The Necessity of Letting Go, of Severance, in a Life Well Lived: Mad Men Returns With a Message

This publicity photo provided by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene of "Mad Men," Season 6, Episode 2. “Mad Men”
This publicity photo provided by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene of "Mad Men," Season 6, Episode 2. “Mad Men” returns for its sixth season Sunday, April 7, 2013, on AMC with 13 new episodes. Series Creator Matthew Weiner says he plans one more season for the 1960s drama. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)

Many may have been too full of family, Easter eggs and Manischewitz to have been able to end the drought of life without Mad Men. Therefore, I offer both a spoiler alert and promise that although I will discuss Sunday evening's banquet of "Severance," the title given this episode, I will do my best not to give away the plot.

The song of this episode, interwoven with skill and foreshadowing, is Peggy Lee's haunting, "Is That All There Is?" The underlying theme echoed is the necessity of endings -- of 'letting go,' of severance, in all lives lived well. The importance of cutting ties in this episode focuses on lives devoid of trusting contacts and meaningful work -- lives of consuming denial, endless manipulation and superficial seduction.

This theme is the continuance of the singing telegram from a deceased Bert Cooper to Don, a song and dance routine,"The Best Things in Life Are Free," seen at the conclusion of the episode leading to our Mad Men intermission. The "Severance" segment underscores two psychological principles that allow the "Best Things" to become ours: an understanding that without risk there is no life, and that without endings there cannot be wise beginnings.

The last words Bert spoke prior to his death, "Bravo," were a response to the first steps taken on the moon, but also were intended to speak of the magnificence of life itself, and the necessity of risk for fulfillment. Don's experience with Bert was not presented as a psychotic episode, but as a fantasy, one that can lead to insight, however painful. One could also view this experience, as well as many seen on Sunday evening, as the beginning of a spiritual awakening of several caught in a meaningless 24/7 world. There is also more than the hint of a question: "Is there a Force beyond us all?"

Following are a few illustrative examples which provide provocative food for thought:

1. Peggy, in an aqua dress and matching coat, looks radiantly beautiful and sensual in a scene after a romantic interlude that may have promise, if she can allow herself spontaneity and the ability to trust her feelings about a potentially fulfilling relationship. Peggy does not realize her guilt about her pregnancy, birth, and loss of a child. Nor has she worked through her anger at Pete, for having sex with her and then discarding her. Theirs was the sexual experience, most likely Peggy's first, that led to her pregnancy. Will these traumatic episodes finally be addressed in the depth they deserve?

2. Don is haunted by the vision of the mature, beautiful, loving Rachel Menken, which is developed with the sad understanding that this was a lost love with enormous promise, one he rejected due to his own self-hate, for reasons explored throughout this series. Without going into detail, there is a replacement Rachel, one who seems to understand Don extremely well. The woman, a reminder of someone very familiar and important to Don, offers wisdom, after an electric connection, but paints herself as unavailable. Who is she? What role will she play in Don's life?

3. Joan, who is sexually taunted and emotionally abused, as she and Peggy work together to land an account, takes steps to take herself more seriously. (Peggy urges her to face certain truths about herself in an angry confrontation.) Like many of her colleagues, Joan has been plagued by self-doubt and self-hate, and has allowed herself to be demeaned again and again. She has seen this as her only road to survive. There is her child, fathered by Roger. There was the husband she finally left, who raped her before their marriage. There was her decision to prostitute herself for Sterling Cooper. In "Severance" there is her growing realization that she, that all women, must have respect to move forward in life and in love, and that this respect must begin with self-respect. How will Joan move forward? Where will she take her life, rather than allow herself to be manipulated and abused by others?

4. Ken's wife, who angrily urges him to finally set himself free and write seriously, tells him that giving his eye (in a scene without his patch) was surely enough in his relationship with Sterling Cooper. This confrontation leads to Ken's questioning the true meaning of coincidence, as he faces the possibility of leaving depletion behind. Ken's severance involves money rejected on one level, and then his expression of sweet revenge.

There are only a few hours left to continue to experience the severance of Mad Men's dimensional characters with each other and with us. As our ending nears, millions are hoping that mature, passionate connections and expressions, in love and in work, offer this response to Peggy Lee's haunting question, "Is that all there is?" -- "Hell, no! There is much, much more."