Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Severance" (season 7, episode 8 / part 2 premiere)

Mad Men - "Severance" (season 7, episode 8 / part 2 premiere)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 5, 2015/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Scott Hornbacher): The first half of season seven ended with a spectral Bert Cooper crooning, "The best things in life are free." The second half opens with a very much in-the-flesh model, Cindy (Rainey Qualley), smoldering in a Chinchilla coat and little else while Peggy Lee muses, "Is that all there is?" Don directs her activity while ashing a cigarette into a coffee cup before a larger audience is revealed: a small assembly of eager admen and clients (for Wilkinson razors) gathered in a side room of the SC&P office. The setting is not so glamorous, nor the context as exciting for Don, as we might have imagined but if this is where the tumult of the past decade has landed him he doesn't appear to be complaining. The next scene finds him and Roger in tuxedos, beautiful women dressed to the nines under almost every arm, in a cheap diner where Don laughs about a toaster his stepmother got as a gift in the whorehouse where he grew up. Roger cracks that Don likes to talk about growing up poor to get out of paying the bill, but he's not poor anymore. If Lee's question is pressed, the answer so far seems to be a gentle shrug: "If that's all there is, my friend, then let's keep dancing, let's break out the booze and have a ball..."

Of course, there are seven episodes to go before the final moment (or "final disappointment" as the singer sighs), and Don quickly finds something else to pursue. In this case, it's a sad-eyed waitress named Diana Baur (Elizabeth Reaser) with a John Dos Passos book tucked in her apron pocket. Something about her appears familiar to him but he can't quite place it; intrigued, he returns to the restaurant alone. Silently presuming that he's the one who left a $100 tip (it was actually Roger, as apology for teasing her relentlessly), she meets Don out back for an unexpected quickie in the alley. When he's drawn back a third time, she gives him the boot, gently; he confesses that he's experienced loss recently and saw the dead person in a dream before he heard the news, so Diana tells him, "When someone dies, you just want to make sense out of it. But you can't." And then he's left alone at the counter, on what she's encouraged him to think of as his last visit, pondering the implications of Diana's wisdom.

Don's loss pulls us back into the first season, or rather reminds us of how much time has passed since then. Re-living the fur-draped casting call of the opening scene in his sleep, Don witnesses onetime mistress Rachel Menken parade through that door and gaze in that mirror, encouraging him to rave, "You're not just smooth. You're Wilkinson smooth." At the office, still haunted by this dream, he asks Meredith to call Rachel's workplace and schedule a meeting, ostensibly to discuss a new Topaz pantyhouse strategy (Joan and Peggy are trying to move the product into department stores to contend with rivals). Instead, Don discovers that she left the store months earlier - and died of leukemia just last week. Rattled by this revelation, and what it says about his own subconscious, he visits the apartment where Rachel's friends and family are sitting shiva and runs into Rachel's sister Barbara (Rebecca Creskoff), who is confusingly listed as Barbara Katz, the same married name as Rachel - are their husbands brothers? She has little patience with Don's grief (albeit maybe a little pity for his loneliness), and wants him to know that Rachel "lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything." Don, seeing Rachel's small children, hearing her sister's words, and believing that she carried on better without him than he did without her, can only respond, "Good."

This is Don's (half-)season premiere, puncturing long-awaited contentment by opening up old wounds and sending white rabbits across his field of vision. Others have more concrete troubles to navigate. When Peggy and Joan try to push their Topaz strategy with the leering jackasses at McCann Erickson (who work with Marshall Fields, owned by Macy's, and could provide an opportunity), they are humiliated by Dennis Ford (Greg Cromer) in particular - with Joan his favorite target. A tense elevator ride with the two SC&P women finds them turning their weapons on each other, Peggy implying that Joan dresses provocatively and Joan insulting Peggy's looks. Later, Joan will ignore Dennis' calls and go shopping for a shapely dress - might as well lean into her image for the rewards if she can't dispel the trouble it brings her. Peggy attempts to rebound by accepting an invitation to dine with Stevie Wollcott (Devon Gummersall), her co-worker John Mathis' (Trevor Einhorn's) brother-in-law. They get drunk and impulsively make plans to fly to Paris but she can't find her passport, declines his overtures so that this hot date can result in more than a "fling" (though it seems likely it may dissolve into even less than that), and finds herself completely embarrassed by all of it the next day.

Ken's McCann-fueled crisis has the happiest ending - forced out of the now-McCann-owned SC&P by vindictive former employer Ferg Donnelly (Paul Johansson), he tells an intrigued Don that this may be his opportunity to pursue "the life not lived" by becoming a novelist full-time. Cynthia, whose own father just retired from Dow Chemical after a lifetime of corporate service, has certainly been pressuring Ken to do just this, even before the firing. Instead, Ken takes the old man's now open job which means he will be Roger's and Pete's very demanding client going forward. Revenge tastes sweet, even if Ken may be cutting his own dreams short in order to pursue it.

My Response: The severance of the title being Ken's rather than Don's (and ultimately not even being Ken's) is an indication: Mad Men is not throttling toward an apocalyptic moment as I initially expected, it's calming down. There's no mention of the date that I noticed - the only concrete reference is a Nixon address about troop reductions and actions in Laos - but most indications point toward 1970. Several characters have moustaches that look like they've been around for a while, fashion and design have subtly shifted from the previous episode's '69 style, and there's a general sense that we've passed through a stormy sea and arrived on another shore. And yet in some ways, despite all the changes, we're back where we began. Don is just sticking to creative now (and quite enjoying that life). After all the crazy splits, mergers, and close calls throughout the turbulent sixties, the business is humming along under sturdy - if obnoxious - corporate management. Although the episode begins with a more relaxed, carefree vision of Don than we've seen in a while, a sense of melancholy dreaminess hangs over this final season, or mini-season. Released a year after the previous episode, this "Part 2" of season seven even comes with its own name: "The End of an Era". Whether literally or just spiritually, we've entered the seventies.

But if the opportunity to delve into a frenzied zeitgeist (and its experiences of acute personal/professional crises) has passed, this quieter mood opens up other possibilities. Without any distractions, the show can dwell on Don's deep-seated, lifelong anxieties. These are no longer secrets, for the most part: although he once hid his impoverished background from even his own wife, he now laughs it off in public. Since as far back as season four, the contents of a lockbox titled "Dick Whitman" have become mote diffuse. And as Don's questions about his identity grow obscure, potential answers can be found anywhere: in the passing of an old flame, the turned backs of a community he doesn't belong to, or the vaguely familiar face of a waitress. The last time Don pulled that "Don't I know you?" bit was in the speed episode with Ted's secretary who, come to think of it, looked a bit like this waitress. At that time, it seemed like a connection was being drawn to the prostitute who took his virginity (and whom he conflated with his own lost mother) - but that didn't quite fit because they had different faces. Something else is calling to Don in both of these moments, something we either haven't seen or noticed yet, and that may be the mystery of season seven.

Aside from Kenny, who gets to experience several significant narrative turns, the only characters with any major presence in "Severance" are Joan and Peggy, who get their latest - and maybe their best - moment in a long series of yin/yang juxtapositions as they take out their humiliation (at the hands of the McCann Erickson frat boys) on one another. Where Joan will take this isn't clear yet, beyond continuing to exploiting her attractiveness in order to avoid others exploiting it. Peggy, on the other hand, appear to be setting up an arc that has more to do with the personal life she's repeatedly forestalled (or had stolen away from her) as she focused on her work. Although she too has her own secrets and tribulations, Peggy continues to carve an interesting counterpoint to Don. He now more than ever forms the classic Prestige Cable Antihero archetype - if Tony Soprano drew the template, Don Draper is the most iconic incarnation imaginable. As both a fish-out-of-water adwoman and someone at an earlier stage of life, Peggy has a more live struggle: figuring out how to navigate a terrain that wasn't meant for her. Sopranos, Drapers, and Whites tend to be emblems of dying breeds whereas an Olson is a trailblazer, her concerns necessarily more practical and immediate than theirs (and perhaps more relatable). This may make her more central to the narrative momentum of the remaining episodes while Don delves into the foggy recess of memories, dreams, and reflections.

Of course Mad Men seasons have begun with deceptive quiet before. I'm not even sure, to paraphrase another lost cable TV hero, what year this is. At any rate, the seventies were hardly a resumption of the fifties. The disorienting, mercurial nature of '68 may have passed but the soul-searching angst of '70 and beyond still have plenty to offer Don if he decides to take another trip to California - or Peggy if she finally makes it to Paris.

Next (active on January 31, 8am): "New Business"Previous: (Season 7 Part 1: The Beginning finale) "Waterloo"

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