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This year's first Mad Men episode poses the fundamental question: Are you living the life you want to live?

TV Review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘Severance’ – The Growth Process

This year’s first Mad Men episode poses a fundamental question: Are you living the life you want to live? Several characters – notably Ken, Peggy, and good old Don – confront this question in their own lives. What’s interesting to me is how closely their success or failure in making a change parallels their personal growth process.

By far, the most successful life-changer in this episode is accounts man Ken Cosgrove. Ken’s father-in-law, Ed, is retiring from a long and successful career at Dow Chemical, a corporate client of Sterling Cooper & Partners. After explaining the executive shuffle taking place at Dow because he’s leaving, Ed sits with his new wife and talks enthusiastically to daughter Cynthia and Ken about his future – doing things he’s truly excited about doing (such as learning to cook Pop Tarts), now that he finally has a chance to live a better life.

That night, Ken can’t sleep. Cynthia comes out to find him and tells him that he, too, needs to start living his dreams. She tells him his heart isn’t in his work and that, given her family’s wealth, there’s enough money for him to quit his job now instead of waiting for retirement. But when she suggests that he can buy a farm and write a book, Cynthia is met with defensiveness. “Why don’t you write a book!” he snaps.

Nevertheless, her words seem to sink in because the next day, Ken decides to walk to work just for the fun of it, although it makes him late for work. His secretary, Shirley, immediately instructs him to meet with Roger and Ferguson, an executive from McCann. Now that his father-in-law is no loMM_Roger&Ferg fire Kennger with Dow, Roger explains, Ken is fired – and both men insult him personally as they deliver the news. Ken ignores the insults and tries to reason with them but soon accepts the fact that his job is gone and that he has to turn all his accounts over to Pete, his rival.

MM_Ken fired_tells DonNext Ken catches Don on his way in to the office and confides his predicament. “Don, do you want to hear something spooky? My father-in-law retires, my wife tells me to quit my job, and I think I was going to do it. And the very next day they fire me. That’s not a coincidence, that’s a sign…a sign of the life not lived.” Ken’s positive sense of wonder takes Don by surprise.

Later in the episode, Ken strides uninvited into a private business meeting between Roger and Pete. There he announces that he won’t be needing the severance package Roger offered him because he’s just been named Head of Advertising at Dow Chemical – overseeing the work of SC&P. “So you’re going to fire us?” Pete guesses. “No,” Ken replies with a grin, “It’s going to be way worse.” And he promises to be a very difficult client to please.

How much of Ken’s career and power victory has to do with his growth process vs. simply his family connections? From a mystical standpoint (such as Jungian synchronicity or karma) it’s hard to say. But regardless of cause and effect, the growth steps he takes, as I see them, are classic.

1. He ponders a problem. He’s bored and unhappy with his job.

2. He considers possible solutions. He rethinks his career, takes in feedback and suggestions, and keeps his thinking fluid: Does he really have to stay at Sterling Cooper & Partners? Should he quit, buy a farm, and write a book? Should he get another job?

3. He turns negatives into positives. He gets defensive about change, as most people would, but then shakes it off; he doesn’t allow the naysayers to bother him too much; he experiences bitterness about handing his accounts to Pete but doesn’t dwell on it; and he responds to life’s bad surprises by “reading” these events as meaningful and positive messages.

4. He identifies a clear next step on the path to living the life he wants. The offer he receives to lead Dow’s Advertising Department is a definite career boost. He may continue to dream of one day owning a farm and writing a book, but the Dow position is perfect for him at this stage because he isn’t prepared to accept defeat in his business career.

5. He takes that step unequivocally.

In her own way, Peggy follows these growth steps, too, at least to a point. The problem she ponders is her loneliness. When her creative subordinate Mathis invites her to dinner along with his wife and his brother-in-law Stevie, she turns down the invitation almost reflexively. Yet his idea subconsciously works to broaden her concept of what her life could be. Soon she reconsiders the invitation, MM_Peggy dates Stevieadmitting to herself that a love relationship would make her life better and more fulfilling. Later, on a date with just the two of them, Peggy and Stevie start having a whole lot of fun, partly because of his super sweet personality and partly because she drinks enough alcohol to quiet the negative voices in her mind. Liquored up fearless, she proposes that the two of them fly to Paris together that very night. Though job hunting at the time, Stevie considers this crazy move for a near-future weekend, just because he’s so into her.

Alas, by the next morning Peggy’s hangover brings her down. At work, Mathis and Stan tease and encourage her for having a good time the night before, but she reports that she drank too much wine and embarrassed herself, she won’t get on a plane with someone she barely knows, and the whole situation can be fixed by taking a couple of aspirin to clear her head. For her, what blocks her growth seems to be an inability to combat all the negative stories that imprison her mind.

Finally, Don’s growth process is less obvious but equally intriguing. Don is a truth seeker, and the problem he continually ponders, however subconsciously, is the quest for deeper understanding about who he truly is. The solutions he considers usually involve obtaining feedback from others, especially by relating to women sexually to gain their keenest perceptions and feedback about him on whatever level each woman offers.

Naturally, some women have helped him much more than others in his self-knowledge quest, and his interest in a woman or lack thereof generally parallels her ability/willingness to share her helpful insights with him. (For the record, his career as an ad man involves that same quest turned outward – the quest to understand human nature [partly through understanding his own nature and the true nature of the women in his life] and therefore to be able to develop ads that appeal to men and women on a deeper level.)

MM_Don&Roger w.hookersDon has no problem with negative self-talk when it comes to his truth-seeking methods; if anything, he gives himself too much of a green light to explore his identity issues with women of all stripes, from hookers to flight attendants on layover, to local waitresses, to his own secretaries, professional coworkers, or even clients like Rachel Mencken from Season 1. He consistently takes unequivocal, although not always effective, steps in his effort to grow in self-knowledge, unencumbered by self-censuring.

In this episode, Don associates with several women but is influenced by two: the late Rachel MenckenMM_Don&Rachel Season 1 and a waitress at a local restaurant who helps him sort out his thoughts and feelings about Rachel. These influences represent small steps in Don’s ambitious lifelong journey toward self-knowledge.

When he learns of the death of Rachel, a woman whose keen insights had affected and impressed him greatly, Don is stunned. Back then, Rachel rejected him for his lack of maturity – a/k/a his outstanding growth needs – and Don felt he lost a part of himself or his potential for her further growth guidance when she severed their relationship. He felt that he failed with her and was left with the lingering sense that he wished he was up to her level.

In this episode he tries to attend the post-funeral shivah to pay his respects and offer a cake, only to be stopped at the door by Rachel’s sister, Barbara. Barbara politely asks Don how his family is, and he admits that he got divorced and is now divorcing a second time, much to Barbara’s silent disapproval. Subtly suggesting that Don go away, Barbara informs him stiffly that Rachel died of leukemia but lived the life she waMM_Don at Rachel's shivahnted to live, and that she had everything. In this exchange, Don fails to demonstrate the level of growth that Rachel’s stand-in, Barbara, finds acceptable. Mixed in with a jumble of memories, genuine sadness for Rachel’s passing appears on Don’s face as he looks across the room before leaving, and it seems as though he’s trying to grow by attempting to come to terms with the experience.

In another scene, Don visits a small local restaurant and initiates a crude, random sexual encounter with Di, one of the waitresses. “Do I know you from somewhere?” he asks her more than once. Yet maybe Don senses that this woman has an important truth to share with him, because by the end of the episode, he tells her of a dream he had abMM_Waitress 7.8out Rachel just prior to learning of her death. Di responds: “Is that who you think I am?” Then Di warns Don that, when people in your life die, everything gets mixed up. Di’s wisdom helps Don understand himself in the moment, giving him a modicum of success in his lifelong search for self-understanding.

This Mad Men episode is so richly interesting that it’s tempting to write extensive articles on it from multiple angles – such as women’s sexual harassment, the male power structure of the 1960s, and dreams versus reality. Further, it would be fun to write a piece about the paradoxical messages of that wonderful song sung by Peggy Lee: Is That All There Is? – a song edited and interspersed throughout the program that reflects both a sense of loss and a sense of victory.

Will Ken’s newfound power erode his personality? Will Peggy give love another chance? Will Don ever find the self-knowledge he seeks? Be sure to mark your calendar for the next episode of Mad Men this Sunday night, 10/9c on AMC.

 

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About Karen Field Bolek

Karen is the author of 'How to Apologize to Your Woman...so that she won't use it against you in the future.' Her book was named one of two finalists for the Relationships category of the 2012 Indie Excellence Awards. It has also been endorsed by Mars/Venus author John Gray. Karen holds a Master of Liberal Studies degree from Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois.

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