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The one scene that explains the Mad Men premiere

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) may be stylish, but he's also confronting the specter of the life not lived.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) may be stylish, but he's also confronting the specter of the life not lived.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has said that if you listen to the lyrics of Nancy Sinatra's "You Only Live Twice" — the song that closes out the show's magnificent fifth season — you'll learn so much about the characters and the show. (Originally, he was going to close the pilot with the song.)

The song's chorus might as well double for every character on Mad Men at one point or another. Sinatra sings:

"You only live twice
Or so it seems
One life for yourself
And one for your dreams."

That's particularly true of every character in the seventh-season midseason premiere episode, "Severance," which first aired Sunday, April 5. The episode was written by Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher.

When it comes to the major theme of each episode, Mad Men almost always has a scene or two in which it has the characters spell out that episode's message, whether subtly or with a sledgehammer. (The characters almost always miss the point, which is one of the things that makes the show work so well.) But "Severance" has a host of scenes where the characters talk about that second life they never got to live, the one for their dreams.

Ken Cosgrove and the life not lived

If there's one scene in "Severance" that hits this point the hardest, it's a short conversation between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). Don has recently learned that a former lover, Rachel Menken, has died. Ken, meanwhile, has just been fired.

The two encounter each other just outside the Sterling Cooper & Partners office. As Don walks into work, he sees Ken sitting in a phone booth near the front door, unable to haul himself across the threshold to deal with the final bits of business from his removal. Because Don is standing and Ken is sitting, Don has all of the power within the frame. (Generally speaking, we subconsciously perceive people with higher or taller positions within the frame to be in "control" of the scene, something that skillful directors play with and subvert.)

Don (Jon Hamm) has a more dominant position within the frame over Ken (Aaron Staton) on the Mad Men episode "Severance."


What's interesting here is that Ken represents that old dream of having the freedom to leave behind the workaday world and head off to pursue some lofty goal. Thanks to his severance package (note the title), he has all the money he needs to move to the woods in Vermont and write that novel he's been talking about writing all series. He even has the support of his wife to do just that.

And here's the thing: we have a reasonable expectation that Ken will succeed at this goal. Way back in season one, he got a short story published, and he's continued his writing career by writing science fiction stories under a pseudonym. He and his wife have one of the more functional marriages on the show, and he's got the support of family as well. Ken is well-positioned to write the Great American Novel.

And yet Hornbacher's framing makes clear he has none of the power here. Even when he literally says the words "the life not lived," he looks more anxious than relieved. He says one thing, while his body indicates quite another.

Look at how nervous Ken (Aaron Staton) seems on the Mad Men episode "Severance."


He plays this off as being nervous about going into the office one last time, but later events will give the lie to this. Ken, see, is going to get yet another job in advertising later in the episode. He won't live the life not lived, because the life he's already living possesses just that strong a hold over him.

Or you could tell that just by looking at this scene, because Don (who spent the first half of the season fighting to keep his job and generally represents the status quo) is positioned to dominate the frame. We're always looking up at him, roughly from Ken's point of view.

Whereas Don (Jon Hamm) looks cool and collected in the Mad Men episode "Severance."


The message couldn't be clearer. The dream of the life not lived is a potent one, but it's usually just that — a dream.

Want to hear something spooky?

Then again, dream logic permeates both this sequence and this episode. The first time I watched it, I expected several different scenes to be revealed as dreams, until they weren't.

Instead, the only actual dream sequence in the episode involves Rachel (Maggie Siff), who turns out to be a ghost.

Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) visits Don in a dream in the Mad Men episode "Severance."


That's why it's significant that Don is the other half of this conversation with Ken. When Ken asks Don if he wants to hear something spooky, then talks about how his wife told him to quit his job the day before he was fired, it resonates with how Don had his dream about Rachel a day before he found out she had died. It seems almost as if the future has been predicted, or at least presaged.

But that's not quite the case, of course. Ken and his wife probably had frequent conversations about how he had to leave his job if he was that unhappy at it, while Don probably dreamed about Rachel all the time (as one minor character suggests to him). Coincidence becomes evidence of some sort of supernatural guidance, when it should really just be seen as uncanny timing.

But there's still something to this. Ken will be haunted by the life he's not living in the wilds of Vermont for the rest of his life, probably, but it's still a life he could theoretically pursue until he dies. There's still the chance that he drops advertising and races off to finish his novel.

Don, however, can only be haunted by the life not lived. He ditched the life of Dick Whitman, and he could never commit to Rachel to the degree that she would have needed. She went on to have a family with another man, and Don has an empty apartment and a life of half-starts.

So instead of this ...

Look at how Rachel's apartment is full of people mourning her death in the Mad Men episode "Severance."


He has this ...

Don's apartment is an empty, foreboding space in the Mad Men episode "Severance."


Is it any wonder that when he leaves his talk with Ken, he looks so troubled? The life not lived isn't just something Don thinks about from time to time. It's the devil on his shoulder, goading him on about everything he's lost.

Don (Jon Hamm) looks worried in the Mad Men episode "Severance."


New episodes of Mad Men air Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on AMC. Previous seasons are available on Netflix. Keep watching Vox for a conversation among Todd VanDerWerff, Ezra Klein, and Amanda Taub about the latest episode.

Read our complete coverage of the final season.

Next: A bad episode, but a necessary one.