With only 7 episodes of the entire series left, people have been wildly anticipating where our beloved mad men (and women) of SC&P would be. Is it the 70's? Has Don got his shit together? And just like a good episode of Mad Men is won to do, it quickly reminded you asking those questions is not important. Like most season openers (or mid-season openers, because barf) of this show, or really, like most episodes of this show in general, not much happened plot wise. This season opener dropped us in the midst of the company's newest shake up from last season. But "Severance," like all of Mad Men's most successful episodes, isn't as concerned with the "what" as it is the "how." This was one of the most Mad Man-iest episodes you can muster: people attempt to adjust to the ever changing business of SC&P. Roger acts shitty. People try their best to change and then don't. Don fucks a lot of women and then ends the episode solemnly looking off into the distance. Could this episode get any more Drapery than that?
No, it couldn't. And that is a great thing.
Mad Men is not unlike a collection of short stories. Every episode is self-contained enough to operate on its own merits. What makes it so good, however, is the accumulation of any given character's trajectory. We don't need a flashback or stumbling exposition to remind us that Joan and Don are not exactly "friendly" anymore, the show is too smart, too cunning for that. Instead it just lets the pre-existing relationships from previous seasons to play out naturally.
"Severance" is about what happens to people when they lose something important. How do you deal with a sudden loss? Do you chalk it up to fate, something that is totally out of your control ("It wasn't meant to be," Peggy says of a missed date opportunity)? Do you shut down instead of dealing with it, or do you try to make sense out of the chaos? Or, like in the curious case of Kenny Cosgrove, do you go in full attack mode, say "fuck you," and turn that loss into a gain?
Ken's father-in-law retires from Dow Chemical. Since he's no longer a client, McCaan, who now owns SC&P, can finally fire poor, one-eyed Kenny (McCaan apparently held a grudge after Kenny called them all retarded and quit with four million dollars in billing). But Kenny can't wrap his mind around circumstances under which it happened. His wife had just told him to quit his job and focus on his writing, and he was even pretty sure he was going to do it. And then the next day, the very next day, he gets fired? At first you can't tell if Kenny is pleased or going to vomit. But he should be pleased as punch, right? His wife's family is well off, and he can afford to actually give his writing career a chance. For a moment, it seemed as though a new door was opening for Mr. Cosgrove. A real chance to change his life for the better. So, of course, since this is Mad Men, he didn't do that.
Instead he took his father-in-laws old job, making him SC&P's newest client. And he promises to be a real sonofabitch about it, too. In Matthew Weiner's world, people don't change that easily, and people rarely do what's best for them. Instead of closing the door on a toxic part of his life, Ken doubles down and takes a position he describes as "a cog in a massive machine that makes weapons and poison," simply to stick it to Roger, Pete, and all the other assholes who have wronged him. It's almost poetic right? Like a one-eyed Hamlet or something.
Ken's story mirrors Don's in the way he deals with a bizarre coincidence as well. He has a dream about Rachel Menken (his jewish love interest all the way back from Season 1), and when he calls for her the next day to "discuss panty hose" he finds out she's died. Don is left rattled, unsure where to put his grief. Now, this would normally be the perfect time for Don to retreat emotionally as he always does: go into a self-destructive bender, drink away his feelings, and hurt those closest to him. And that leads us to the most interesting part of the episode: He doesn't do that.
The most telling thing that happens in "Severance" happens very early on, while Don is out drinking with (a very mustachioed) Roger and some lovely looking whores. When the scene starts Don is in the middle of a story about his step-mother and uncle Mac, who he lived with in the whorehouse of his youth. In the one major piece of Don Draper progress revealed tonight (it is not major news that he and Megan are getting divorced because that is an entire season overdue at this point), we find out that Don has actually begun to embrace his Dick Whitman origins. Telling a story about an old toaster electrocuting his step-mother's husband is not inherently a big deal, but for Don this is MASSIVE. Getting him to talk about himself is like pulling teeth, or in his case, like getting Don to get his actual teeth pulled. He just doesn't do it. Even when he talks to Rachel's sister at her shiva, he shows a tremendous amount of candor, telling her about the dissolution of both his marriages (the lack of surprise on the sister's face and the look of shame on John Hamm's are both great). Has Don possibly begun to open up to his past and who he really is?
Arbritrary Episode Grade: A-
- McCaan has bought SC&P and things seem...pretty much the same but...worse? The scene with Joan and Peggy talking to the assholes about panty hose was so painful it was reminiscent of season 1.
- It's incredible that even though we haven't seen Rachel Menken since Season 2, her death still holds a great amount of weight to Don without him ever having to say anything. That is how great the character building in this universe is.
- I didn't mention it up top even though it took a decent amount of screen time, but I liked the scenes involving Peggy's date. It's rare we actually see her connect with someone quickly, on a blind date no less. But at the same time, the second she started talking Paris, we KNEW she was full of it. You could almost see the disappointment in her face when she actually finds her passport later. She wants to be someone who can go on vacation, but she can't just up and let herself go on one, either. It's that whole people don't change thing.
- Don is back to his philandering ways post-Megan break-up, but didn't he seem so much happier than he did in Season 4, post-Betty? He enjoyed going to sexy casting calls. He went out for drinks with Ted Chauogh. He even had some playful-ish banter with his adorably dumb secretary. Is it possible? Is Don evolving?
Jesus, Roger. You should own a boat. A creepy boat.
- Those mustaches. Holy SHIT. It's the 70's, man. Aggressively so. If my google researching skills are any good (and they probably aren't), based on the speech Nixon gives at the end of the episode it's April, 1970?
- Welcome back Mad Men! I'm happy to see you again! But you're going to be leaving us so soon! Such bittersweet agony!