Mad Men season 7 episode 8 review: Severance

The past comes back to haunt Don, Joan and Ken in Mad Men's latest episode, which shows that it's still more than capable of surprise...

This review contains spoilers.

7.8 Severance

We and Mad Men are like old marrieds by now. Not in the comfortable, predictable, finishing-each-other’s-sentences sense (who knows how these final episodes are going to play out?), but with an affinity built on our years together. An episode like Severance has only to – as a reluctant partygoer would across a room to a spouse – throw us a certain look or a few elliptical words and we immediately clock the significance, if not quite yet the full meaning.

A fur coat, red wine being spilled on a white carpet, a dress zipper being pulled down… these are inescapably evocative images for Mad Men fans, whom the show requires to have the long memory of a shrewish partner primed to dredge up years-old arguments at the slightest provocation.

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Take Severance’s fur coats. We know that a young Don Draper pushed his way through a rack of them to emerge into the Narnia of Madison Avenue. Now they’re the gift-wrapping for an unending conveyer belt of Sindys, Tricias, Maxines and ghosts of former lovers haunting his subconscious. You could call it coincidental, but this is Mad Men. To quote Ken this week, “That’s not a coincidence. That’s a sign”.

And what about Joan’s dress being unzipped by that shop girl after her consumer revenge spree? We can’t help but remember when Herb from Jaguar did the same thing, earning Joan the tainted partnership that’s made her “filthy rich” (did slut-shaming Peggy pause for a millisecond between those two words?) and paid for all those frocks. Coincidence or sign?

As for that covered-up red wine splatter. Well, how much blood has been spilled in this moribund show over the years? How much more is to come?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Rarely in Mad Men though. Symbolism is this show’s life force and Severance was satisfyingly plump with it, from the title to the Peggy Lee theme song.

Imagery aside, Mad Men’s greatest achievement is in having created characters we feel we know the very bones of. These final episodes are the dividend of years of writing that pays exquisite attention to itself, not to a solipsistic end but a communal one.

That’s why I clapped in delight when Pete “it’s not fair” Campbell still found things to complain about his irksome million dollars. (How annoying! Having to buy an apartment building, I ask you. Who’s got the time?) Better still was the meta gag that if Pete existed outside the show, he wouldn’t be a Mad Men fan. “Nah, this world is boring. You should write an adventure story,” he counselled Ken. Pete Campbell wouldn’t watch Mad Men. He’d probably be a Top Gear sort of guy. He deserves to have Ken as the client from hell – what sweet revenge that was.

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(On the subject of revenge, how many women have had “I want to burn this place down” moments after meetings like Joan and Peggy’s over the decades? They need to start selling Zippo lighters engraved with the slogan and Christina Hendricks’ white-with-ire, seething face.)

Like Pete, money turned out not have solved Joan’s problems. Wealth, it seems, didn’t automatically equal power for a woman in 1970, not when the McCann-Erickson frat boy chauvinists still see Joan as a doll to play with regardless of what her bank balance, office door sign, or indeed, she said.

Peggy channelled her post-meeting frustration into a blind date that almost took her to Paris (trust that ad exec to sweep aside the romance and see it as the home of margarine), but – as ever – ended up with her back at the office.

Joan meanwhile, fed her fury into shopping. Her humiliation redoubled when the Bonwit Teller assistant recalled her stint working there back when it was her marriage and not her million dollars that failed to provide the happy ending she’d been promised. “I think you have me confused with someone else” she lied – the conversational equivalent of Don pulling that throw over the wine stain.

Ken too, was caught out by his past this week. Stealing Birdseye from McCann-Erickson came back to haunt him, losing him the job which had cost him an eye. (Speaking of which, the combination of Ken’s log lady look, Ray Wise, the Olympia diner, the brunette lookalikes, and that dream sequence lent Severance roughly twice the Twin Peaks vibes of your average Mad Men episode. By my calculations, that now makes it an official spin-off.) I don’t fancy Ken and Cynthia’s chances. No show as savvy as this one could have a character chat away about ‘finally buying that farm’ like a maimed GI in a WWII movie and not expect us to start seeing coins on their eyes.

It was Don’s past though, that returned in the most meaningful way. If Mad Men audiences were of the variety that rooted for TV couples rather than sitting in rapt witness at their inevitable atrophy, then Maggie Siff’s Rachel Menken would have been many people’s choice for Don’s best shot at happiness. Not this show, says Matthew Weiner.

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Rachel dying freshened up Mad Men’s whole ‘Don and death’ obsession in time for his final bow, reminding us once again that we’re not watching an American success story – no matter how many Vogue models and air hostesses that suave bastard boinks – but an American elegy.

“I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight” dream-Rachel told Don. Think back to Anna Draper’s ghostly appearance in The Suitcase, his ‘welcome to oblivion’ Hawaii resort pitch, or even the opening credits plunge, and we all know what kind of journey it is that Draper’s overdue.

As certain as Don’s future demise may seem now, we were reminded not to assume anything in this week’s episode with two deliberately deceptive Don stories. Twice we were led to believe that we were watching an intimate encounter – however sleazy – and twice it was revealed to be no more than a business exchange. The difference being that Don was fooled along with us the second time.

On a rewatch, with waitress Diana’s “You got your hundred dollars’ worth, you can go” ringing in your ears, the whole alleyway scene flips. The encounter isn’t two people giving in to shared base animal instinct, but a transaction – and an unwilling one at that. The snarl on Diana’s face isn’t passion but distaste. Her perspiring return to the diner isn’t a post-coital flush, but rank sweat. Don isn’t an alluring stranger, but a seedy, advantage-taking John. We’re left as spun around as he is, sitting once again alone at a bar, neon sign humming behind him, the star of yet another off-brand Hopper painting.

Like Don and Megan’s divorce, our own severance from Mad Men may be in progress, but this episode proved it’s still more than capable of surprise. How many marriages can you say that about this late in the day?

Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, Waterloo, here.

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