half-season premiere took place when it did. Matthew Weiner and his writers chose to skip over the second (and rather tumultuous) half of 1969 to bring us straight into 1970, a move few predicted. And even just one look at Roger Sterling's moustache in the first scene of this episode seems to have hurled viewers into a state of culture shock.

The energy of this time is so different than what we're accustomed to on this show. The bold, bright crispness of the 1960s is gone...even the filming quality seems somehow...browner. It's nearly Tarantino-esque.

The promos for these last seven episodes have called the series' send-off "the end of an era." "Severance" just gave us our first gulp of it. The characters all seem to be sharing one massive group hangover from the wildness of 1969 (which makes the song in the promos, "Love Hangover," even more apt).

So what happened in those last few months we didn't get to see? How did we get here? This is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful house. (Sorry, I can't help myself.)

In his book The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics, Bruce J. Schulman explains:

"The 1960s appeared as a historical divide, a decade of turmoil with the future hanging in the balance. [1968] has been recalled as 'the Year the Dream Died'—the year, to quote one journalist, 'when for so many, the dream of a nobler, optimistic America died, and the reality of a skeptical conservative America began to fill the void.'

"As even professional men discarded their fedoras and gray flannel suits, the entire culture opened up. Curse words ceased to shock; many moved into the accepted lexicon. Legal restrictions on personal behavior softened as states relaxed or repealed obscenity laws, abortion restrictions and regulations prohibiting the sale of contraceptives. The new laws reflected broader, more informal shifts in sexual mores, living arrangements, dress, food and social behavior. Young people shunned long-accepted routes to social and professional success. More and more young people chose to 'live together without benefit of matrimony' or even just to share dwellings with groups of unrelated men and women on an entirely platonic basis. The experiments in living arrangements pointed out broader changes in sex roles. Many women were demanding, as the newly formed National Organization for Women insisted, admittance to the rights and privileges of citizenship in truly equal partnership with men.

"The prospect of a genuine counterculture, a real alternative to the corrupt, violent, greedy, tactless mainstream, exerted powerful appeal. Only a small part of the '60s generation had succumbed to the 'hippie temptation'; during the fabled 1967 Summer of Love, the best estimates placed the number of hippies at roughly 100,000 young Americans. But that small, if rather boisterous, minority blossomed, in the words of one chronicler, into a 'garden of millions of flower people by the early 1970s.'

"Young people concluded that protest had to evolve, somehow become more fundamental. If you could not convince the older generation to change its beliefs, to stop the war, you could refuse to participate.

"In fact, a general alienation from mainstream America, not just disillusionment with politics, fed the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Polls revealed widespread disenchantment among American youth. In 1970/­1971, one-third of America's college-age population felt that marriage had become obsolete and that having children was not very important. The number identifying religion, patriotism, and 'living a clean, moral life' as 'important values' plummeted. Fifty percent held no living American in high regard, and nearly half felt that America was 'a sick society.' In this setting, many young Americans no longer saw any reason to heed established conventions about sex, drugs, authority, clothing, living arrangements, food—the fundamental ways of living their lives.

"So what could you do if you found yourself in such a supposedly sick society? 'You take drugs, you turn up the music very loud, you dance around, you build yourself a fantasy world where everything's beautiful.'"

This is the world in which a 44-year-old Don Draper shares a late-evening, post-party meal in a dingy diner with three wannabe models, then comes home to a lonely apartment and calls his answering service to ask about his various lady friends. It's a world where one of those friends comes over likely after midnight with very few questions asked, and when she finds an earring on the floor, inquires very casually whether it belongs to another lady friend. It's a world where that same woman can spill red wine all over pristine (and likely expensive) white wall-to-wall carpet, and Don's response is to hurl his (also likely expensive) comforter on top of it and copulate.

Not exactly the Donna Reed society of Mad Men Episode 1, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

In fact, this episode is some sort of backwards homage to that one. I say "backwards" because nearly everything we first learned about these characters when it aired seven years ago has somehow irrevocably reversed.

This is more than an episode about "the life not lived," as Ken Cosgrove mentions to Don so earnestly. It's about the life that wasn't lived, and now never will be. 

For example, in the pilot, we were introduced to Peggy Olson, the newbie secretary who all the guys ogled simply because she was new. She's the lowest on the totem pole, a rather innocent visitor to the fast-paced world of advertising. She's encouraged to dress more provocatively in the office. She's told that her typewriter might seem daunting, but it's made so "even a woman can use it." She is shy, inhibited. Pete Campbell asks her if she's Amish.

In "Severance," we find Peggy nine years later as a brash, snippy copy chief—she's modeled her work persona after a man (Don) and doesn't know how to behave otherwise. She struggles to find the attention of men now, probably because they are intimidated by her success, but mostly because she's been burned by love and has shut off that part of her life. We finally see her on a decent romantic date with a seemingly decent man who appreciates her "fearlessness," but the next day she discounts her behavior as foolish. I imagine we'll never see that man again. She wakes up alone in her apartment, which she does every morning. The road to romance is one she's subconsciously chosen not to take—her passport is at work, of all places, which completely makes sense because work equals "home" for Peggy.

Think about it. If you had to figure out where your passport was at this very moment, I'd bet 95 percent of you could answer correctly. A passport just isn't something people often misplace.

Don has similar problems. In "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," he was an ad man still trying to prove himself. In a conversation with Midge, his mistress, the night before his big meeting with Lucky Strike, he confesses that he fears he'll be laughed at, that he'll lose his job, if he botches the pitch. But in the office the next day, he's unflappable. A dashing vision in his pressed white shirts and dark gray suit.

On a recent panel at Lincoln Center, Jon Hamm described his first day as Don: "I had to walk in, take my shirt off, open the drawer, get another shirt out, unwrap the shirt from the laundry, pour a glass of water, put two Alka Seltzer in—which used to come, by the way, in screw-top bottles and not just paper—the water. While that's fizzing, I'm taking the shirt out, unwrapping the shirt, putting the shirt on, unbuttoning the shirt, putting my tie back on, tying my tie, picking up the Alka Seltzer, drinking the Alka Seltzer, all while talking to John Slattery, who is waiting for me like a dog waiting for a treat, waiting for me to fuck up. And I had to miss a button because the last line of the scene is, 'You missed a button.' So that was my first day."

Hamm did all of that without missing a beat, which was appropriate for the well-oiled machine that was Don Draper then; he revealed nothing. This was a Don with a tightly guarded secret past. He carried many secrets—for example, he makes an effort to keep his mistresses separate and unaware, he makes sure nobody knows he takes naps in the office and he tries to act benevolent and fair to his coworkers, to embody American ethics of hard work. Even more importantly, he revels in his creativity. But this Don has also adopted a dangerous philosophy. As he tells Rachel Menken, he's "living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one."

"Severance" finds him in that non-existent tomorrow.

In "Severance," Don is disillusioned by the world he once found so invigorating. His tendency to nap in his office has become common knowledge. He spends his days perversely auditioning half-naked models in fur coats—but instead of writing copy for a fur coats ad like he did in the old days, he's trying to create a sex-fueled ad for moisturizer. He shows up to work late regularly. (Speaking of which, anyone catch that glimpse of the Accutron ad, framed on the wall behind Meredith? It says, with a wink, "The most accurate watch in the world.")

This Don wears blue shirts and striped shirts, not crisp white ones, freshly pressed by the dry cleaner's. He's back to drinking heavily. He comes home to an empty apartment instead of his beautiful family in the suburbs. He spends time in a glum diner, searching for one of the exciting romances he once found in vulnerable, unappreciated women like Di, only to later find that their alleyway tryst was the result of a mix-up—she'd thought Roger's ridiculously generous tip was a pre-payment.

Most significantly, though, this is a Don who tells tales of his impoverished past to strangers and friends alike. Dick Whitman's Don Draper front has all but vanished, and the rude awakening is, nobody even cares.

It's understandable that viewers might find this last development a tad disappointing. After all, Don Draper's efforts to hide his true identity have only been the main plot points of the entire series. But now, in one fell swoop, it's a nonissue.

It's like we're meant to feel just as disillusioned as Don does.

It's funny how in this episode, Peggy is the one drinking the Alka Seltzer (also a tribute to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"), by the way. But she manages to get two male employees to serve it to her. As much as she tries to convey a dignified, unflappable front, like Don used to, her authentic emotions often get the best of her.

It's something that also happens to Joan this episode, who's always been better at concealing her true feelings than Peggy is.

Joan is the new Miss Blankenship in this episode. Her character development could never have been imagined based on her season one persona. It calls to mind the late Bert Cooper's ode to his longtime secretary: "She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut."

When we first met Joan seven years ago, she was a sexy secretary who used her looks and charm to win over clients. She was very much a master of her domain. She also didn't suffer any fools. While her world was somewhat limited monetarily and her career advancement strained, she made the most of what she could control. She was prepared to marry and have a child and eventually leave the world of Sterling Cooper behind. And she was the ultimate Girl Friday—Joan is definitely someone you want on your side in an emergency, because she always knows the best, most practical thing to do (even if your foot was just cut off by a lawn mower).

In "Severance," Joan finds herself a partner, and a millionaire at that. She depends on no one but herself financially. She's attempting to do a job she doesn't necessarily know how to do effectively—it's one that requires diplomacy, not forcefulness. She's always been much more suited to a managerial role than a creative one, so she suffers a bit here.

And she still has her pride. Her disillusionment comes when Peggy points out that she "can't have it both ways." You'd think she'd be used to the kinds of comments hurled at her in the meeting with the McCann execs, but these are a different animal (pig, maybe?) than what she's dealt with before.

For example, here's the exchange that took place in the first half of this season, when Bob Benson brought the Chevy reps to visit the New York offices:

Bob: Joan! Come say hello.
Joan: Welcome back, Bob. Gentlemen.
Chevy exec: How the hell did we end up with him instead of you?
Joan: No one asked!
Bob: This is Bill Hartley. Bill's been bumped to vice president of the brand.
Joan: Congratulations! You certainly picked the right place to celebrate.
Hartley: You mean New York City or this very spot? [Laughs.]

Despite the overt flirtations, there was an air of sweetness to it. Joan's attractiveness was appreciated by the execs. They weren't necessarily demeaning her. (It also helped that Bill Hartley was a closeted homosexual, but that's beside the point.)

The problem with the boys at McCann is that they find a woman who looks like Joan completely unacceptable in her current role. They don't know how to relate to someone as an equal when she looks and acts the way Joan does. And though Joan wants to be treated with respect and as a person who is good at her job (something she's always had confidence in), she's not prepared to give up her persona to get it. She doesn't want to have to dress like Peggy. Her appearance is such an integral part of her identity. After all, she told Don in an episode a few seasons back, her mother raised her to "be admired." She didn't raise her to be assertive with men, to behave as a man would in business, to cloak her natural sex appeal.

In this episode, we find Joan attempting to sell a product she knows a great deal about: pantyhose. You'd think this would be easy. But she faces hurdles on all sides—from the client, from Don, from the McCann execs and even from Peggy. Misunderstood, she ducks a business call to go on a shopping spree, spending some of her newfound wealth. But is she buying extravagant clothing to look sexy? Or is some of that loot business-appropriate?

It's probably the former. And she will probably continue to dress the way she does. The world is going to have to change, in that sense, not Joan. As Mary Quant says in this advertorial in the April 1970 Good Housekeeping:

"Interviewer: In the past you could tell someone's economic or social class by the way they dressed. Is that disappearing?
Mary Quant: That was part of a woman living off a man. She dressed the part of her husband's wife. If he was a lawyer, she dressed the part of a lawyer's wife, because her clothes were bought by her husband. And before that her clothes were bought by her father, so she dressed the part of Daddy's little darling. As soon as she was economically free, she dressed to please herself—to be herself."

At the same time, Joan flinches a bit when the salesgirl alludes to her former position, working in that very store. "Oh, no," she says. "You must be mistaken."

Much like when Don advised Peggy, "It will shock you how much this never happened," Joan has denied the existence of her previous, dependent-on-a-husband life. In her mind, she has always been this rich and powerful advertising firm partner—because she cannot look back on the life she might have led otherwise...the life she knows she will now never lead.

Weiner has said he went to great lengths to display the obscene wealth of the main characters in this episode, and I imagine this will continue up to the finale. But somehow it only comes across as crass. Maybe it's the new fashions. Or hairstyles. Or excessive sloppiness.

Here's what I found when I checked out the April 1970 issue of Good Housekeeping.

Many of the clothing ads in April 1970 tout something Joan embraces in this episode: women's individuality. There are also plenty that focus on saving time, of key importance to working women.

There are also tons of ads for conditioner, now that long, shiny hair is in vogue.

And here are our "Severance" match-ups:

It's not surprising that Peggy's new hairstyle might show up in an ad for hair color. She very much seems to be dyeing hers that solid, shiny chestnut.

Oh, and here's that magazine Joan reads while waiting to talk to Don (though her issue is May 1970).

And I found a dress with a neckline awfully similar to the Oscar de La Renta Joan tries on during her shopping spree and the one worn by Roger's friend in the diner:

And the dress on Roger's other friend, albeit in blue, can be found in an ad for feminine deodorant spray (no doubt something she might need after that evening with Roger...I'm just sayin').

And here's that pastel bra and panties set. Colorful prints in underwear were the big thing in April 1970.

Now let's talk about something that happened in this episode that refuses to escape my mind for some reason.

Inevitably, Weiner seems to be calling back to viewers' memories that scene where Don strangles a mistress in a fever dream in this very spot. The wine is reminiscent of blood, etc. But more importantly (to me anyway) is HOLY GOD, HE JUST LET RED WINE SPILL ON WHITE CARPET.

Let's just get one thing straight: Wall-to-wall carpeting was a very big deal in 1970. Emily Morrow, director of color, style and design, residential carpet and hard surfaces at Shaw Floors, explained this in a 2012 interview:

"In the '60s and '70s, there was a 'revolution' in terms of the industry’s ability to create new piles and textures. 'There were highly creative shags… textured sculpted multicolors creating all these different visuals… and imprinted carpet for kitchens,' Emily explains. These played into 'people’s excitement about change in general,' she said. 'Consumers liked anything hip and new.' Tastes were changing as consumers’ view of the world expanded through the evolution of media. By going from black and white to color television, they were able to see into TV homes such as 'The Brady Bunch,' where colorful shag or sculpted carpet was used.

"Technology played a key role in developing the shag carpets to be synonymous with the 1970s. Emily said that the industry was experimenting with endless combinations both in yarn types as well as dyeing multiple layers of color. She explains that the 1970s were a time when consumers were trying new things 'just because.' Shag carpets once made from 100 percent polyester evolved into 100 percent nylon, resulting in a much more appealing aesthetic and improved performance.

"Color favorites were avocado green, brown, oranges and multicolor. Emily adds that 'layering' of single colors, like greens, was also popular, because the effect was very forgiving in terms of hiding dirt."

Forgiving in terms of hiding dirt. I'm guessing that, going the way he's going, Don Draper will soon be investing in some brown carpeting.

The April 1970 issue of Good Housekeeping devoted an entire feature to carpeting alone:

...and even to carpet cleaning (this was an article about how a man might handle cleaning house while his wife's away):

And here's a not-sexual-in-the-least ad for a vacuum in the same issue, followed by some ads for carpet cleaner (suddenly a high commodity...I assume because of all the Don Drapers of the world spilling wine and then blanketing it with comforters):

Here's how carpet cleaners were described in Good Housekeeping when the ladies did all the housework, in April 1960:

And the way pantyhose was advertised changed a great deal in the decade, too. Here's an ad from Good Housekeeping in April 1960 and then one from the April 1970 issue:

Earlier this season, in Mad Men's "The Strategy," Peggy asks Don what he worries about. He says, "That I never did anything, and that I don't have anyone."

Weiner revisits that sentiment this episode, when Don goes to Rachel's shiva.

As he explains to her mourning sister that he divorced his first wife and is now experiencing divorce number two, she says that Rachel did what she wanted in life, that she had everything.

This is confusing to Don, who is discovering by this time that "having everything" is a rather difficult if not impossible proposition. He's made decisions he's afraid cannot be unmade. Now that he is in his mid-40s, he is no longer that young, cocksure guy, out to conquer the world, that he was in "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." He's thinking more along the lines of what he's going to do with the rest of his life.

Because, at the moment, he's wealthy and considerably successful, and yet it's still not enough. He's seeing what Bert predicted to be true, "The best things in life are free."

And Rachel Menken had those things, and not with him. And now she's dead, and she was younger than he was.

In his dream about her, she tells him that he "missed his flight." Has he really missed his chances at happiness? Have those ties all been severed now?

Has he "broken the vessel"?

It's a theme Weiner will delve into even deeper as the rest of the series plays out.

In the meantime, here's a highly influential song released in April 1970, one that Don could likely benefit from (but which came out with a great deal of sadness, as it coincided with Paul McCartney's announcement that The Beatles were, indeed, dead).

The end of things.

Until next time, "I'm going to be your client. And I hate to tell you, but I'm very hard to please."

"Let It Be" by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (1970)

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom,
Let it be.

And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom,
Let it be.

Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom,
Let it be.

And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree.
There will be an answer,
Let it be.

For though they may be parted,
There is still a chance that they will see.
There will be an answer,
Let it be.

Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be.
There will be an answer,
Let it be.

Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom,
Let it be.

Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom,
Let it be.

And when the night is cloudy,
There is still a light that shines on me.
Shine until tomorrow,
Let it be.

I wake up to the sound of music,
Mother Mary comes to me.
Speaking words of wisdom,
Let it be.

Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be,
Yeah, let it be.
There will be an answer,
Let it be.

Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be,
Yeah, let it be.
There will be an answer,
Let it be.

Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be,
Let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom,
Let it be.

No comments: