Mad Men creator Matt Weiner explains the theme of Mad Men Season 7 Episode 8, “Severance,” as the story of the life not lived. Don is in the midst of his second divorce and gets a glimpse of what life might have been like had he married someone else and focused on family. Ken has an opportunity to leave advertising and write his novel (at last). And Peggy experiences a small taste of romance with a smart, pleasant, “regular guy.”
While Weiner notes that each closes the door to the opportunities that present themselves, shouldn’t we mention the cleverness at using “Severance” as the title for this episode? After all, severance is about being cut off; so many of these characters are cut off from what they want most – or think they want – cut off from parts of themselves left unexplored, cut off from what they expect to happen next, and cut off from connecting with each other in ways that could make their situations better.
Cue the raw remarks between Joan and Peggy in the elevator.
Meanwhile, Don is back to old (destructive) tricks. Plenty of booze, plenty of women, and shmooze at the ready whenever he needs it. When it comes to his sexcapades, please pass the scorecard so we can keep up. He even has his answering service helping him juggle the ladies!
As for the flight attendant who graces his otherwise lonely apartment after a night out with Roger and three other women, as she teeters around his bedroom in her undies, she spills her red wine. My, my… Doesn’t it resemble a splatter of blood across the carpet?
Say hello to one of several reminders of death in this episode.
Don Does Dream Time
How does Episode 8 start out?
In a sexy scene, Don is auditioning models in fur coats for a newly acquired agency – let’s not forget that McCann-Erickson bought 51% of SC&P when last we met, several months back – a move that made all the partners rich. In their prosperity, while McCann may pull the strings at the end of the day, they seem to be growing and enjoying new opportunity. These are doors they certainly opened and walked through, and as we see Don (and others) enjoying the parade of lovely ladies in their casting call, it doesn’t seem like dreadful duty.
Cut to Rachel Mencken slithering through the door to Don’s surprise (and delight). She arrives as Ted opens the door, gives Don a sultry smile, and leaves again, with a cryptic message: “I’m supposed to tell you, you missed your flight.”
As she exits, it is Pete closing the door behind her, but only later in the episode do we fully realize this is a dream, as Don learns that Rachel has recently died of leukemia.
In fact, he goes to see the family and walks in on their sitting Shiva. He seems genuinely lost, and no more so than when he glances at her children and the rest of her family, and her sister not only tells him she knows who he is – clearly he had a significant enough role in Rachel’s life to have warranted conversation many years earlier – but sister Barbara points out that Rachel “had everything.”
Don, in contrast, having screwed up Marriage Number 2 and his relationships with his children less than ideal, wonders where he finds himself. As he perpetually falls back on sex as a means to blot out pain — let’s not forget his origins, after all — how apt that the lonely waitress he nails against a brick wall positions the encounter as payment for the $89 tip left a few nights before. Transactional sex, severed from feeling.
Perhaps a bit of “overkill” all the same… her name is “Di.”
Peggy and Joan, Sexually Harassed
For anyone who has lived through sexual harassment, even if more benign than the obnoxious and humiliating comments made by the McCann-Erickson staffers as Peggy and Joan present a proposal, watching these two women have to grin and bear it is painful.
Even if you haven’t been through this yourself, isn’t it shocking to see and hear so-called professionals making references to Joan’s panties, her chest, and spreading her legs?
This line stood out, as Joan and Peggy were seeking to combat the competitive pressures of L’Eggs pantyhose by hooking their pantyhose client into a department store detail: “They’re worried legs are going to spread over the world…”
Joan’s indignation is evident throughout this scene, as Peggy does a better job of keeping her cool. After the meeting, in a much tweeted exchange, Peggy comments on the way Joan dresses, and wants to know “what she expects.” Joan is (understandably) incensed, and strikes back with digs that Peggy doesn’t know what she has had to deal with (as Peggy isn’t attractive enough).
Mrs. Harris’s final remark on the subject?
“I want to burn the place down,” she says, as the two share the elevator ride down.
Joan, incidentally, looks fantastic in her fuchsia dress. (Brava, once again, to the costumers on this show. The color is bold and confident.) She is a stunning woman, next to Peggy’s more demure but attractive professional style. This is, to my mind, another sort of severance. As long as Joan is young, she will always be taken less seriously because of her beauty; in their own way, her looks cut her off – especially in this era – from certain opportunities.
Now, now, Peggy. Not quite. Didn’t Joan just do something she wouldn’t have “wanted” to do — sit through a humiliating meeting, keeping her mouth shut? Joan is still a single mother, albeit beautiful, trying to be taken seriously in (what remains) a man’s world.
Joan’s remedy for her disappointment bears an element of defiance: She goes shopping, buying a number of dresses and shoes that do anything but hide her womanliness. I say – good for you, Joanie!
“Paris Is Always a Good Idea”
First Date Magic? That’s what Stan says in the office the day after Peggy accepts a blind date with the brother-in-law of one of the creative worker bees, Mathis. To her surprise – once a few walls come down thanks to alcohol and laughter – she likes the guy. She likes him so much (and thanks to alcohol and laughter), she suggests they fly off to Paris for a few days.
You go girl! Let’s see a little romantic spontaneity from Peggy!
I couldn’t help but think of the line from Sabrina: “Paris is always a good idea.” And isn’t Peggy a workaholic rather like the elder brother Linus in that classic Billy Wilder film? Wouldn’t Paris loosen her up in a way that might help her enjoy a piece of herself she seems to want?
Is That All There Is?
Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” opens and closes this episode as we are reminded again of endings — Don’s brief marriage to Megan, Ken’s unceremonious termination from the agency because his father-in-law (Dow Corning) retired and now McCann-Erickson feels free to axe him, Joan and Peggy, each in their own way, disappointed with where they are despite having achieved a sort of success they may never have imagined.
When it comes to Ken, whose wife encourages him to leave the agency to write — they have all the money they need — he considers it seriously, or seems to. In the closing scenes, we realize he reconsidered and instead, took a position with Dow as their head of advertising, which he announces to Roger as he informs him that he doesn’t need SC&P’s severance. Nifty revenge on his part!
Perhaps Matt Weiner is preparing us, the viewers, for the ending of the series. (Won’t we be asking ourselves if that’s all there is? What sort of show might he create to illuminate the social changes of the 1970s?)
What Will the 70s Bring?
And speaking of the new decade — not only do those brushy mustaches and sideburns yield clues to the year, but the Nixon speech on television puts us in April 1970. Does Matt Weiner intend us to confront the realization that the sixties are over, and without accomplishing all we thought they could?
As for what’s ahead, including the foreshadowing of violent death, let’s not forget the teasers dangled in Season 7 Episode 7:
Will Don ever find peace, and the sense of family he desires?
Will SC&P succeed as a subsidiary of McCann-Erickson with Roger at the helm?
Will we fast-forward into 1970 or later? Will we see more Betty? Will we see more Sally? Will Bert’s sister make an appearance to shake things up?
Personally, I continue to be curious about Joan’s ability to deal with the obstacles she encounters. It seems to me she has the smarts to do so. As with any good 60s (or 70s) serial, we are certain to keep tuning in to find out… next week, and the week after, and for four more weeks, until we are finally severed from our Mad Men characters and plots.
Thank goodness for reruns, Netflix, and DVDs, n’est-ce pas?
Click images to access originals at AMC TV.
You May Also Enjoy