MAD MEN Midseason Premiere Recap: “Severance”

     April 5, 2015

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Mad Men‘s final episodes have been so hyped that by the time I started watching “Severance,” I felt like I was in Don’s kind of demi-world between dreams and reality. Is this really it? Are we finally here? Oh my God, does everyone had a Sonny Bono mustache? (Except for Don, of course — but can you imagine?)

Thanks to that clip of Nixon’s speech, we know that “Severance” took place April 30th, 1970, when puts it about 9 months after Burt Cooper’s death. In most ways, “Severance” was largely a reorientation into Mad Men’s world, reflecting (as the show so often does) on the concept of identity.

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Image via AMC

In the non-Don plots, Joan still struggles to be taken seriously in the workplace, suffering some gross, sophomoric jokes from the idiots of McCann, who now own a 51% stake in what was the formerly autonomous SC&P. Peggy and Joan, though presenting a united front in the meeting, are still as divided by their petty jealousies as ever (resenting each other for what they each perceive are qualities they themselves lack). It was sad, but felt true to their long and complicated history.

Peggy, though, embraces her “difficult” persona in a dinner date later with Devon Gummersall, a.k.a. Brian Krakow from My So Called Life. In the morning, though, she’s embarrassed by her behavior and her promise to fly away to Paris with, essentially, a stranger. Peggy clearly yearns for the desire to be more spontaneous and free, but in the sober light of day, she prefers the bondage of work, and the safety of the niche she’s carved out there.

Ken, in one of the show’s best (and quickest) arcs, goes back and forth about what his career trajectory should be. After he lightly considers his wife’s suggestion that he quit and go back to writing, he’s unceremoniously fired by McCann via Roger, though tells Don that he sees it as an opportunity to explore “the life not lived.” He’s cordial with Pete and seems in good enough spirits … until that fantastic final scene, where he comes in to deliver the news to Roger and Pete that he’s now their client, in that he’s taken over the position of advertising head — for Dow. “I’m not firing you, but I can assure you, I’m not easy to please.” As his wife said, he gave them his eye, but won’t give them his life. Instead, he’s giving them the finger in a gift that will keep on giving as far as sweet revenge. “Shit” is right, Pete.

It was a delightful ending (or beginning, really) for Ken, but in a far, far more muddled place is of course our dear ol’ Don. He was all over the place in “Severance,” wasn’t he? But his dream of Rachel Menken (who had so little screentime on the show, but has always felt like such a vitality important character) made him reach out … a week too late. That idea of the “life not lived” flooded over Don for the rest of the episode, as he spoke to Rachel’s sister, who said she had “lived the life she wanted to.” By Don deeply wounded her, and she obviously had a significant impact on him. What if? Don admits his two divorces since then, but is that to suggest a life with Rachel would have been better, or just as miserable?

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Image via AMC

All of these threads were fascinating enough on their own, setting up a great final arc for the show, but then we got “Di” (Elizabeth Reaser). Yes, it was heavy-handed in its symbolism, yes it was very familiar (can Don ever turn away from a sad brunette?) and yes, it was also surreal and bizarre as far as, what kind of a diner is this?! A “just the tip” kind of joint?

Nothing about Don’s interactions with Diana were half as interesting as the fact that the episode featured Don telling Roger and three women stories from his childhood. This is the new Don, the one who is open and embracing his inner Dick Whitman. The same was true of his pursuit of Rachel in this hour, and his desire to find out about her life. He saw something in her then, and was reminded of it in his dream, that connected both the Dick Whitman and Don Draper sides of him. The affair with Diana is all back to repressed Don, hounding after a complicated woman who fulfills an archetypical obsession for him.

It’s really kind of amazing that Don has changed or grown at all, since that’s never been Mad Men‘s M.O., so him reverting back to these patterns is certainly no surprise. But while the first half of the season was, dare I say, tinged with hope, the darkness that always hangs around Mad Men was back at the forefront in “Severance,” at least when it came to Don. His pained expression at Rachel’s shiva was that of a man who is not sure which life is the one not lived. The world is changing all around him, and every other story in “Severance” seemed to be moving forward except for his. Where does he, and can he, go from here?

Episode Rating: ★★★★ Very good

Musings and Miscellanea:

— Was there a more Mad Men way to begin the episode than with Don telling a woman to tell him how she feels being in a chinchilla coat, and to put her leg up on a chair? I loved the fact that it felt like they were the only ones in the room, then the rest of the SC&P guys were revealed to be sitting there, as well!

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Image via AMC

— Megan and Don are definitely divorced now, it seems. Sorry / not sorry.

— Peggy: “Should we get lunch?” Joan: “I want to burn this place down.” Peggy: “I know.”

— Meredith the secretary has really gotten herself together in these last few months in the show’s world. She seems to be the only one handling Don at the moment.

— “So you’re saying I don’t dress like you because I don’t look like you? That’s very, very true.” – Joan.

— When Joan went on her shopping spree, was that Peggy’s dress hanging on the rack behind her? Did she try it on just to see what it would look like on her?

— Pop Tart reference!

— Joan getting account advice from Don just reminded me how far she’s come.

— Loved my alma mater, Emory, getting a shout-out on the show, and the fact that My So Called Life dude was not a douche.

— Also, was that McCann asshat who had Roger fire Ken named Ferguson Darling? Like in Clarissa Explains It All? It would make sense. FERG-FACE!

— “He said you were funny, and you were fearless” – Brian Krakow 2.0.

— Stan’s facial hair and brown bandana were everything.

“Is this all there is?”

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Image via AMC

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