Mad Men, Ep. 7.08: “Severance” – the life not lived

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Mad Men, Season 7: Episode 8 – “Severance”
Written by Matthew Weiner
Directed by Scott Hornbacher
Airs Sunday nights at 10 on AMC

When Don Draper stops to wonder if he knows the waitress Diana, it’s more than an eerie foreshadowing of learning about Rachel’s death. Don has a type. There are usually exceptions to rules, but for the most part, Diana represents the myriad brunettes that Don’s been tangled up with in the history of Mad Men (and if you thought she looked an awful lot like Rosemarie DeWitt’s Midge in particular, you weren’t the only one). This is The End of an Era for AMC’s long-running drama, whose series memory and use of echoing and repetition have always been some of its greatest assets when making a point. It’s no surprise, then, that “Severance” is haunted by the ghosts of Mad Men‘s past and wonders about the lives of its central characters–Don and Peggy–and its supporting characters–Joan and Ken–and from where they’ve come, in which direction they might go and what their lives might have been like had certain things unfolded differently.

It’s easy to think of this episode’s Don Draper as the “old” Don Draper, but “Severance” is more about portraying him as a version of that Don–not quite the male (anti-)fantasy that the series started with. He’s sleeping with anyone, but he’s getting little to no meaning out of it and isn’t doing it at anyone else’s expense, like he was with Betty for the first few seasons. This is a Don trying to shirk the memories of his failed marriages, which still manage to crop up tangibly, as with Megan’s earring. Some people drink to distract themselves; Don sleeps with women. During this transition period, though, Don’s apparently going to have his past catch up with him in big ways. It’s interesting that, even following the events of something like the now-famous Hershey’s speech, Don can speak so openly and comfortably about what life was like growing up in the brothel. Don used to be more stingy with details like that, wanting always to keep Dick Whitman at arm’s-length. Now, it’s not Dick’s history that plagues Don, but the one he’s developed since becoming Don Draper. Rachel Menken, all the way back from Mad Men‘s first season, makes her way into Don’s unconscious (and Maggie Siff even reprises her role! Huzzah!) in that phenomenal way that you often hear about–a vision of a person shortly after her death. Her sister’s reaction to Don’s arrival, which includes “She had everything” in life, shows how cut-off Don was from that future in every possible way, but we’re still left wondering how life might have been different if Don had stuck with someone he had the potential to genuinely love and who could love him back.

Peggy’s story in “Severance,” whose impetus is her fight with Joan in the elevator that leads to her date with Stevie, follows a similar pattern. Here is what Peggy was before: a secretary. Here is what she is now: “funny and fearless,” not wanting to eat something she didn’t order. Like Don, her basic personality has hardly changed since the first season, but her values certainly have. What she’s learned about herself certainly has, too. Peggy isn’t a vacation kind of girl, because she’s so intent on receiving recognition and gratification. She does her job–damn well–but maybe that’s gotten in the way of who Peggy used to be. It’s interesting that we’ve had so little of pre-Mad Men Peggy information (and her child is also conspicuously absent in the series, especially in an episode that scrutinizes the past so heavily), but, as with any young person, you might assume she used to be a “let’s go to Paris” kind of personality. That characteristic isn’t lost entirely, but it’s buried so deep beneath a layer of ego that she has to get hammered to even have those thoughts (and even then, it has to be coaxed out of her through compliments). While Don has seemed pretty doomed, morally, since the series began, Peggy has been one of Mad Men‘s sources of optimism, so it would be surprising if she doesn’t struggle with her place in this world and in this company as the overall story winds down.

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Ken struggles with those problems immediately, or, rather, he has them thrust upon him after hearing it from his wife and getting the boot from Roger. Ken’s another weird case of character in Mad Men–someone whose natural charisma is almost always enticing on-screen and who has received enough storylines to be interesting on his own, but someone whose motivations have been less clear than, say, Pete or Joan. Clearly, Ken’s been struggling with his perception of self-value for a while, as his wife’s nudges get a pretty aggressive reaction out of him. That usually only happens when someone feels threatened, and if Ken is worried about his future and the effort and time he’s put into his job, the defensiveness only makes sense. Luckily for him, his path is pretty much chosen for him when he’s fired and realizes that meaningful connection leads to fulfillment. Through Dow, he’s built a sympathetic identity that gives him some kind of purpose, which is now to stick it to the guys who have been circling him and everyone else in the building like vultures, waiting to find the next pennies to pinch into multi-million-dollar bank accounts. It’s kind of disappointing that Ken doesn’t go down the writerly route, since he’s good at it–better than he is at advertising–but this scenario is almost just as sweet in some ways. As entertaining as Roger and Pete are, they aren’t the kind of people who deserve to screw someone like Ken and get away with it.

Joan is the fourth main focus of “Severance,” and hers is probably the most awkward thread, since it feels like well-trodden ground. It’s good to see the tension that still exists between her and Don after Joan made it very clear she wanted Don out, but the sequence with the McCann boys is too easy. Mad Men has vilified these kinds of people before, and during Joan arcs, which I suppose makes sense if “Severance” is looking at Joan-as-office-sex-symbol in contrast to Joan-as-creative-partner, but that story’s punctuation in this episode is kind of an immature “hey, f’ you, I don’t work here anymore.” All of Mad Men‘s characters–including Don, Peggy and Ken–have had their uglier sides exposed fully multiple times. But whereas Peggy’s incredible pride is used as a device to send her into uncertainty and towards her conclusion, Joan’s outlook appears much darker. Maybe that’s the point. Someone like Joan might not be able to exist in this world in the way that she wants to. But I hope the outcome isn’t as dour as that, since Joan is a character who has fought tooth and nail for happiness.

– Sean Colletti

The Drawing Board:

– Superb opening right down to revealing the situation is an audition. Scott Hornbacher’s framing and blocking makes the entire thing believable.

– Among the several options that Don has when he comes home, he chooses Trisha…because she’s on a layover? There’s both meaning and a pun in there.

– Harry Crane gets called Mr. Potato Head and does not look very impressed.

– Ed knows how to cook…a Pop-Tart. You and me both, Ed.

– Vintage Don Draper pick-up line: “My name is Don.”

– Pete consoles Ken and encourages him by asking “Do you know how great you’re going to look on a book jacket!?”

– Ken comes back later and drops his announcement, making himself the client. Pete to Roger: “Shit.”

– Diana tells Don that “when someone dies, you just want to make sense of it. But you can’t.” How many people can Don apply that to in his life? Anna, Rachel, Don Draper, Dick Whitman, Lane…

– It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Men World: these are the last episodes of the TV series that got me into TV in the first place, so I figure I’ll use this space to show some of the weird and entertaining ways Mad Men has crept into my real life, beginning with how I do bar trivia at a local place and there’s a round that’s basically find-the-connection, one of which was Mad Men-related. One of the questions, for example, was “A grade of silver,” whose answer was Sterling. I think I picked up on the Mad Men-connection in the answers after the third question. Our team ended up doubling-down on that round, getting twice the amount of points and winning a gift certificate, my part of which I used on an old-fashioned, because Mad Men.




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