It’s oddly fitting that we start the final wave of episodes for Mad Men with an episode entitled “Severance.” It’s the beginning of letting go. And letting go, we find, is hard for the featured characters in this episode to do. This premiere is more tightly wound to highlight the movements of four of our characters, showing them straddle the oft-colliding lines between their fantasy (or, for some, escape) and their crushing realities: Don, Peggy, Joan, and Ken all grapple in a major way with their own fears and demons in this first episode.
Let’s work from the bottom up. The “Severance” we’re mainly looking at in the traditional sense is that of Ken’s, who as a secondary/tertiary character has definitely gone through a LOT in the last 7 years or so. His wife aptly says he lost an eye for advertising, and he shouldn’t give up the rest of his life. She insists she knows advertising isn’t his passion, and that he needs to get back to writing. With her father’s retirement (a major connection to Dow Chemicals), Ken feels moved and inspired by the freedom his father-in-law now has to pursue whatever his life’s dreams are. So it’s both a total blow but almost a blessing in disguise when Roger Sterling fires Ken, incited by Ken purchasing a set of golf clubs for his father-in-law, but pushed forward more by the connection to McCann Erickson (with whom SC&P merged with in the finale last year). Ken’s past dabbling with them, and the sour aftertaste he left on them, essentially marked his days anyway – the golf club purchase to continue courting Dow as an account sealed his fate. At first upset by his past mistakes burning him, he sits in a phone booth contemplating the opportunity when he tells Don about his severance at first. You see his face light up – the dream of writing is now almost achievable. He has no excuse now to give it up, or does he? When he sits with Pete to settle things up, it turns him. Outside of personal character developments, we also get laid out in clear terms that there’s acknowledgement – and maybe resentment – of what the merger did to the partners. Everyone knows that the partners can easily afford whatever luxury they want. Ken pretty much sees that Pete can probably more easily walk away with his millions than he can. His pride is hurt going over turning his accounts to Pete. The writing isn’t enough to fulfill him – there’s something about this world that keeps Ken in. Maybe if he turned away and became a writer years ago, before everything came to fruition in the firm, when he was a different man, he could’ve pursued the dream. You can take Ken out of the ad man world, but you can’t take the ad man out of Ken now. His fantasy is destroyed by some inner calling – let’s call it a need to feel needed, maybe it’s more revenge. He becomes head of advertising at the very client they fired him for, rejects the severance, and leaves SC&P. He’s at least leaving on his own terms, even if it means pushing (or suppressing) his dream farther away.
Joan’s idea of escape and fantasy from her reality is more about her self respect in the ad man world. She is a front facing partner in different accounts, working alongside Peggy to sit with clients about their business, but still finds it hard to garner respect. Her sex appeal continues to haunt her like a ghost when she’s basically harassed and disrespected by the McCann men who they ask to connect them to department stores to save their client Topaz. Even with her newfound riches, is it enough to stave off the harsh realities and disappointments of this male-dominated, sex-oozing world she’s fighting to survive in? Well, at least for her, she can find refuge treating herself to a shopping spree midday to make herself feel good.
Peggy’s work-life balance has always been a battle, especially since she gave up her child for adoption. She’s always favored work over her personal life, since any emotional attachments she’s had outside the office have always been torn away from her. Last year, she definitely suffered two unexpected heartaches – between Ted chickening out on their affair and losing the son-figure in her life, you can almost understand why Peggy puts almost zero effort into having a personal life. Romance is a fantasy for her, perhaps a fantasy she doesn’t quite understand since she seems to never have had any successful relationship before she got sucked into advertising. Mathis sets Peggy up on a date with his brother-in-law, who she rejects at first. She also has a knee-jerk reaction to the sexist treatment of the McCann boys to her and Joan – she’s confronted with not being respected and also maybe not measuring up in sex appeal. She agrees to go on the date, and finds herself surprisingly charmed when the date gives Peggy a very honest compliment based on Mathis’ reporting of what makes Peggy so great. In a similar move that Don would make, she admits she’s never been on vacation and that they should just scurry off to Paris for shits and giggles in the moment – it’s the romantic, spontaneous fantasy. At Peggy’s, though, it’s almost too convenient that her passport isn’t readily available for them to take the trip. She even goes so far as to say she doesn’t need to sleep with the guy because she likes him too much. But when she wakes up the next morning, you almost feel like she didn’t believe it was real, and that there was a sense of regret – she’s totally hungover (which I think is a funny fit for her wake-up call, considering the song used in the teasers for this season is “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross) and there’s nothing sweet about it. In fact, when she discovers her passport was in her desk all along, she’s almost ashamed of having indulged in her fantasy. She hides her enjoyment in shame (maybe even disbelief) and resumes her stern work-self. Her commitment is to the work, we just have to wonder if she’ll put up with it as long as Don has. Her biological clock, though, is clearly ticking, so you know this is starting to grate on her that she’s unfulfilled outside the office. Will love be something she’ll shove away and hide in shame, like her pregnancy so many years ago? Or will she finally crack and break? I hope this isn’t the last we see of that guy.
Finally, Don. Especially after that vision of Bert singing, you have to almost expect he’ll be seeing things again. The intro to the episode is almost eery, us watching Don seemingly ogle over a girl and instructing her very seductively, when really, it’s just a casting call for their fur coat client. In the montage of girls coming in and out, there’s one vision that feels like such a surprise, and in fact it is because it is a ghost of Don’s past: Rachel Katz (formerly Menken), coming in, coyly saying, “You’ve missed your flight,” and walking out. It’s a vision he has after we see him romping around and toying around with a slew of girls – even his after hours message taker is highly aware and jokes about it. He spills a glass of red wine in a very telling move, and covers it up, like he seems to do with all his mistakes and demons. His latest affair finds an earring of a love long past – Megan, now his second ex-wife. The blood spill immediately signaled to me of blood, and shortly thereafter Don hears about the death of Rachel Katz. The connection to Menken is surely cropping up again because they’re trying to get more connected to Department Stores (probably for Topaz) – and of course, this news stings him almost as much as the death of Anna Draper. She was one of the lovers who was totally and truly a match for Don – someone who saw through him, and probably understood him better than the other flings. So naturally, this leaves an effect on Don, outside of the fact he saw her ghost. It’s almost like it’s meant to mean something – his fantasies, his escapes – it won’t last forever. He’s gotten by with his bad behavior for so long, with very little to confront as far as consequences. The haunting message of Bert and Rachel at this point are almost the warnings from a Grim Reaper: the best things in life are free, and you missed your flight – Don’s looking in empty places for fulfillment, and perhaps he’s now missed his chance at saving himself from himself. He tries to pay his respects at Rachel’s family’s during shiva but is soundly rejected, being told Rachel lived the life she wanted. Is Don living the life he wanted? He’s living the life he THINKS he wanted, the one he fought so hard to earn, but is it enough? It’s amazing that here he’s finally casually talking about his past, that he’s at least let go in the sense that his past demons can’t hurt him anymore, and he’s willing to be that person. But what does it mean for him in the end? What greater thing is he still missing? He’s drawn to a diner with a woman with an eery familiarity to someone he knew (his mother? a former fling?) who also confronts him that his behavior won’t be tolerated. He’s left contemplating there, especially after he is confronted with Rachel’s death. Don keeps running away from things in plain sight, but when will he stop, where will he stop, and what will make him stop? Will he ever let go and change? I guess that’s what we’ve come back to find out.