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Vox talks Mad Men: Even Richard Nixon isn’t living the life he wants to

Left unexplored in this discussion: the status of Roger Sterling's amazing, '70s relief pitcher mustache.
Left unexplored in this discussion: the status of Roger Sterling's amazing, '70s relief pitcher mustache.
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.

Every week, Vox culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by editor-in-chief Ezra Klein and foreign policy writer Amanda Taub.

Todd VanDerWerff: I'm thrilled to be discussing this final Mad Men premiere with you, Ezra and Amanda. Now I have just one question for you: are you living the life you want to be living?

It's a question that haunts almost every character who appears in "Severance," even if it's only in the abstract. Pete Campbell, for instance, doesn't quite seem to grasp the full significance of this primal query, even if he realizes on some level that he's unfulfilled.

But that's also one of the questions at the very center of Mad Men. What are you going to do with this gaping void at the center of your life? How can you possibly fill it?

The irony, of course, is that these people are all tasked with making others ignore their own voids. The more that these ad men can introduce various products and services as the thing that will "cure" the emptiness, the more of those products will be sold, and the more business they'll attract. They're selling a series of lies, but they're also lies these characters have come to believe on some level.

You've remarked to me, Amanda, that Mad Men is rarely all that subtle when it comes to its themes, and that's often true. There's usually a scene or two in every episode in which the characters earnestly explain to one another the thing you are supposed to take away from that week's episode.

But this episode was filled with moments like that. Ken wonders if he shouldn't go off and live in the wilderness to write that novel. Peggy thinks maybe she shouldn't work so much and take a trip to Paris (with My So-Called Life's Brian Krakow!). Joan, who actually is living some version of the life she might want to live, will always be haunted by what she did to get there and by how nobody takes her seriously. And Pete probably just misses California.

Or, as Peggy Lee keeps asking in the song that recurs throughout the episode: "Is that all there is?"

It's Don who's most haunted, though, because it's always Don who's most haunted. Like, in this case, by a literal ghost.

Rachel Menken, as it turns out, died a week before the beginning of this episode (which takes place in April 1970). She leaves behind a family, including two children, along with a room full of mourners. Don, whose apartment now sits half-empty, in a kind of permanent transitory state between lovers, is very much an outsider among her mourners as they sit shiva. And of course Don doesn't belong here. The only thing Don can't stand is permanence.

Normally, I'm wary of these sorts of suggestions that the one thing the workaholic needs is to spend more time with family. But I think Matt Weiner (who wrote this episode) and Scott Hornbacher (who directed) are after something else entirely. What you need most in life is that which draws you closer to your essential self, away from the superficial and toward that which is real, non-ephemeral. For Ken, that's his writing. For Peggy, it's admitting how much she likes what she does. And for Don, yeah, that's probably his family (who sat this episode out).

Don dreams of Rachel, then, because she's always been a symbol of the life he could have. In season one, she was the opposite of Betty, cool and worldly and independent. Now, however, her life is the opposite of the one he's lived over the past 10 years, and it's a life he's forever locked out of. Maybe he dreamed about her all the time.

You know who else is dreaming of a life he'd rather be leading? Richard Nixon, who starts pulling troops out of Vietnam, then immediately reverses that order. I suspect one of you will be better able to fill me in on how this episode's political and historical milieus inform what's happening to Don and company. Just six episodes left!

Read the recap.

Next: Ezra Klein on one of the series' saddest scenes.