Last night’s “Severance” brought a focused return to the second half of Mad Men’s seventh and final season. The episode only delved into the lives of our dapper protagonist Don Draper and his coworkers, leaving Megan, Betty, Sally and co. for later in the season. By not addressing the family, the Matt Weiner-penned episode could explore how the employees of SC&P relate to their identity, as constructed from the workplace and otherwise.
This rather melancholy episode starts off with what may be the show’s central focus: identity. Each character’s understanding of their identity is seen conflicting with their hopes, desires and even reality with characters like Ken and Peggy worried about falling into an inertia that come so easily in adulthood, particularly in the ’60s. With the show wrapping up, notions of the past and future also get subtly intertwined into all this identity business, illustrating where identity inertia can lead 45 years down the road.
Don is back to his womanizing ways with alcohol close behind, yet his relationship with drinking, at least for now, seems a lot more healthy than when had to be escorted out of the office by Freddy Rumsen. On one hand, he has accepted his impoverished past, telling the women he and Roger bring to a diner an elaborate story about his stepmom’s toaster in their boarding house, yet Don now wields his real past like a sword for slaying the ladies that doesn’t quite match up with the bleak flashbacks. Don still seems incapable of allowing others to delve into his past and understand his true identity, and that same issue with intimacy permeates the entire episode.
In a telling moment, Don walks into his apartment and turns on the lights to gaze upon his lavish, but completely empty, apartment which prompts him to turn the lights off again and check in with his secretary on how many women have called asking for him (3). Don barrels through these nameless sexy women, but a dream he has of Rachel Katz that sends him searching for the one woman who prompted him to truly open up about his troubled childhood years before he did so to anyone else. He discovers she died just one week before, sending him to where her family is sitting shiva. He looks over at all the mourners, suggesting a longing not only for Rachel but also for an intimate community that would be there to proverbially sit shiva for him when the time comes. Perhaps this loss sends him trying to pursue Diana, an employee at a diner, where he tries starting with sex and then unsuccessfully following up with romance.
Don’s protégé Peggy is not quite as aware of her identity and how to manipulate as Don is, but she definitely has a certain idea of how she should behave. Peggy’s employee Johnny Mathis sets her up on a date with his brother-in-law and after a few drinks she almost flies to Paris with the guy! Peggy is often seen as a parallel to Don by critics and that certainly fits with their guarded nature and keen eyes for creative, but a fundamental difference between the two gets squarely addressed this episode. While Don has sex with Diana in an alley without saying more than a few words beforehand, Peggy insists that her date Stevie wait to have sex with her since she believes in their potential as a couple.
She wakes up the next morning regretting being emotionally indulgent enough to almost fly to Europe, but we see that she still has access to her emotions and, at least while drunk, craves intimacy over sex. Don acts on drunk autopilot much of the time and seems to have lost hope of actually allowing access to his real emotions. Mad Men is a cynical show so there’s no saying Peggy will build on this momentary emotional fragility but there is a hope in her I’m not sure Don has at this point.
Peggy’s role as a woman in the male-dominated SC&P also comes into play in contrast to Joan who we may remember from earlier seasons consciously throwing around sexuality to get what she wants out of the men at the office. Since then, Joan has matured and refocused her attention now as partner, but sexist McCann employees harass Joan and then Peggy unintentionally underscores the issue by mentioning how rich Joan is from becoming partner that she doesn’t need to really work. That lucrative partnership wouldn’t have happened if Joan hadn’t slept with Herb Rennet in order to get the Jaguar account.
Joan comes back the next day wearing a buttoned up, puke green shirt and librarian-esque glasses. After getting a call from one of the sexist McCann employees Joan finishes off the day with some designer retail therapy. Peggy has largely ignored the issue of sexism by focusing almost singly on the word, but Joan’s relationship with sexism suggests confusion in how her identity previously hinging on attractiveness will play out now that she manages accounts.
An interesting addition to this week’s episode is Ken Cosgrove who debates with his wife about whether he should continue along his lucrative trajectory in advertising or opt for his dream job as a writer. His wife’s dad brings into stark contrast what it meant to be a man in his generation versus Ken’s when he brags about cooking a Pop-Tart. Likely puttering around Ken’s mind is the thought of being less of a man by pursuing his dream of being a writer in a world where men were so alienated from the domestic life that his wife’s dad found making a Pop-Tart a commendable task. By the end of the episode, Ken continues along in his role in advertising, relocating to Dow Chemical out of spite after he is unceremoniously fired from SC&P.
I think the American model is often one of redemption because every soul has a bit of good in ‘em, but not so for Mad Men. Every character has seen significant changes since season one, but I wouldn’t say they are changing. This show has always been conscious of its temporal relation to the now being set in the sixties, but that focus is even more relevant now that the show is on the cusp of the seventies. We can all theoretically understand what identity is, but as the character have shown this episode abstract knowledge can often be at odds with real experience.