Ken Cosgrove has in his reach the perfect setup for an aspiring author: thanks to his marriage situation, he could take of advantage of all the money and time needed to hammer out his first novel. He only toys with this dream briefly, though, this glimmering life not lived, before going back to tracing the same old circles with his hours, this time fueled by revenge. Is that all there is?

The cast of Mad Men are at that strange point of success, lingering in the tepid aftermath of striving and winning. They have money, power, and jobs others might kill to have. What is a dream possessed? What do you do if there is little more to reach for?

On Sunday night’s “Severance” episode, there isn’t much severance at all, just the idea of it – a drunken spark that dies in the night. Alcohol, one of the main characters of the show, seduces Peggy with the rush of whim and romance, but the sparkle of plans spun the previous evening fades in the morning light. This is your real life, the hangover tells you. This is your real life, your daily routine reminds you, safe in its taxing monotony, safe in its tedious and consuming pressure. Is the fire even that marvelous after all?

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Is it lucky, or a curse, to be alive? It’s never quite one or the other. Boredom and disillusionment eat themselves and grow stronger and thicker, like a paste holding down your life. Successful or not, instead of full of wonder and excitement, the moments can grow tedious and distasteful to us. We linger there, dreadfully suspended in our own existence.

Don is constantly in a spin, facing himself again and again, marveling at the emptiness. He grasps as potential changes, but just turns again to work, booze and sex until the gnawing pain of being subsides. “You don’t want to run away with me,” his old flame Rachel Katz once told him “You just want to run away.”

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Don’s remade himself again and again, but in all his attempts to reshape his identity, he always just runs back to himself. His life has a Sisyphean pattern. He recognizes a problem, feels that he is drowning, and struggles to the surface for just a few moments only to sink again, lower than before. The way out turns out to be just another entrance to the same maze.

The life not lived is fantasy, a place to hang the melancholy. Don confronts former mistress Rachel Katz’s life lived without him at her Shiva, dancing with a kind disoriented regret. His life is full of women he did not love completely, including his own daughter. He’s almost at home in his constant state of missed connections, in his carefully cultivated loneliness, adrift in the endless sea of might-have-beens. The imagined life is usually so much sharper than the one right in front of you.


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