Bert Cooper was right. No man ever comes back from leave. Don Draper passed the torch to Peggy to win the Burger Chef account on the mid-season finale of Mad Men. It was the smart, right thing to do. But in "Severence," the second season 7 premiere, Don's not demonstrating great judgment or professional acumen. There's no polite way to put this, but Don is in a pussy haze. If the last question of the series is whether Don can change and find something meaningful to live for, things are off to a bad start.
The opening scene is the most pornographic moment in the show's history, with Don returning to his past as a fur salesman and suggesting a lucrative future as the off-camera voice of encouragement in a gonzo, amateurs-only porno series. A woman with wide eyes and permanently ajar lips walks into the office in a fur coat, and Don coaches her into enjoying the sensation and teasing her body for the mirror (and Don, and the viewer). "Show me how soft your skin is," Don says after a close-up shot of him putting out his cigarette in a cup of cart coffee. Sizzle.
The joke is that this is an audition, not a prelude to sex, and it's happening in a room full of onlookers. Confirming the budding air of porno chic, there's Ted Chaough with a saucy mustache set above a big grin. The model is dismissed. Another is sent in.
If this moment functions as a punch line the audience can laugh/gasp at, later there are "jokes" that provide no such release and underscore the brutality of one-sided misogynistic objectification. Months after McCann acquired SC&P, relations between the two organizations suck, as exemplified by a scene between Peggy and Joan and three McCann employees. We've spent practically all series wondering how bad the uber corporate McCann actually is, and if the cretins Peggy and Joan share a meeting with are any indication, McCann is, indeed, a special kind of hell. They speak entirely in lunk-headed double entendres about panties and bras that are clearly intended to embarrass and sexually harass Peggy and Joan. Peggy's unflappable; Joan shoots a barbed excuse me, but these garbage men are unstoppable. Though the frat-bro moment of "hey, let's read this thing" groupthink is a good point scored against these clowns, it's only a moment for the viewers to savor. Peggy and Joan don't get to enjoy it.
So: things are nasty. Don is running through women with abandon (he even takes a shot at the voice of his messaging service), and there's no mistaking it for fun or harmless. When a stewardess stops in for a late-night visit to the apartment Don can hardly bear to look at with the lights on, the suggestion of violence gets thick. She drops a cup of wine on the bedroom carpet, producing a bloody gash of a stain. It's right on the spot where Don dreamed about strangling an old flame to death in "Mystery Date" in Season 5. Then the stewardess, in her underwear, drops to her hands and knees to blot the wine, recalling the posture of Megan in "A Little Kiss," the Season 5 premiere, as she angrily cleaned up after Don's surprise 40th birthday. These are all signs of violence and intimacy and the ghosts of the past that Don tries to cover up by throwing the blankets on the carpet. But that stain will be there in the morning.
In a dream, Don is visited by another ghost: Rachel Menken, the department store heiress that captured his heart in season 1. She appears to him as fur coat model; he's so happy to see her, he throws a tagline her way.
When Peggy and Joan need to solve a pantyhose problem with some rebranding, he reaches out to Menken's to see if Topaz can get out of the drug store and into the hands of more rarefied customers. Meredith delivers the news that Rachel has passed, which sends Don to her shiva. By this point in the episode, the spooky dread is approaching "Mystery Date" levels. Don claims his many years spent in New York as evidence that he understands what he's getting himself into when Rachel's sister explains that they're sitting shiva, but it's clear that he's an outsider. The way he looks at the covered mirrors, his failure to know that he can't participate in the minyan, the shot from his POV at the backs of the men davening—if you take Matthew Weiner's word that, on some level, Mad Men is a show about becoming white, this moment is powerful for affirming Don's inability to become Jewish. He wants to lend a hand but he can't. He isn't welcome in this space and can't chameleon his way in.
With Megan reduced to a lost earring and work a never ending cattle call producing literal binders of women, where can Don find meaning? (Aptly, Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is" opens and closes the episode.) Sally was a beacon of hope last season, the catalyst for moving and honest expression from Don. But even truth-telling has lost its power here. There's nothing liberating or therapeutic in Don's toaster story at the episode's opening. It's just become part of the theatrics of getting laid.
At least Ken scores some genuine satisfaction. Mad Men's Fetty Wap gets fired, only to find revenge in the cushy position of Head of Advertising at Dow Chemical. That's your moment of victory with six episodes left to go. Take your pleasure where you can, while it's still possible.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He tweets here.
[Gifs via FYMM]