Playing off Mad Men as a series of object lessons in modernity is like shooting fish in a barrel. Time and time again, the show has justified the utility of its repetition of Don’s moods and fantasies as an evocation of this era. Around him play out the little dramas of an ad agency and its growing wealth. But it has always been clear that whatever transpires in these last few episodes of its run, Mad Men is a work of art extensive in detail while exquisitely focused in scope.
And its scope is the era of social and political transition that academics short-hand as postmodernism. In narrative terms, this is simply that precipice at which we find Don eternally teetering. It is embodied by the show’s attention to changes in set design that have colorfully marked our passage through time. We behold it in the oscillation of Don’s face between chiseled jaw and the sweaty bloat of alcoholic hypotension. It runs through the true soundtrack to the series, a background tapestry of jingles, prime time radio chatter, folk music, and presidential sound bites.
A clip from the intro to great collection After Postmodernism:
“One of the central planks of postmodern theory in its myriad variants was the alleged discovery of the irreducible complexity of the natural and social world, of language and meaning. For some the complexity was such that any attempt to encapsulate it would fail; thus much postmodern theory became content merely to reflect complexity or become complexity itself… This lead to a type of writing, and argumentation, which was rich and seductive, dense almost mystical. A type of writing that celebrated ambiguity, and enthroned irony.”
That last sentence (italics mine) describes Mad Men so well, especially the surrealist experiences that have been creeping in as little psychological eddies in Don’s third person narrative. Many shows and films have been about these conflicts in modernity around the 60s and 70s in the US, but few have been about them so well.
This latest episode ropes us back into the series for its final stretch by thinking of the current status of each key character as a form of “Severance.” We associate the word with the lump sums employees receive if fired or laid off from their job. But if we dig a bit further back into its lexical domain, the word takes on more sinister hues of separations, disconnections, and irreparable ruptures. It seems fairly clear that these last episodes will be dwelling no longer in the causes of these ad agency employees, but their effects. They will get their severance.
For Don, these disconnections and separations have always been front and center. Now in a brief dream sequence, we return to one of his more formative relationships through an appearance of Rachel Katz half-robed in thick fur. As she turns to leave the room, Don gives her a nod and a grin. He tells her that she is “not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth.” End scene.
Soon after this dream, we find out that Rachel has died from leukemia, leaving two young children. When Don goes to pay respects at her shiva, he hears the men begin to pray the kaddish for his long lost love. He has just assured Rachel’s sister that he gets this whole Jewish funeral thing, having lived in New York City for long enough. But the deep, rich murmur then fills the scene, leaving Don visibly numbed. He seems to be struck by an incongruity which has not been lost on the audience. Don is a master of connecting language and image with desire, but this artful way of speaking has its limits – the sting of which are felt in his last words to Rachel: “You are not just smooth, you’re Wilkinson smooth.”
Throughout Mad Men, Don has frequently found himself in the presence of religious language. Whenever this happens, such as with Rachel’s shiva, Don becomes vulnerable. His arrogance eludes him. He is aware that there is a richer, fuller language out there somewhere – he just doesn’t know how to speak it. Its very grammar is obscure to him. All he knows is this hyper-stylized language of the present that makes for good ad copy – or as the intro After Postmodernism describes it, Don responds to the complexity of his own situation by becoming that complexity itself, “rich and seductive.”
Out there, inaccessible to Don, is something much simpler and clearer. Like a kaddish or a psalm. But he is stuck in dark alleys, fornicating with visions of his past.