Mad Men and Peggy Lee Prove That’s Not Quite All There Is

By  · Published on April 6th, 2015


In 1896, Thomas Mann put the finishing touches on a short story titled “Disillusionment” (or, in Mann’s native German, “Enttäuschung”). In the story, the narrator meets a man in Venice’s Piazza di San Marco; an older gentleman “rather under middle height and a little stooped,” with a “stiff black hat” and a “thickish nose.” Easily mistaken for an Englishman, whatever that means. Anyway, the narrator and his faux-Englishman speak on disillusionment, with the older fellow recounting the great wonders of his long life- his childhood home burnt down, love unrequited, mountainous vistas, ever-expanding seas- and summing up each with a variation on “eh, what’s the point?”

You can read the whole thing here. Preferably after finishing this Mad Men recap, but whatever, I’m not the boss of you.

Anyway (and if you’re wondering when this becomes Mad Men-related, we’re almost there, I promise), songwriter Jerry Leiber (who along with his partner Mike Stoller, wrote a good chunk of Elvis’s greatest hits) was introduced to “Disillusionment” by his wife at the time, Gaby Rodgers. Leiber was sucked in by the story, and with Stoller he committed it to song- the “house burned down” and “unrequited love” vignettes staying intact as verses one and three. Leiber and Stoller took their tune – titled “Is That All There Is?” – and shopped it to singer Georgia Brown. Then, Dan Daniels. Then Leslie Uggams. Marlene Dietrich said no. Same with Barbara Streisand. Finally, the combination of “Is That All There Is?” and pop singer Peggy Lee netted Leiber and Stoller a Top 40 hit. Also, something with the right blend of catchy and unnervingly bizarre to fit our final Mad Men premiere.

See? Told you we’d tie in to Mad Men eventually. And because it’s been a year since anyone last laid eyes on the good, drunk folks at SC&P (maybe you watched re-runs, maybe you caught the catch-up marathon, maybe your only introduction was the ten-second, cryptic-as-usual “Previously On”), here’s a quick summation of where we are in “Severance,” the start of Season Seven, Part Two: The End of an Era:

Ok, catch-up over. Now, back to “Is That All There Is?” – which I have to imagine is a foil for the last piece of music we heard on Mad Men, Robert Morse’s farewell rendition of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Bert Cooper crooned about taking in the simple pleasures; the moon and the stars and the flowers and the robins and the sunbeams. It seemed to have a profound effect on Don. Except maybe not, because in our first glimpse of Season Seven, Part Two Don, he hasn’t changed a bit. Coffee and cigarettes. Instructing a very good-looking woman in a mink (pardon me, chinchilla) coat how to be not just sexy, but advertising sexy. And as Don/the camera really starts to ogle, Peggy Lee croons “is that all there is?” at good four or five times in a row, accompanied by a slight fall in Jon Hamm’s expression. Subtext is pretty clear, isn’t it?

(Oh, and by far the best part about that scene: it’s framed so intimately, with only close shots of Don/Chinchilla Cindy, until the nonchalant reveal that there were five other people right next to them, scribbling away on clipboards the entire time).

Those first four-ish minutes are a perfect microcosm of Don’s situation throughout “Severance.” He’s living life to Roger Sterling levels of excess. His life’s a revolving door of women so numerous he needs a personal secretary just to sort them. He’s not actually doing ad work anymore (his only moment of real advertising comes when advising Joan in a kind of backdoor Emperor/Vader scenario); instead his new position involves auditions, photo shoots, casting calls, more auditions and also sleeping with the women involved in all those things.

And surprisingly, Don actually seems happy. Like, legitimately content with his station in life; no secret crying jags or existential malaise. At least, until he sees a ghost, which is when Don comes tumbling down to his usual malaise-ridden self. Technically, he sees the recently deceased Rachel Katz (née Menken) in more of a dream and not in waking life, but it fits Don’s pattern of being visited by those close to him after they pass on. His brother Adam in season one, Anna Draper in “The Suitcase,” Bert Cooper last season (obviously). Last year I was edging towards “Don’s losing his mind” when ghost-Bert started singing, but now I’m not so sure. Not when this season’s ghost is less oh shit a ghost and more spurning Don onto a quest to find a woman- and a kind of happiness- that might not even exist. When Don realizes that, he just sits and ponders while Peggy Lee sings what’s almost certainly his current inner monologue: “Is That All There Is?”

Everybody’s facing Peggy Lee’s existential dilemma this week. That whole McCann buyout gives everybody at SC&P (although specifically for “Severance”- Peggy, Ken, Pete) something truly magnificent, and in all three cases they just shrug and give us the Peggy Lee quote.

Peggy (Olson, not Lee) seems like an obvious starting point. The McCann guys are humongous assholes (a recurring theme) who can’t go a single sentence without spouting off with a boob, panty or bra joke and will never take Peggy or Joan seriously as ad women. This causes a particularly nasty verbal brawl between the two women (with not-so-subtle shades of “you was asking for it because of how you dress”). This causes Peggy to seek validation in the arms of Mathis’s blind date Stevie who’s actually a pretty cool guy (and who’s also Brian from My So-Called Life, aka Devon Gummersall). This causes much drinking and an impromptu Paris vacation. Or it would, anyway, if Peggy could find her damn passport (which obviously is at work- if she’s never taken a vacation “well, ever,” she’s only ever needed it for advertising reasons).

Peggy, unlike most of the Mad Men stable, is genuinely non-lecherous enough that we’d want her to have a complication-free happy ending. Going to Paris with a random dude (well, not random if you’ve seen My So-Called Life) probably wouldn’t end in true love, but couldn’t Peggy use a little fun? Especially for someone who hasn’t taken a vacation in, “well, ever.” But she aspirins away any thoughts of poor Stevie chooses ad work- the ultimate case of “Is That All There Is?”- over a Paris trip full of moons and stars and robins and sunbeams and all the things Bert was crooning about last year (even if a last-minute plane ticket to Paris is just about the farthest thing from free).

Similar situation: Ken Cosgrove giving up a life of farming (apparently, Cosgrove likes farming? Really don’t remember that from past seasons), novel writing and having everything in life literally be free because his wife’s money would be paying for it… just to take one last spiteful jab at the SC&P boys who fired him (at the behest of McCann Erickson, clearly a company staffed entirely by spiteful pricks). One the one hand, this gives Cosgrove more narrative push than anybody else so far in Season Seven, Part Two, and that can only be a plus. Cosgrove was absent from almost all of Part One save for a couple of (really incredible) depth perception jokes. If he can get some real attention as a kind of antagonist to Pete, Roger and maybe everyone else depending on his spite levels, I can’t see a single problem with that. Aaron Staton is just as sharp as any other Mad Men performer, despite his limited appearances last year. And the Mad Men writing staff have no problem landing eyepatch jokes- this week, Pete notes that the eyepatched Cosgrove would look incredible on an adventure novel dust jacket. He’s not wrong.

Also, in Cosgrove’s defense, it’s not like “Severance” made retirement seem particularly pleasing. His father-in-law plays golf, seems mildly upset with life and has honed his cooking skills to “can toast a Pop-Tart” levels (Ray Wise’s delivery on “It was very good” is hands down the funniest line in this hour, and also most hours of TV).

Finally, there’s Pete. Easily the least subtle of the “Is That All There Is?” crew, Pete laments that his millions of dollars (his 1970 inflation levels millions of dollars) come in small, tax-evading increments, and that he might have to buy an apartment with them. Woe is Pete.

Really, the one thing I have a hard time tying to “Is That All There Is?” (even Harry Crane, who’s only purpose in “Severance” is to look bloated and get called Mr. Potato Head, is probably thinking those very words) is this whole “End of an Era” thing. That’s the official title for the second half of season seven- so far, it seems to describe the end of Mad Men and also the end of the 1960s (fitting, that “Is That All There Is?” was released in November 1969). There’s got to be more than that, right? This is Mad Men. There’s obviously a deeper meaning in there somewhere, because there’s a deeper meaning to everything from costume choices to hilarious eyepatch yuks. Maybe you’ve found it already, or maybe it’s something to be uncovered in the last six Mad Mens, ever.

Either way, I hoped you all enjoyed this last Mad Men premiere as much as I did. Sad as it is, we’re never getting another one.