“Is that all there is?”
Peggy Lee, you said it. This premiere episode was a tough nut to crack – a lot of unsteady philosophical meandering leading to a casual ending. It was a visually dazzling hour (What color! What mustaches!) but…inscrutable. What just happened? What does it all mean? How is this episode going to set up the finale? Is that all there is?
I have oodles of faith that the rest of Season 7B will be vastly more enjoyable. The Mad Men premieres have always been weird and uncomfortable and slightly creaky under the weight of theme introduction (remember “The Doorway”?). So let’s talk about this strange episode – its fast-paced structure, strained dialogue, time-jumping, and sense of cheerless nostalgia.
“Severance” followed four major storylines: those of Don, Joan, Peggy, and Ken. Let’s start with the big D.
The opening scenes give us a full blast of voyeuristic discomfort, without the usual pleasure that used to come with watching Don go all Draper on some girl. It’s an audition for a fur campaign, a very intimate roleplay – and, the camera reveals, it’s happening in front of a roomful of other men. At this, I admit my heart sank. After the tenderness of the 7A finale, I wanted to believe we’d advanced past Don’s super gross side. He’s always needed to dominate and decorate women in order to define himself; this first scene is meant to prepare us for a disappointing Don rewind. It’s an interesting way to begin the half-season; a faithful callback to what we first loved about our protagonist. But now, in 1970, in this clinical brown office, it’s not so sexy anymore. It’s a regression. It’s pathetic and it’s sad.
Don goes through a lot of back-cycling during “Severance.” It’s an episode that interrogates the way he’s built an identity through sex and intimacy, a cobbled-together Perfect Man built from the dreams and projections of so many women, so many loves, so many first kisses.
Two women from his past confront Don in a compressed period of time. One of them is Rachel Menken – we all remember her from Season 1 (and I screamed out loud when we first saw her because I’d missed her so much) Rachel was the first woman in the series whose emotional magnetism truly prompted Don to consider abandoning his facade and starting anew. She’s a powerful symbol of nostalgia in Mad Men, as it was Rachel’s presence that brought out the Don we first came to love – his iconic poeticism (“Love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”) and his wild romanticism.
But Rachel’s already dead by the time she reappears (in a dream sequence which, no matter how beautifully it’s done, always makes me feel betrayed). Her avatar in Don’s mind is pretty on-the-nose – she smiles mysteriously, glimmers in her fur, and tells him, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” She wasn’t his only chance to live passionately and authentically, but she might have been his first. When Don attempts to reconnect, inspired by his vision, we find out that she’s only just succumbed to leukemia a week before. The cosmic devastation throws Don off for the rest of the episode. He attends shiva at her apartment, struggling to make sense of the loss, staring at her young children knowing that in another life, they could have been his. He’s frightened and needing answers about the coincidence of her reappearance in his subconscious. She was gone as quickly as she returned. Is that all there is?
Don’s assisted in his existential crisis by a sad-eyed waitress named Di (I mean, talk about on-the-nose). He’s convinced he knows her from somewhere, and they share a soulless quickie behind a diner. Di does look like a lot of girls Don’s pulled over the course of the series – she’s got the hawkish beauty of Midge, the mysticality of Rachel, and the uniform of the dozens of waitresses he’s winked at for decades. For God’s sake, Don’s already shtupped a random flight attendant during the course of this episode! He’s deep in the throes of dark neediness, repeating his romantic cycle. Don doesn’t know Di, but he knows how this starts and how it ends. He’s fucking a memory.
It’s an extremely depressing setup for the rest of 7B.
Another character who’s grasping for a do-over is Ken Cosgrove, who makes a really welcome return in this episode. The title alludes to Ken’s unceremonious firing by Roger and the head honcho at McCann. Said honcho is an Irish brute named Ferg, who’s long had a professional vendetta against the company-hopping Ken.
Kenny has always been a unique character on which to map the war between creativity and pragmatism. He’s a rare kind soul amongst his colleagues, who hid his idealism and writerly spark in order to advance in the accounts department. Although he’s Head of Accounts, his wife thinks he ought to go back to penning beautiful science fiction novels and leave the ad game altogether. And just as he’s made the decision to bow out gracefully and follow his dream, he’s canned by McCann. Ferg is cruel about it and Roger is cool about it, and both approaches fill the normally level-headed Ken with bewilderment and rage.
“The life not lived” is Ken’s succinct restatement of Don’s problem (and Peggy’s as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Ken could just walk away from this sour turn of events and begin to build the existence he always wanted – a farm, a family, a writing career. But it turns out that for Ken, the best revenge isn’t living well, or living differently. It’s just revenge. His corporate maneuvering provides the absolutely high point of the episode, a fun bit of comeuppance that’s quick and lively and a phenomenal hint of a very amusing storyline to come.
Let’s move on to Peggy and Joan.
First of all, Peggy’s on a bit of a backslide as well. She’s back in a mental place of ennui and self-pity – single but too busy to mingle. She’s set up on a date with her coworker Mathis’ brother-in-law. WHO IS BRIAN KRAKOW. PEGGY’S ON A DATE WITH BRIAN KRAKOW. I know the rest of the internet shares my delight.
It’s a cute storyline, but frankly not one I feel like spending much time on. Their chemistry is easy and fun, and Stevie (that’s his actual name) seems to like Peggy for all her stubbornness and brilliance. It’s nice to see Peggy’s flirty side, because both she and we have forgotten that workplace satisfaction isn’t quite the same as happiness. Her “life not lived” is the life of a girlfriend, a mother, a second fiddle – and although that’s never going to be her style, Peg seems to enjoy roleplaying once in awhile.
Peggy’s trouble in “Severance” stems from the fact that she’s unable to be spontaneous and fly off to Paris with Stevie at a moment’s notice (because her passport is in an office drawer, surprise surprise). She finds every excuse in the book not to trust this stranger or the genuine connection she’s made with him.
It’s hard to be sympathetic towards Peggy, though, because of The Elevator Scene. A watershed moment for the episode.
Some background: Peggy and Joan are tasked with pitching Topaz pantyhose to their superiors at McCann, who are a bunch of sexist assholes. Their crude jokes are nothing new to these two, but this is the first time they’ve been working together as a team in a professional setting.
Unsurprisingly, Peggy handles the toxic atmosphere much better than Joan does. She’s been in conference rooms for years enduring similar blows to her dignity, and has learned to emphasize her “masculine” side to cope – more conservative dress, a harder exterior, swift judo chops to halt any small talk.
But that’s simply not the way Joan is built, so to speak; Joan thrives off her own sexuality and finds power in deploying her femininity and emotional instincts in business dealings. We, as fans, love to see Peggy and Joan find common ground and use each other as lifeboats in their male-dominated war ground of an office – but this is 1970. This is not a time when women lived their personal truths in the workplace and lifted one another up. And Peggy and Joan’s heated conversation in the elevator as they leave that meeting is a short, terrible microcosm of that. Peggy basically calls Joan a slut, and Joan tells Peggy she’s too ugly to even be a slut. It’s a saddening interaction that recalls their Season 1 relationship in all the worst ways.
As a coping mechanism, Joan engages in a little retail therapy – playing up her assets rather than taking Peggy’s harsh advice to hide her curves and bury her sensuality. In this scene, Joan also shows us the narrow gulf between her life and the life she could have lived – as the salesgirl points out, Joan’s spending thousands of dollars in the same dress department she once managed (forced, by her rapey ex-fiance, to quit Sterling Cooper in disgrace). “You must have me confused with someone else,” says Joan coolly. No one’s going to write her story, ever again. Is that all there is? If so, she’s damn well going to be dressed to the nines for it.
- I mustache you a question, Roger…WHY?
- Ooh, Pete’s former secretary Clara is now pregnant out of wedlock! Juicy.
- Speaking of Pete, he’s living a new/old life too. He’s back in New York, and says of his long and lovely LA vacation: “At the time it felt so real…”
- Ken’s father-in-law Ed (who memorably once told Don that he’d never get hired again after he screwed Philip Morris) has an amazing advertising voice. He could sell me Pop Tarts any day.
- Stan. Looks. So. ’70s. Hot. That beard is BITCHIN’.
So, what did you all think of “Severance”? Did you feel confused and kinda bitter (like I did, and apparently the rest of Tumblr)? Did you love the episode? What DOES it all mean?