06th Apr2015

‘Mad Men 7×08: Severance’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“We had a problem, but we solved it.”
-Art Garten

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One pair of pantyhose is a lot like any other.  You could be forgiven for mixing up brands, for lacking Topaz exec Art Garten’s workmanlike ability to identify them by touch.  They’re just pantyhose, right?

But what about women?  What about every woman in your life, every woman you’ve ever loved or known or hated?  Your mother, your wives, your mistresses, even your daughter: what could drive you to see one woman in another’s face, to think of them as so indistinct that it’s a shock to realize one stands out?  We’ve seen Don self-medicate loneliness with sex before, and we’ve seen him reach for human connection with a desperation bordering on terror; we’ve also seen him get lost in the grey area between the two pursuits.  When dream-world Ted opens the door for Rachel Katz, neé Mencken, with a weary “here’s another girl,” it’s Don’s subconscious sending him a wake-up call.  It’s also the second time we’ve seen Don dream of women he loved near the hours of their death, hearkening back to the appearance of Anna’s ghost in season 4′s “The Suitcase”.

When Don learns of Rachel’s death from leukemia he becomes obsessed with making sense of her place in his life, and of his place in hers.  He fixates on a waitress who superficially resembles Rachel, making anxious love to her in an alleyway and telling her his name in a heartbroken voice when she clearly just wants him to leave.  Instead, haunted, he lingers in the diner where she works.  He dances between sex and death when he accepts Ted’s bored, dissolute invitation to a corporate orgy and then shows up at Rachel’s apartment instead.  Unable to join the mourners sitting shiva, he touches a shrouded mirror in the front hall and realizes slowly, painfully that his face, his name, his memory no longer held weight in Rachel’s world.  He disappeared from it long before she died.

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Everything, people desperately want to believe, is interchangeable in “Severance,” Mad Men’s murky, haunting mid-season premiere and the beginning of the end for Don Draper and the SC&P crew.  Topaz can beat L’eggs if it copies their gimmicky container, Don can forget about Megan in a the arms of so many women he needs an answering service to keep track of them, and everyone can be happy if they just switch plates and eat what they really love.  In a way it mirrors the path SC&P has taken in embracing McCann’s suzerainty, an acceptance of hacky mediocrity as long as there’s a lot of it.

These people have the money to create infinite parades of placeholders for themselves.  When Joan, after a meeting with repugnant McCann executives who recall the “tangerine panties” antics of the season 1 Sterling-Cooper crew, buys out half a department store in an ego-boosting power trip, she’s deferring suffering and feelings of helplessness with wealth.  “You’re filthy rich,” a jealous Peggy tells her after the successful but humiliating meeting.  “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

All well and good, but what Joan wants is to play in the big leagues and be taken seriously without compromising a feminine self-image that clearly means a great deal to her.  The McCann executives are a clear callback to the vicious, direct misogyny the show lingered on in its early seasons.  That one of them refers to Joan as a “work of art” feels like a stop-thrust to the gut of every viewer and critic who has ever reduced Joan, and the phenomenal Christina Hendricks, to their attraction to her.  Joan’s life is privileged beyond belief in many ways, but her life is also an unending onslaught of abuse, scorn, and harassment.  Furious, she lands the best line of the episode when Peggy asks her if she wants to get lunch and she responds, “I want to burn this place down.”

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Mad Men has made much over the years out of Don’s inability to see things through to their ends.  Now, staring across the crowded parlor of Rachel’s home, he sees a life that kept going without him.  She was content in that life, too, a life that from the outside resembles the one he was so eager to escape all those years ago.  “She had the life she wanted.  She was happy,” Rachel’s sister Barbara tells Don before dropping one of the most wrenching deliveries of the words “I’m sorry” I’ve ever heard.  The nameless waitress adds to his ennui by (correctly) dismissing his interest in her as a misguided attempt to make sense of Rachel’s death.

“Severance” begins with a strange reflection of Freddy Rumsen’s fourth wall-breaking speech from the season 7 part 1 premiere.  Don instructs a woman modeling a fur (and, incidentally, standing in for Betty at the time she and Don met) to abandon words and communicate only with her body.  In “Time Zones” Don spoke in absentia through a mouthpiece, and in “Severance” he tries to speak through someone else’s silence, overtly controlling her movements and emotions with his words.  It’s a scene heavy with shades of the sub-dom sexual dynamics Don has explored with his soon to be ex-wife Megan, an allusion to something personal, intimate, and overwhelming, but in the end the camera pulls back and reveals that it’s just another pitch to another room of dull old white men with too much money.

Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” bookends the episode, wryly casting Don as “the most wonderful boy in the world” and affirming that every individual is a story that keeps on going with or without the interference of others.  Everyone is desperate for an ending, to be involved, to feel important.  Ken tries to find meaning in the suffering he endured for the agency by turning it back on them, abandoning ship to join the poison-hawkers and napalm-makers at Dow Chemical and promising Pete and Roger he’ll be a thorn in their side for as long as he feels like it.  Kenny tells Don, prophetically, that his departure from the company is a chance at a second life.  He can live on a farm and write his novel, “something sad and sweet” in the words of his (recast) wife, but he chooses petty spite because to do otherwise would be to admit that the blood he poured into SC&P was for nothing.

Everybody’s trying to close loops, end stories, make meaning out of nonsense, but Art’s words ring as false in their lives as they did for his own shoddily-bandaged marketing woes.  People aren’t like pantyhose.

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Closing thoughts: Farewell, Lou Avery, I will miss your old-man glasses chain and general oblivious, and NOTHING is funnier than Meredith’s obvious, seething jealousy toward any woman who comes within a nautical mile of Don.

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