Review: Mad Men: “Severance”

While last year’s half-season of Mad Men moved, at times, at a snail’s pace, tonight’s premiere delivered the kind of dialogue and story lines that got most of us hooked back in Season 1 Episode 1. The start of the episode has Don being his old self, ordering around a beautiful woman auditioning for an ad for pantyhose. She’s dressed in little more than a mink coat and as she does her routine, he gazes at her from afar, smoking his cigarette and having a drink, in typical old Don fashion.

Not long after, we find him with Roger and a few women (possibly other audition models?) at a diner, sweaty and drunk, chatting about his former life, growing up in a whorehouse (he doesn’t mention the whorehouse this time); and shortly after that, he’s home and lonely, on the phone with his answering service which he uses to keep track of his flings. Don’s on the verge of his second divorce, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to spend one night alone with his thoughts (which were sure to haunt him soon since he was thinking about his childhood).

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The real crux for Don in this episode, though, is the sobering return of his former mistress, Rachel Katz (formerly Rachel Menken). We find Don once again in the casting room, but this time the model is Rachel. Of course, we know he’s dreaming this time, and their interaction is brief, but potent.

“I’m supposed to tell you you’ve missed your flight,” she tells Don with a smile. The message is loaded with meaning, though entirely open to interpretation. Did he miss out on his only chance with Rachel? At having a new life with her? Has he missed out on other things, especially now as an obviously lonesome twice-divorced ad man who in previous episodes has been near total self-destruction? Is he beyond redemption?

Soon after, we learn from Don’s secretary that Rachel has died and it’s obvious that Don will never find out now what he missed out on. He decides to drop in at her shiva and briefly speaks with Rachel’s sister. It’s clear that Rachel spoke of Don to her sister and that the effect he had on her was anything but pleasant. At one point, Don mentions his first divorce and the sister asks if he left his wife for this one, to which he replies that he didn’t. Don is visibly shaken by Rachel’s death and we see it in his eyes during his entire interaction with the sister. Rachel’s sister asks Don what he wants but the truth is he’s getting no answers, no compassion, nothing but his final severance from a relationship he may have been holding on to this whole time.

Don returns to the diner from the beginning of the episode and seeks out a waitress that he now associates with Rachel (slightly similar in appearance but nothing more). After they have a quickie in the alley (prompted by an earlier $100 tip she’d gotten and assumed was for more than just coffee), he divulges his reason for even returning: the dream about and subsequent loss of Rachel. The waitress tells him that sometimes things get mixed up when someone dies. She also tells him that maybe he’d been dreaming about Rachel all along.

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Meanwhile, Peggy and Joan deal with even more misogyny than usual this episode. The pair have a meeting with a few of the guys from McCann-Erickson and it reminded me of the diatribe from the pilot episode when Peggy is new in the office and dealing with the sexist remarks from some of the male staff, many of whom she would later end up calling her peers. While the guys at the meeting make off hand remarks about legs spreading all over the world (regarding the pantyhose market), most of the remarks are pointed at Joan.

“Would you be able to tell him what’s so special about your panties?” one of them asks, looking right at Joan. Joan shifts in her chair and tries to sit tall without breaking into a rage. Peggy works defense and it seems she’s better at deflecting the attacks, possibly because they aren’t as targeted at her.

The line is ultimately and unforgivably crossed when another guy flat out asks Joan why she isn’t in the brassiere business. It points to the fact that no matter how high in the chain of command Joan gets, her physical attributes are the only thing these men notice and they’re quick to let her know it too. Joan deflects by trying to discuss the numbers and the scene ends.

When Joan and Peggy find themselves in an elevator after the meeting, their interaction is laced with the venom that was meant for the McCann-Erickson guys. Peggy starts out by trying to be a sympathetic ear, much like she did in the first season, but Joan isn’t having it. This in turn brings out the resentment from Peggy, and she deals a low blow and tries to slut-shame Joan.

“You can’t have it both ways. You cant dress the way you do…”

Joan quickly shuts her up and tells her she wouldn’t possibly know what it’s like to be Joan because she doesn’t look like Joan. And if you’ve watched the show from the start, you know the struggles of the two women have been entirely different. Peggy’s disadvantage has always been not being taken seriously. In season 1, she’s still looked upon as a little virgin girl, a point that Joan informs her of right away, in a catty advice session. In later seasons, we see how much Joan envies the way Peggy has demanded respect by being the best at her job, and how Joan will never be given this opportunity because she stands out too much.

Meanwhile, you’ve got Peggy envying some of the flack that Joan gets because of her looks because it’s rarely ever been about looks for Peggy. With this short slut-shaming sentence, Peggy tries to justify the men’s behavior because in part, she doesn’t seem to view it as the worst thing. Worse still is when she retorts that Joan is filthy rich, unaware of the cost of Joan’s current fortune. Both women then react in different ways to the situation: Joan by purchasing even more clothing that she loves because she refuses to compromise herself to “fit in with the guys”, and Peggy by going on a blind date in the hopes of being wanted for more than her talents.

Other great things about this episode include those crazy new mustaches, the way Ken sticks it to Pete and Roger by leaving his own severance package behind and informing them that they’ll have to start impressing him thanks to his new position as Head of Advertising for one of their major clients, and that awesomely casual “binders full of women” reference halfway through the episode.

With only 5 episodes left, I can only imagine the writers will try to stick as much story in as possible. Stay tuned.

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