Every week, 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.
Ezra Klein: Unlike the show's characters, I'm living the life I want to be leading. I am talking about Mad Men with Todd VanDerWerff and Amanda Taub. Seriously, how lucky am I?
What struck me most about "Severance" was its circularity. The episode kept presenting Don with the person he almost was. It begins with him selling furs — just as he did before getting Roger drunk enough to give him a job. It brings back (and kills off) Rachel Menken — and in so doing, confronts Don with another path he nearly took, but didn't.
Todd, your point about essential selves is great, but I might put it a little differently. Mad Men has always been interested, I think, in whether people's essential selves can change. And its answer is typically pessimistic. Don keeps almost changing ... and then giving up. Roger Sterling has changed a lot on the outside — to say nothing of his divorces and hallucinogenic trips — but as his cold termination of Ken proved, he hasn't changed much on the inside. There are times Peggy wants to be another kind of person — by turns, more bohemian or more traditional — but she's still her. And Joan can't escape what her old self did to create her new self.
The one exception to this was the reveal of Ken's new job, which was, for my money, one of the single saddest scenes in the history of Mad Men. We've always been led to believe Ken is cut from a different cloth than the others: an author, a dreamer, a family man, a gentler soul.
But it turns out that he's just a liar — and to himself, above all. All the reasons Ken gave for wanting to do this soul-crushing job were proven to be bullshit. He doesn't need the money. He's not building the firm. He's not seeing where it goes. He just wants to win, and to crush his competitors, just like everyone else. Is Pete Campbell's naked striving really any better than Ken's cold scheming?
In 1970, by the way, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act as well as the Clean Air Bill — two laws that it's hard to imagine even a liberal president signing today. He would go on to propose both a universal health-care law far more sweeping than Obamacare and a guaranteed minimum income. There's another world, not so far from this one, where Nixon is a liberal hero....