Mad Men S7BE1: “Severance”

“Is that all there is?”

Peggy Lee, you said it. This premiere episode was a tough nut to crack – a lot of unsteady philosophical meandering leading to a casual ending. It was a visually dazzling hour (What color! What mustaches!) but…inscrutable. What just happened? What does it all mean? How is this episode going to set up the finale? Is that all there is?

I have oodles of faith that the rest of Season 7B will be vastly more enjoyable. The Mad Men premieres have always been weird and uncomfortable and slightly creaky under the weight of theme introduction (remember “The Doorway”?). So let’s talk about this strange episode – its fast-paced structure, strained dialogue, time-jumping, and sense of cheerless nostalgia.

“Severance” followed four major storylines: those of Don, Joan, Peggy, and Ken. Let’s start with the big D.

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The opening scenes give us a full blast of voyeuristic discomfort, without the usual pleasure that used to come with watching Don go all Draper on some girl. It’s an audition for a fur campaign, a very intimate roleplay – and, the camera reveals, it’s happening in front of a roomful of other men. At this, I admit my heart sank. After the tenderness of the 7A finale, I wanted to believe we’d advanced past Don’s super gross side. He’s always needed to dominate and decorate women in order to define himself; this first scene is meant to prepare us for a disappointing Don rewind. It’s an interesting way to begin the half-season; a faithful callback to what we first loved about our protagonist. But now, in 1970, in this clinical brown office, it’s not so sexy anymore. It’s a regression. It’s pathetic and it’s sad.

Don goes through a lot of back-cycling during “Severance.” It’s an episode that interrogates the way he’s built an identity through sex and intimacy, a cobbled-together Perfect Man built from the dreams and projections of so many women, so many loves, so many first kisses.

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Two women from his past confront Don in a compressed period of time. One of them is Rachel Menken – we all remember her from Season 1 (and I screamed out loud when we first saw her because I’d missed her so much) Rachel was the first woman in the series whose emotional magnetism truly prompted Don to consider abandoning his facade and starting anew. She’s a powerful symbol of nostalgia in Mad Men, as it was Rachel’s presence that brought out the Don we first came to love – his iconic poeticism (“Love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”) and his wild romanticism.

But Rachel’s already dead by the time she reappears (in a dream sequence which, no matter how beautifully it’s done, always makes me feel betrayed). Her avatar in Don’s mind is pretty on-the-nose – she smiles mysteriously, glimmers in her fur, and tells him, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” She wasn’t his only chance to live passionately and authentically, but she might have been his first. When Don attempts to reconnect, inspired by his vision, we find out that she’s only just succumbed to leukemia a week before. The cosmic devastation throws Don off for the rest of the episode. He attends shiva at her apartment, struggling to make sense of the loss, staring at her young children knowing that in another life, they could have been his. He’s frightened and needing answers about the coincidence of her reappearance in his subconscious. She was gone as quickly as she returned. Is that all there is?

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Don’s assisted in his existential crisis by a sad-eyed waitress named Di (I mean, talk about on-the-nose). He’s convinced he knows her from somewhere, and they share a soulless quickie behind a diner. Di does look like a lot of girls Don’s pulled over the course of the series – she’s got the hawkish beauty of Midge, the mysticality of Rachel, and the uniform of the dozens of waitresses he’s winked at for decades. For God’s sake, Don’s already shtupped a random flight attendant during the course of this episode! He’s deep in the throes of dark neediness, repeating his romantic cycle. Don doesn’t know Di, but he knows how this starts and how it ends. He’s fucking a memory.

It’s an extremely depressing setup for the rest of 7B.

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Another character who’s grasping for a do-over is Ken Cosgrove, who makes a really welcome return in this episode. The title alludes to Ken’s unceremonious firing by Roger and the head honcho at McCann. Said honcho is an Irish brute named Ferg, who’s long had a professional vendetta against the company-hopping Ken.

Kenny has always been a unique character on which to map the war between creativity and pragmatism. He’s a rare kind soul amongst his colleagues, who hid his idealism and writerly spark in order to advance in the accounts department. Although he’s Head of Accounts, his wife thinks he ought to go back to penning beautiful science fiction novels and leave the ad game altogether. And just as he’s made the decision to bow out gracefully and follow his dream, he’s canned by McCann. Ferg is cruel about it and Roger is cool about it, and both approaches fill the normally level-headed Ken with bewilderment and rage.

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“The life not lived” is Ken’s succinct restatement of Don’s problem (and Peggy’s as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Ken could just walk away from this sour turn of events and begin to build the existence he always wanted – a farm, a family, a writing career. But it turns out that for Ken, the best revenge isn’t living well, or living differently. It’s just revenge. His corporate maneuvering provides the absolutely high point of the episode, a fun bit of comeuppance that’s quick and lively and a phenomenal hint of a very amusing storyline to come.

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Let’s move on to Peggy and Joan.

First of all, Peggy’s on a bit of a backslide as well. She’s back in a mental place of ennui and self-pity – single but too busy to mingle. She’s set up on a date with her coworker Mathis’ brother-in-law. WHO IS BRIAN KRAKOW. PEGGY’S ON A DATE WITH BRIAN KRAKOW. I know the rest of the internet shares my delight.

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It’s a cute storyline, but frankly not one I feel like spending much time on. Their chemistry is easy and fun, and Stevie (that’s his actual name) seems to like Peggy for all her stubbornness and brilliance. It’s nice to see Peggy’s flirty side, because both she and we have forgotten that workplace satisfaction isn’t quite the same as happiness. Her “life not lived” is the life of a girlfriend, a mother, a second fiddle – and although that’s never going to be her style, Peg seems to enjoy roleplaying once in awhile.

Peggy’s trouble in “Severance” stems from the fact that she’s unable to be spontaneous and fly off to Paris with Stevie at a moment’s notice (because her passport is in an office drawer, surprise surprise). She finds every excuse in the book not to trust this stranger or the genuine connection she’s made with him.

It’s hard to be sympathetic towards Peggy, though, because of The Elevator Scene. A watershed moment for the episode.

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Some background: Peggy and Joan are tasked with pitching Topaz pantyhose to their superiors at McCann, who are a bunch of sexist assholes. Their crude jokes are nothing new to these two, but this is the first time they’ve been working together as a team in a professional setting.

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Unsurprisingly, Peggy handles the toxic atmosphere much better than Joan does. She’s been in conference rooms for years enduring similar blows to her dignity, and has learned to emphasize her “masculine” side to cope – more conservative dress, a harder exterior, swift judo chops to halt any small talk.

But that’s simply not the way Joan is built, so to speak; Joan thrives off her own sexuality and finds power in deploying her femininity and emotional instincts in business dealings. We, as fans, love to see Peggy and Joan find common ground and use each other as lifeboats in their male-dominated war ground of an office – but this is 1970. This is not a time when women lived their personal truths in the workplace and lifted one another up. And Peggy and Joan’s heated conversation in the elevator as they leave that meeting is a short, terrible microcosm of that. Peggy basically calls Joan a slut, and Joan tells Peggy she’s too ugly to even be a slut. It’s a saddening interaction that recalls their Season 1 relationship in all the worst ways.

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As a coping mechanism, Joan engages in a little retail therapy – playing up her assets rather than taking Peggy’s harsh advice to hide her curves and bury her sensuality. In this scene, Joan also shows us the narrow gulf between her life and the life she could have lived – as the salesgirl points out, Joan’s spending thousands of dollars in the same dress department she once managed (forced, by her rapey ex-fiance, to quit Sterling Cooper in disgrace). “You must have me confused with someone else,” says Joan coolly. No one’s going to write her story, ever again. Is that all there is? If so, she’s damn well going to be dressed to the nines for it.

Loose ends…

  • I mustache you a question, Roger…WHY?tumblr_nmdab07a401qhmg1fo1_1280
  • Ooh, Pete’s former secretary Clara is now pregnant out of wedlock! Juicy.
  • Speaking of Pete, he’s living a new/old life too. He’s back in New York, and says of his long and lovely LA vacation: “At the time it felt so real…”
  • Ken’s father-in-law Ed (who memorably once told Don that he’d never get hired again after he screwed Philip Morris) has an amazing advertising voice. He could sell me Pop Tarts any day.
  • Stan. Looks. So. ’70s. Hot. That beard is BITCHIN’.

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So, what did you all think of “Severance”? Did you feel confused and kinda bitter (like I did, and apparently the rest of Tumblr)? Did you love the episode? What DOES it all mean?

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Better Call Saul S1E1: “Uno”

Take a drive with me, buddy. Let’s go all the way back.

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Nostalgia is the watchword of Better Call Saul, a really intriguing piece of TV that’s currently tiptoeing into our homes in the too-large shoes of its big brother. Saul is a rewind, a retcon, a strange kinda memory. In this prequel, we get to spend all of our time with Breaking Bad‘s beloved comic relief: the slippery lawyer Saul Goodman, who was once Jimmy McGill. Watching Saul is like seeing your weird uncle in an old family photo, frozen in time and seeming so much more human. It’s also like a comic-book origin story – not about the superhero, but the sidekick.

Better Call Saul is an experiment. It has to be satisfying for Breaking Bad fans, but also stand on its own two feet. It’s got to fabricate an entire history starting in 2002, while remaining steady on a temporal track towards the events of BB, which begin in 2008. This is a really complicated and ambitious conceit for any spinoff, let alone a spinoff of a show with such deep cultural impact and hysterical audience loyalty.

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Based on the first of the two-part premiere – “Uno” – I think it’s all gonna work out just fine.

Part I: “Uno”

First and foremost, “Uno” was an aesthetic statement. This episode reminded me that creators/writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have vision. This episode was striking, both visually and narratively, with a bravely economical script.

You don’t need to look any further than the first quarter of the episode to see what I mean. For the first twenty minutes of the show, there is no dialogue. We open with a very long black-and-white flash-forward to Saul’s post-Breaking Bad existence as a Cinnabon store manager in Omaha*. He wears nondescript eyeglasses and a sad wiry mustache. He kneads dough and stares jumpily at his customers. It’s a colorless life, depicted in noirish high-contrast.

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At night, he drinks a strong, nonsensical cocktail (Dewars and lime juice?) and watches Saul Goodman’s old commercials. It’s a sad image paired with sad sounds: the first person who we hear speaking is effectively dead and exists only on a VHS tape. This is how the show begins: at the end. It’s almost practicing a reverse Breaking Bad: set the stage with tragedy, in order for the comedy to shine brighter.

Which it does.

“Oh, to be 19 again. You with me, ladies and gentlemen? Do you remember 19? Let me tell you. The juices are flowing, the red corpuscles are corpuscling. The grass is green, and it’s soft, and summer’s gonna last forever.”

Those are the first actual words spoken by our protagonist, Jimmy McGill, back in ’02 when Saul begins. He’s attempting to defend, with romantic poetry, three kids who fucked the head of a human cadaver. That’s how someone like Saul Goodman started out. And that makes perfect sense.

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It’s so cool to watch Bob Odenkirk work. He was so larger-than-life as Saul, but as Jimmy, he’s tentative and high-strung. The character hits many of the same neurotic, blustery, salesman-ish notes, but he hits them softer. He’s still trying on his shark suit. Jimmy doesn’t have a secretary – he’s got a fake British accent that he uses to schedule Mr. McGill’s appointments. He doesn’t rumble into his office parking lot in a white Cadillac DeVille – he parks on the street in an incredibly shitty Suzuki Esteem and works in a closet behind a nail salon*. Early on, we watch him try to win a client at a coffee shop, and his anxious face says it all as he watches the guy almost sign the dotted line. Jimmy McGill is a nobody, who’s in the beginning stages of building the persona of a somebody.

I really enjoyed the storyline involving Jimmy and two scam-artist skateboarder brothers, who he meets when they choose him as their mark. Their scheme is this: one guy videotapes while the other deliberately jumps in front of cars and artfully takes a hit. They then extort the driver. Great scene in which the brothers unsuccessfully try to shake Jimmy down:

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This plotline offers us our first small glimmer of Saul Goodman.

In the scammers, Jimmy sees an opportunity for the kind of hybrid criminal/legal partnership which will eventually become his bread and butter. He attempts to inspire his accomplices with a rambling autobiography, puffing himself up as a legal mastermind. He takes them on a drive to test their skill at remembering crime-scene details.* He’s making clients, fabricating advantageous situations out of nothing, which will eventually become Saul’s number one survival skill. It’s a fun way to introduce the methodology of the character, with his first small-time racket.

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I’m also really excited to learn so much more about Jimmy’s brother, Chuck McGill. Much of “Uno” focused on Jimmy’s efforts to force Chuck’s legal practice to buy him out, since Chuck’s dying of cancer. The two brothers live together in Jimmy’s squalid apartment, eating uncooked bacon from a watery cooler and having conversations by the light of portable lanterns. Chuck is played with great aplomb by the timeless Michael McKean, who effortlessly parries with Odenkirk (“That’s correct, minus the sarcasm”). We get some valuable insight into their relationship in their scenes together: Jimmy is protective of Chuck, but also seems a little jealous of his older brother’s success as a partner in a legitimate multi-million-dollar practice.

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Wonderful scenes at that business as well, in which Jimmy grandstands in front of Chuck’s partners. I plan to walk into every room shouting “YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE, AND YOU! WILL! ATONE!” It is so Jimmy/Saul to quote Network and then feel the need to explain that he’s quoting Network. A tic right out of Michael Scott’s playbook.

Also have to mention the beautifully staged moment outside Chuck’s practice, in which Jimmy shares a cigarette with a woman who appears to be a sometime-girlfriend. The shot is dramatically lit and lingers long, allowing us to see subtle changes in the actors’ faces. Great cinematography, which is again unsurprising considering Better Call Saul‘s pedigree. This team has always been amazing at breathing life into bland industrial spaces.

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Anyway, back to the plot. “Uno” ends with a giant bang, as Saul follows his witless skater accomplices into a home that belongs to none other than TUCO SALAMANCA. Tight tight tight tight tight! As a BB fanatic, I was so excited to see Tuco, but we shall see in Part II how gimmicky his inclusion proves to be.

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Lastly, I just have to say that I’m so consistently impressed with this team’s commitment to authenticity when it comes to costuming, hairstyle, even the attractiveness of the extras. Everything about Saul screams early 2000s, and it really makes it easier to accept the show as a prequel when the actors have noticeably aged (I’m looking at you, Mike Ehrmantraut).

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A review of Part II: “Mijo” – up tomorrow!

Random addendums…

  • * I starred every Breaking Bad  nod (excluding Saul’s paycheck, which says he lives on Gale’s street: Juan Tabo). It is a running mental list I am compelled to keep.
  • Obsessed with the Back to the Future tribute, in which the skaters cling to the back of a pickup truck! Was this a reference to the 2015 premiere date? A meta wink to the time travel back to Saul’s beginnings? So brilliant.
  • Wondering if anyone caught Bryan Cranston’s charming Mad Men promo spot during the commercial break.
  • The title card was so very chintzy and analog:
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  • Seriously, that long introduction was so fucking beautiful. I’d almost like to see the whole series in black and white. It would be amazing to see a show someday that’s unafraid to embrace the B&W palette.
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