The second half of Mad Men’s final season begins with a dark gem of an episode, framed by Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” In case you’re not yet sure where this ride is taking us, Ms. Lee says, “I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames/And when it was over, I said to myself/‘Is that all there is to a fire?’”
It’s April 1970, and Don is restored to his corner office; with him, an ingenue wearing not much more than a $15K chinchilla coat. “You’re not supposed to talk. Just show me how you feel,” he purrs, but this isn’t seduction. Half the males of Sterling Cooper are crammed onto the sofa to ogle their way through casting for a “Wilkinson Smooth” razor campaign. While some things never change, this meeting is fueled by – gasp – coffee and donuts. And with Ted and Pete back in New York, the California Dream appears to be over.
At a diner where Don plays his Dick Whitman childhood for laughs, he becomes fascinated by the waitress Roger mocks for having a copy of Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel in her apron pocket. “Do I know you?” Don asks. By way of apology, Roger pays the $11 tab with a $100 bill. Don’s arm candy for the evening has to drag him away from his contemplation of the waitress (played by the evocative Elizabeth Reaser) on a stool at the counter reading her book.
Don arrives home solo, flips on the lights of his empty apartment, then turns them off again, calls his answering service and arranges a booty call. She enters the bedroom tipsy, wineglass in hand, and splashes an arc of red across the white carpet. She kneels and presses her hands to it, as if to stanch bleeding. But Don covers the stain with the bedspread and pulls her down to him. When she spots an earring hooked in the bed skirt, she laughingly asks if it’s from one of the other women he’s sleeping with. Don says no, it’s from the woman he’s not sleeping with, his ex-wife. (Later he says he’s getting divorced. Marital status: murky.)
Joan, Peggy and Harry meet with Topaz pantyhose to discuss a new competitor with a winning gimmick – Leggs. Joan provides numbers on sales, costs, competitors and trends – not that substantive market research gets her taken seriously. Harry, dubbed Mr. Potato Head by the client, remains underappreciated (and should probably ditch the brown suits).
Peggy’s trip to the coffeemaker lands her an offer from Mathis to set her up with his brother-in-law. Peggy balks – “How could you think this has nothing to do with work?” – and dispenses some hard-won advice: “You want a raise? Stop acting like a secretary.”
Joan and Don discuss Topaz, and he suggests they ask parent company McCann Erickson to make introductions to one of their department store clients so Sterling Cooper can approach them about making Topaz their house brand.
Ken and his wife celebrate her father’s retirement by presenting him with golf clubs from the Sterling Cooper swag closet. Later in the evening, Ken’s wife presses him to leave Sterling Cooper and write his novel, as he’s unhappy at work. She dismisses his excuses for continuing at SC since they don’t need the money: “You gave them your eye, don’t give them your life!”
Peggy and Joan visit McCann Erickson to discuss the Topaz situation. Three McCann goons – er, guys – mercilessly harrass them, especially Joan. They haven’t read the prospectus. They crow about legs being spread around the world and ask Joan why she’s not in the bra business. Peggy and Joan redirect them after every jab, but by the time they reach the elevator, Joan says she wants to burn the place down. Peggy agrees they were awful, but points out that they did get what they came for. When Joan objects, Peggy says Joan must have experienced this before, and can’t have it both ways. (As in, looking great and being treated with respect – no leaning in for Peggy.)
The argument escalates until Peggy trumps all with a jab about Joan’s partnership payout in the sale of SC to McCann: “You know what, you’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” Ouch. On so many levels, ouch.
Meanwhile, a McCann rep demands that Roger fire Ken, allegedly for leaving McCann six years earlier with the $4M Birds Eye account in tow, though it’s really about mutual contempt. Roger offers Ken a generous severance package contingent on helping Pete secure all of Ken’s accounts.
During the hand-over meeting, Ken carps at Pete about his multi-million dollar partner payout and Pete complains about the taxes and other inconveniences of wealth. (We hear you, Dos Passos.) But Ken gets the last laugh when he returns as the newly minted head of advertising for Dow Chemical, making him a Sterling Cooper client.
Ted opens Don’s office door and the next woman in the chinchilla is Rachel Mencken Katz. Don stares as she saunters to the mirror and bares her shoulder, per the storyboard. “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight,” she says. Don thanks her and Pete opens the door as she exits. Don calls her name and she turns. You’re not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth,” he says. Then he wakes up.
Don previously asked Meredith to set a meeting with Rachel Katz at Mencken’s Department Store to talk Topaz pantyhose. Meredith informs Don that she scheduled him with Mr. Rosenthal, as Mrs. Katz stepped down a few months ago and died last week. Don is shaken. He returns to the diner, again asking the waitress if he knows her. She assumes he’s there to cash in on the $100, and heads to the alley for a smoke. Don follows her and they screw against a brick wall, her face contorted with misery.
Back inside, Don sits at the counter, looking like the lost soul he is. “Excuse me, miss, when are you done here?” he asks. She tells him he’s had his $100 worth and can go.
Peggy tells Mathis her plans have changed, and she’d love to meet his brother-in-law. On their dinner date, Peggy is prickly, guard up; Stevie finally gets past her defenses by telling her Mathis described her as “funny … and fearless.” Wine flows, and Peggy looks headed for a one-nighter – or the next flight to Paris. At her apartment, she fumbles through drawers for her passport as Stevie works seduction magic. But Peggy stops him. She thinks he might be “more,” and doesn’t want to sleep with him on the night they met. Stevie tells her it’s old fashioned. “I’ve tried new-fashioned,” adorably drunky Peggy confides. He appears smitten and agrees to call her when he returns from DC.
Don arrives at the Katz apartment as mourners are sitting shiva. Rachel’s sister Knows Who He Is and, after explaining that Rachel died of leukemia, spitefully assures Don, “She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.”
At the office, Meredith hands Don the Mencken folder for an early Monday meeting with Mr. Rosenthal about Topaz. Don leaves and returns to the diner. The waitress tells him it’s not going to happen again, but he describes dreaming of Rachel then learning of her death. She tells him after someone dies, you want to make sense out of it, but you can’t. Don says he just wants to sit here.
He takes a seat at the counter as the camera pulls back, and Peggy Lee says she’s not ready for that final disappointment. “Is that all there is?” she croons.
No, but the end of an era feels all too near.
Mad Men airs Sundays on AMC.