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“Mad Men” Season Premiere Review: “Severance” (Season 7 Episode 8) – “Is that all there is?”
Mad Men has returned for its final season(*), and just as I have in years past, I will be reviewing and analyzing each and every episode of the new season in depth, on Sunday nights shortly after the episodes air. We begin tonight with the season premiere, "Severance." As always, doing the episode justice means this review contains heavy spoilers, so do not read unless you have seen the episode.
(*) And yes, I am considering this last stretch of episodes its own, separate season, at least for the purposes of discussion. Whatever AMC might call it, last year’s 7-episode stretch was a contained narrative entity, and given the obvious ‘premiere’ nature of tonight’s episode, Weiner isn’t treating this set of episodes any differently. So we’ll call them Season 7A and Season 7B from here on out, and just recognize that, crazy scheduling aside, these are two distinct seasons of television.
Spoilers for “Severance” after the jump…
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The suave, striking ad man stares across a comfortable room at a beautiful woman, who returns his gaze sensually. “You’re not supposed to talk,” the ad man explains, and slowly gives her directions to maximize the attractiveness of her body language – to “show her how to feel.” It’s an all-too familiar seduction scenario, at least on the surface, with the power of the gaze resting squarely in the ad man’s eyes, just as it always has.
We have heard this one before. We’ve seen Don Draper craft external reality to fit his own gaze on plenty of occasions, and we’ve seen him dominate women just like this over and over again, always with that same effortless quality. It’s nothing new, and that is precisely what makes the scenario eerie – is this still who Don Draper is?
As soon as we ask ourselves this question, a response is given, in the form of Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?”, a hit from late 1969. The song echoes the question we must be asking ourselves: Is that all there is, to this man we’ve been watching all these years? The camera pulls back – this isn’t a piece of Don’s personal life, but a meeting at work. And this isn’t necessarily a woman he’s actively seducing, but one of dozens coming in and out of that door, auditioning for a part in the ad man’s manufactured reality. The metaphor, as is often the case with Mad Men, isn’t difficult to spot; and as much as we seem to sense the problem, Don Draper appears equally aware. That look of hesitancy and confusion on Jon Hamm’s face – one which grows in intensity and frequency throughout this opening episode – is a man wondering the value of his own existence. ‘Is this all I am?’, the ad man ponders. ‘A man trapped in my own cultivated reality, with a series of hollow, performed human interactions wandering in and out for such brief interludes?’
This is the question at the heart of “Severance,” an episode that seems built to frustrate its characters as much as it does its audience. Things have changed over this last decade, for Don and Peggy and Joan and Roger and every other character of note, something the episode reminds us of early and often; the Don of season 1 (or 2 through 6, for that matter) would never talk openly about his childhood in the whorehouse to a group of strangers for entertainment. The Peggy who once worked as Don’s secretary could never hold herself with this much confidence, and seem so comfortable and at home in an important managerial role. The Joan who once swatted away 60’s-style sexism with such ease, who moved through this patriarchal world with such admirable self-assuredness, could never imagine herself feeling less sure of her own identity as a millionaire than she did as head of the secretary pool. And the Roger of 1960 wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that glorious old-man moustache of 1969.
And yet, a feeling of familiarity and stagnation permeates “Severance” at every level. Circumstances have changed, but is that all merely cosmetic? Old faces return, familiar conflicts rear their ugly heads, and in the midst of this uncomfortable axis between stasis and change lies an uncomfortable, quietly disorienting atmosphere. By all logic, happiness should be readily attainable for these people, and for the viewers who have spent so long following them. So why does it all feel so generally underwhelming?
Mostly, I think this is by design. Over the course of this series, Matthew Weiner has frequently enjoyed subverting expectations in season premieres by giving us a lot of what we’re already familiar with, carefully tweaked to establish the direction the characters are headed. It’s not the same as empty repetition, of course, but it looks similar enough on the surface for Mad Men to have frustrated away many less patient viewers over the years – and “Severance” dances upon that line as clearly as any previous premiere. I think it feels a little overstuffed, too full of narrative place-setting to fully come alive in the way the best Mad Men premieres do (see Season 5 and 6’s double-length “A Little Kiss” and “The Doorway,” which hugely benefitted from the extra run-time), and it’s telling that the opening 10 minutes or so are conspicuously stronger than the rest of the episode. As we follow Don Draper go from work to the diner to home, quietly observing this simmering sense of restlessness in his heart, the premiere feels like Mad Men at its best – an artful character study about the most enigmatic pieces of the human heart. “Severance” is a little too busy to work completely in that vain for the full hour, but at its best, the episode is a largely elegant reminder of how expertly Mad Men explores such powerful human quandaries.
Just look at how Weiner and director Scott Hornbacher (a prolific series vet doing spectacular work tonight) quietly draw our attention to the respective gazes of each individual character at different points in the hour. It’s the prime visual motif of the opening scene, of course – Don and the model looking back and forth, creating a power dynamic with eyes alone – and as such imagery recurs, the notion of what the human gaze means, and whose gaze matters most to any individual, is repeatedly complicated and called into question.
It’s the issue at the center of Joan’s story, as a meeting with Sterling Cooper’s new corporate overlords forces her to question her own sense of identity. The suits from McCann Erikson are awful, of course, especially when judging Joan’s worth based solely on her bust size, but where previous scenes like this tended to play out with the viewer feeling indignant and Joan finding some clever way to cut such pigs down to size, this sequence felt like a very self-aware role reversal. In part because of the composition of the scene – with the suits sitting at one side of that long conference table, and Joan and Peggy on the other, the camera angle and color dynamics giving a sense of weight and power to the outnumbered women – and in part because of how tired their shtick feels, the pigs don’t seem like anyone to get worked up over. They just look thoroughly pathetic, relics from an era that doesn’t know it’s dead yet (and still doesn’t, in many parts of American life – as always, Mad Men uses the past to comment on the present). The power in that room belongs to Joan and Peggy, because they are the ones who have worked for and earned it; they are women whose agency doesn’t rest in the gaze of these idiotic men.
But Joan, in a rare moment of workplace emotional instability, doesn’t feel that way. And as she snaps at the men, seethes through the rest of the meeting, and vents her frustrations with a thoroughly unhelpful Peggy – who accidentally exacerbates Joan’s annoyance by blaming the men’s behavior on Joan’s attire – it becomes increasingly clear that Joan isn’t concerned with how her life has changed, but frustrated by the ways it hasn’t. How is it she can rise so high in this career, and still be subjected to the same attitudes that have plagued her all along? And once that feeling of stagnation settles in, her gaze inevitably turns inward. In an absolute standout scene (and a wondrous piece of near-silent acting from Christina Hendricks), Joan goes shopping, gazes at herself in some fancy new attire, and ponders what she has – and hasn’t – become. Is she the person she wants to be? Has she gone as far as she thought, or is she still stuck in patterns that have long plagued her? Is there something broken on the inside, or can she affect meaningful change by crafting her own image? It’s not just the clothes – when the woman helping her recognizes that Joan used to work at the department store, Joan shoots her down immediately. This is not a part of her identity that she wishes to acknowledge, so in her self-directed gaze, she forcefully erases it.
Whether that’s enough to create long-lasting happiness is doubtful, a thought we see echoed in every other story. Peggy, by all outward appearances, has shaped herself into the woman she never dared dream she could be – confident and professionally satisfied, a person who can tell Joan “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to” and absolutely mean it. But she, too, feels some sense of stagnation and unrest, some discomfort she cannot put her finger on. I don’t necessarily love how this issue is tackled in “Severance,” as I worry any time Weiner explores Peggy through the prism of romantic absence, but I think the subplot mostly works, if only because the story winds up being less about Peggy’s fears of not being ‘conventional,’ and more about her pervading sense of loneliness. Like Don, whom Peggy has always mirrored in many ways, it’s less about sex, love, and the potential for family than the desire to feel understood and included – to have a sense of companionship to cut through her life’s quiet isolation. She’s clearly not going to get any of those things from the milquetoast guy Mathis sets her up with, and she’s probably not going to find it in Paris, either. The point is that happiness doesn’t necessarily come from achieving one’s ambitions. One can become all the things one wishes to be on the surface, but what happens if one directs their gaze inwards, and sees a hollow gap where the sense of fulfillment should logically be?
When Don Draper goes home at the beginning of the episode, this is exactly what he is confronted with: An empty apartment, so devoid of anything meaningful that he quickly turns the lights back off. There is nothing for him to see, and so he fills that obvious hole in his life with a series of easily available flings. We seemingly left Don a ‘changed’ man at the end of last season, having worked hard to bury his old habits, redouble his efforts at work, and even improve whatever broken personal relationships he could mend (which he did to an extent with Sally, and to a much greater extent with Peggy, even as his marriage to Megan could never be saved). But as the ghost of Bert Cooper warned him, in that wonderful closing musical number from last year’s finale, “the best things in life are free,” and happiness isn’t attained by checking each box on a to-do list. Cooper’s ghost was issuing Don a challenge, asking if by realizing so many of the changes Don wished to make, could he really live the fulfilling life he so desperately wants?
It is a specter that hangs over Don throughout this premiere, as he finds himself straddling that line between stasis and change, and finding only emptiness in the space in-between. Working on ad campaign for Menken’s department store (which is where the rotating door of models comes in), Don finds himself fantasizing about one of his oldest on-screen flings: Rachel Menken, heir to the store’s small empire, and a woman he tried to run away with at the end of the show’s first season. Upon hearing the unexpected news of Rachel’s death the next day, Don’s existential crisis goes into a spiral, and that decade old obsession is seemingly reignited.
Or is it? When Don fantasizes about Rachel in the mink coat, or visits her wake and gazes sadly upon her two children, is he mourning for this specific missed opportunity, with this one particular person, or is he pining for all the choices he never made, for all the old mistakes no amount of personal upheaval can ever truly rectify? I would argue the latter. Rachel mattered to Don for a brief time, but other people have meant much more to him, and there are other relationships that leave much deeper scars on his soul. Weiner could, in a sense, have employed any long-absent love for these scenes, though there is a certain poetry in using one of the show’s earliest characters, for what Rachel symbolizes is the burden of Don’s past. When a person sees emptiness in oneself, one inevitably starts to think about all the things that brought them there, to this desolate destination (just as we, as viewers, invariably start to reconsider the past when anticipating this story’s impending end). Nostalgia stops being a comfort, and instead becomes a poison, a burden that bears down on us with an unbearably heavy weight. And when Don’s secretary hands him the Menken’s folder near the episode’s end, we can feel the weight it takes on in Don’s hands.
The episode’s closing conversation, between Don and the mysterious waitress he thinks he recognizes, may be ridiculously on the nose – “when people die, everything gets mixed up” – but the symbolic importance of the waitress herself is handled with such soft, powerful insight. Both Don and the viewer spend this entire episode pondering the mystery of this woman, wondering where in Don’s history she might possibly hail from, until it gradually becomes clear that, in truth, she is nobody to him. In terms of Don’s gaze, she is an ‘empty’ being on to whom he projects the weight of a painful personal history, and when it turns out there is no absolution to be had chasing her any further, Don seems deflated. “I just want to sit here,” he says honestly when she makes the truth clear. And sit there he does, shaken by the inevitable truth: That in the maze of one’s own checkered past, there is no ‘easy’ answer to what went wrong, no single, obvious ‘fix’ to make happiness burst forth.
There is, ultimately, only the ambiguity, and the uncertainty, and the relentless, constant sense of unrest. So we end this final season premiere with an image very similar to the one that opened the series, and which we have seen countless times since: The ad man, sitting alone in a restaurant, pondering why he cannot feel happy, even though he has done so much to construct the life he desires. In one sense, we have returned, full-circle, to the very beginning; in another, we have come so far that the substance of the question is entirely different.
Can there be any answers? I do not know. All I know is that the journey has, for us if not for Don, been wonderfully enlightening along the way – and I hope that Don and company may come to realize this too, in the end.
The Ken Cosgrove storyline that gives the episode its name offers an interesting alternative to many of these themes – even if I think the episode as a whole may have been stronger without it, and with more time granted to situating us in the mindset of the core characters. Ken, unlike Don and the others, is completely conscious of life’s unfulfilling stagnation (fulfilling, as always, his role as the show’s most self-aware character). Also unlike them, he is hand-wrapped an opportunity to leave that which makes him unhappy behind entirely, and really make an effort to follow that which gives his life genuine meaning. But in a mixture of pride, fear, and insecurity, Ken opts not to pursue his writing, and instead dives in even deeper by taking a job with Dow Chemical. Which begs the question – Does Ken’s arc predict an ending in which Mad Men concludes that people can never really change?
"Mr. Potato Head here can relax.” Best description of Harry Crane ever. Can we get one ‘Harry-Crane-Punching-Bag’ moment in every episode from here to the end, please?
“Want a raise? Stop acting like a secretary.” Oh Peggy. You are the greatest (and terrific work from Elisabeth Moss throughout tonight, even with a relatively thin story).
Ray Wise has always been weirdly underused as Ken’s rarely-seen father-in-law, Ed Baxter, but all those years of infrequent appearances paid off tonight with Wise’s wonderful line delivery of “It was very good!,” in reference to tasting a Pop Tart for the first time.
“That's not a coincidence! It’s a sign…of the life not lived!” Oh Mad Men. I will miss everything about you – including your perennial juxtaposition between brilliant, beautiful televisual subtlety, and sledge-hammer theme-defining lines like this one. It’s part of the magic.
Pete didn’t have a ton to do tonight, but the scene where he’s getting all the account information from Ken – and constantly saying all the wrong things to make Ken feel worse and worse about his situation – was a minor comic masterpiece, with Vincent Kartheiser playing Pete’s incessant douchbaggery like a fiddle.
Ted has a moustache too! It’s the age of the awful moustache! Hooray!
I wanted to get an actual image from this episode on this review, but I could not find even a single image readily available online – only promo images from the season’s marketing materials. There’s spoiler-adverse, then there’s spoiler-phobic, then there’s 500 miles of distance, and then there’s Matthew Weiner and the people at AMC.
There are only six episode of Mad Men left. This is not okay. Even if “Severance” wasn’t a great premiere, it was a very good one, and a solid reminder of how much this show has to offer – and what a giant hole it will inevitably leave in its wake.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.
Read past Mad Men reviews atthis link.