"Is That All There Is?"
You'd be hard-pressed to find a harder-working song for a TV show than the angsty Peggy Lee ballad that struts into the opening moments of the final seven episodes of "Mad Men." Yes, the tale of a cosmically unimpressed woman is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the end of the show's run. Yes, the singer is resigned, disillusioned, sighing an epic sigh. And, yes, the lyric nods to a central theme, if not core tenet, of the show -- people don't really change, even when the decade does.
The second half of the final season of "Mad Men" takes us to April 1970, though you'd only be able to tell that if you bothered to hunt down the Nixon TV address announcing a U.S. invasion of Cambodia or know a scary lot about L'eggs. The action more suggests the passing of time, with touches like new, full mustaches, than broadcasts it. Bert Cooper's death is nearly a year in the rear-view, as is the sale of 51% of Sterling Cooper & Partners to McCann-Erickson. That relationship apparently is turning out touchier than was promised.
We meet Don in a carefully-crafted is-it-or-isn't-it scene, him directing a swoony young woman to, uh, really, really appreciate the fur she's wearing. It's pervy and creepy and unsettling. Part of the "Mad Men" wizardry is that you know it's part of an ad -- and yet, you don't quite know for sure until the camera pulls back to reveal she's just one in a line of models auditioning for a role.
What does it all mean? A lot more than you might think.
A fur isn't just a fur in "Mad Men." Sure it's a symbol of the booming post-war decades that would come to a halt in the 1970s, but it's also a key part of Draper origin story. Though it's not mentioned in the episode, Don started out as salesman and in-house copywriter for a fur shop. It was there that he met both his mentor, Roger Sterling, and his future ex-wife, Betty. This matters because decades and many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars later, nothing has changed. He's still hawking the overpriced pelts of dead animals.
In other words, once a fur salesman, always a fur salesman.
Don himself is back in control at the agency and, after hours, he's in full-on wolf mode. His marriage to Megan is ending and he's hitting the town and, of course, the bottle. It's a simple existence of models, stewardesses and actresses, but one that's doomed to get complicated, thanks mainly to a pesky unconscious that just won't let a playa play.
Responsibility comes to Don in a dream, but not in the form of the wives he's disappointed or the children he's all but abandoned. Rather, it's a road-not-taken relationship that hits him square in his soul. "This is another girl," says dream-state Ted Chaough, as though introducing another model. He opens the door to reveal Rachel Katz nee Menken, who is anything but another girl in the Draper canon. Rachel, you'll remember, is a season-one fling, a department store owner who ended up rejecting a desperate Don as he tried to jump out of the flaming wreck of his life.
In "Mad Men" years, those words were uttered the better part of a decade ago. In the meantime, Rachel got married and had two kids, crafting, by all appearances, a happy life. Rachel's only words in the dream are "I'm supposed to tell you you missed your flight."
Indeed. Rachel, we learn, died recently, a loss that shakes Don. When he pops by her shiva, her sister seems both intrigued and revolted by his appearance. "She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything." So what he missed, maybe, was a chance at a certain kind of happiness.
But with what we know about Draper, happiness was probably a long shot, and it's this knowledge that makes the Rachel subplot feel a bit forced. Is Don really that obtuse when it comes to himself? After all, hindsight should probably be telling Don that he only crawled to Rachel because his life was a mess. Even Rachel herself knew this. As she told him back then, "You don't want to run away with me. You just want to run away."
The subplot is elevated a bit by a series of odd encounters with a bedraggled waitress at a grimy diner. In the first, Don recognizes a figure that's uncanny, in the Freudian sense of the term: frightening but familiar. In the second visit he gives her an alleyway rogering paid for by the c-note Sterling left behind in the first visit. In the third he tries to connect her to Rachel, but the waitress turns him away, saying, "Someone dies, you just want to make sense of it, but you can't."
She tells him to stop creeping on her and the episode ends with Don looking forlorn in a tableau that could be inspired by "Nighthawks." It's feels at once vaguely pointless and turgid with meaning and rather inscrutable. For instance, she's reading "The 42nd Parallel," part of an epic critique of capitalism by John Dos Passos. The easy read is that she's some sort of stand-in for an underclass from which Draper emerged. He seems comfortable now discussing his poor upbringing, regaling his diner companions with tales of Uncle Mac and Stepmom Abigail and an exploding toaster. Says Sterling, "He likes to tell people how poor he was. He's not any more."
But interpretation is too easy. Even what the Dos Passos book stands for isn't clear. "The 42nd Parallel" was published in 1930, but by 1970 Dos Passos had already traded in his revolutionary stripes to support the likes of Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and last but not least Nixon.
There's a strong sense throughout the episode that time is running out -- and not just for Don. Joan is still struggling with being taken seriously, indulging in some heavy retail therapy after a rather cartoonish meeting with some sexist slobs at Marshall Field.
There's an actual missed flight for unlucky-at-love Peggy. A blind date (with a lawyer played by Devon Gummersall of "My So Called Life" fame) set up by one of her uber-dork writers turns hot and heavy. An on-the-spot decision to fly to Paris is dashed when she can't find her passport. Ken Cosgrove is thinking about quitting to go back to writing when he's unceremoniously fired by Sterling, who's under the thumb of McCann-Erickson. Thinking of quitting before getting fired isn't "a coincidence," he tells Don. "That's a sign of the life not lived."
Rather than take the idyllic path, however, Cosgrove does an about face and decides to take a top advertising job at Dow Chemical, thus becoming a (certain to be vengeful) client of SC&P. This, despite Dow being, in Cosgrove's words, a "giant machine that makes weapons and poison."
"Mad Men" doesn't make exegesis easy. It's enough to lead a recapper to join with Peggy Lee and sing, "Let's break out the booze and have a ball/If that's all there is."
L'eggs historical footnote
The reason that Don reached out to Rachel was because an SC&P client, the fictional pantyhose-maker Topaz, had its, well, pantyhose in a bunch because of an upstart brand, the very real L'eggs. L'eggs actually did hit the markets around April 1970 and it was tested with big budgets in four markets. What the show doesn't mention, understandably, is the backstory of how the brand came together, with the help of Dancer Fitzgerald. While the iconic packaging -- an egg! -- might have seemed inevitable, it wasn't, according to the New York Times:
The agency toyed for quite a while with the idea of using cans. What could be more appropriate for a supermarket? That didn't seem to work out, though, and the next idea was eggs. Bingo! A plastic egg with a color-coded detachable collar was developed.