This post contains spoilers about last night’s Mad Men season premiere.
Don Draper’s a gifted storyteller, a lousy husband, a mesmerizing lover, a capricious boss. He’s also our bridge to the netherworld, given his shamanic ability to see and occasionally communicate with dead people. That ability was back again on “Severance,” this time providing dream visions of Rachel Menken, perhaps the most significant of all of Don’s romantic partners. “She had the life she wanted,” Rachel’s sister told Don. “Good,” he replied. But he could have said, “Wow, what’s that like?” Or he could have said, “I tried that, too.”
Don’s already living the life of a dead man, given that he has a dead man’s identity. He watched the real Don Draper die, and then he killed — “killed” — Dick Whitman instead. Not to be a fairy-tale witch here, but that comes at a cost, and for Don (our Don, not the real dead Don), that cost is that he never gets to be quite as alive as other people do. He’s so sad, even when he’s happy. And he never gets to not think about dying. It’s his Franny and Zooey–style constant prayer: I’m going to die; I’m going to die; I’m going to die. He’s a little bit dead already, and so every once in a while, he sees a fellow cadaver.
Don’s significant ghostly visitations begin in “The Suitcase,” when a translucent Anna Draper passes through Don’s office; she’s smiling and able-bodied, and she’s carrying, yes, a suitcase. On the one hand, this is classic ghost stuff: You can see through her! She doesn’t acknowledge Don! She’s simply passing through! She’s not completely incorporeal, though, because we hear her footsteps as she approaches Don’s office. We know that Anna is a polio survivor, and the last time Don saw her, her leg was in a cast and she was using a cane. For Anna Draper, an unencumbered gait is a big deal, and so when her niece Stephanie weakly tells Don that Anna “is in a better place” — an idea Don scoffs at — it seems like we’re supposed to believe that that’s true. We heard her and saw her, and she seemed like she was doing great.
But Don and Anna don’t have any unfinished business. The grief is substantial, but it’s not the same kind of “what-if” torture that Don has over Adam’s death — this is where Don’s visions get more complicated. These ghosts give Don the advice he needs, but doesn’t want.
In season five’s “The Phantom,” Don’s reeling from Lane’s recent suicide, and the thing about unprocessed grief is that new grief reawakens it. While Don is grieving Lane, he’s re-grieving Adam, too: both suicides, both hangings, both very soon after significant and damaging conversations with Don. Don spots Adam getting into an elevator at the SCDP offices, and sees him out of the corner of his eye. It’s not until Don finally goes to the dentist that vision-Adam confronts him. Don had been putting off dealing with his “hot tooth” for a few days, and his dentist admonishes him, saying he could have lost part of his jaw. He gives Don anesthesia, and then Adam appears — bruised neck visible. “You’re in bad shape, Dick,” he says brightly. He jokes about having hanged himself, and then looks squarely at Don: “I’m gonna do you a favor and take it out, but it’s not your tooth that’s rotten.”
Oh. Well, then. What is rotten, Adam? What is rotten, Don? Megan, mostly, but what else? In his haze, a wounded and vulnerable Don pleads, “Don’t leave me.” It’s one of the saddest moments in the whole series, especially because we know that Adam didn’t leave Don — Don left Adam, and more than once. Something about you is rotten, Don. Do you think it can be excised?
Don has flashbacks and projections throughout the series, like when he imagines his family at home waiting for him in the season-one finale, “The Wheel,” or in season three’s “Seven Twenty Three,” when Archibald Whitman appears in the corner of a hotel room just before two drifters mug Don. And he’s not the only one to whom ghosts give unwanted but relevant advice. Betty even gets a dose of it in “The Fog.” While under sedation delivering baby Gene, Betty sees her father and mother and the recently assassinated Medgar Evers. (Betty actually has another vision, in “Tea Leaves,” of what her family will do on the day of her funeral. It’s brief.) “You’re a house cat,” her father tells her. “You’re very important, and you have little to do.” How can Betty assemble a coherent identity when that’s how her own father sees her? It’s a cutting and yet accurate assessment of the life Betty’s leading, a life she doesn’t want and doesn’t like. So is that her father who’s pushing Betty into a different life, though, or simply Betty’s subconscious? Maybe it’s both. By the end of season three, she’s on a plane to Reno to get a divorce.
These apparitions keep telling folks exactly what they don’t want to hear. In season seven’s “Waterloo,” Bert Cooper dies — less tragically than Adam or Lane, but all death is disorienting, and Bert’s death has the added chaos of destabilizing the agency. Don seems almost blissed out when Bert appears to him, particularly as Bert starts dancing and singing, “The best things in life are free.” How charming.
But it’s advice Don doesn’t know how to accept at the moment, because Don just left a meeting where he convinced Ted to kill himself. Well, not exactly, but not not exactly. “If I sign a contract for five years, that’ll be the rest of my life,” Ted announced to the other partners, and he seemed perfectly earnest. He wanted out, and for plenty of good reasons. Yet Don sucked him back in, convincing Ted it was for his benefit. “I really lost this last year, and I realized I would do anything to get back in,” Don says. Dude, that’s what you realized? That you missed the joys of advertising? Don didn’t realize he’d been doing a terrible job raising his children (like when Sally caught him with Sylvia Rosen), or that he’d been a C-minus husband to Megan (who thanklessly orchestrated a threesome for him), or that trying to screw over Lou Avery wasn’t much of a prize at all. Don knows how to sell stuff, though, any stuff, any idea, and dopey Ted gets sold on remaining at the agency.
The best things in life are free, but Don doesn’t want to think about that. And yet as he looks at the mustachioed Ted on last night’s “Severance,” it’s not with admiration or companionship. Ted’s pretty clearly single, and he wants to party, and Don looks at him with a little pity, a lot of self-recognition — and a hint of guilt. Congratulations, Don. You made another Don.
All of “Severance” is about narrowly missing something — being close, but not quite. “Want to hear something spooky?” Ken asks Don. He was about to quit, and he got fired! Pete admits that his life in California was as impermanent as a dream. “At the time, it felt so real,” he waxes. Mathis is Johnny Mathis, but not that Johnny Mathis. Don agrees to be in the minyan, but he can’t be, because he’s not Jewish. Peggy and Stevie are going to Paris right now! Or, actually, maybe in two weeks. “You’re trying to give me stuff we don’t even have anymore,” Pete says to Ken. “I thought I’d die, but I didn’t,” Peggy Lee sings. Everything is so close. Don’t I know you from somewhere? You seem so familiar.
Which brings us to Rachel Menken. She comes to Don in a dream, while he’s completely sauced and passed out with his arms around a flight attendant. “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight,” she says. Oh gee, did he? Did he miss his flight? Hint: His flight is his life, and yeah, he’s missing it. Try to catch the next one, Don.