The key exchange in “Severance,” the midseason premiere of the final season of Mad Men, occurs between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), not long after Sterling (John Slattery) fires Ken for being too close to Dow Chemical. Earlier in the episode, Ken gifts his father-in-law, Ed Baxter (Ray Wise), a new set of golf clubs, which he will likely never really enjoy due to the anxiousness of feeling useless and old, of not bringing home the bacon. When Ken speaks to Don about writing a novel and “the life not lived,” however, it’s the sound of a man who seemingly doesn’t care about such feelings, a man who’s comfortable with the comfortable life he was handed. In contrast, Don’s deeply unsatisfied with the life he’s taken, to say nothing of how he’s maintained that life, and “Severance” brings the full ache of that regret to bear.
Bookended by Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” the episode opens with a telling bit of trickery, as Don directs a woman to wear a mink coat in just the right way to make it seem like she’s naked. She’s a model—just one in a series that Don must instruct this way for commercial casting. Later on, the process is repeated in a dream Don has about Rachel Katz (Maggie Siff), a moment that leads him to seek out his ex-lover. With his second divorce about to be official, Don’s uncertainties over what he’s been doing with his life are digging in, and showrunner Matthew Weiner, who wrote the episode, underlines how stubbornness can rot you out.
So, it’s less surprising that the episode saw both Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) discovering the real benefits of getting outside their routine and seeing what one another’s perspectives offer. After a borderline grotesque meeting with a gaggle of misogynists from McCann, the two most powerful women at SC&P get into a spat over how to feel about the abuse they just endured. The argument centers on questions of behavior and appearance, the void between which has been prime territory for Weiner’s world. While Peggy decides to cut loose with a blind date, Joan buys herself a new, fancy wardrobe that reflects the money she’s accrued from her position at SC&P. And per usual, Weiner allows the sting of self-control to settle in after Peggy’s triumph, as she attempts desperately to shrug off any sign that she had fun with her gentleman caller.
There’s a similar wound left by Ken’s ultimate decision to take a more lucrative job at Dow Chemical rather than accepting his wife’s money and trying out a different kind of life. Once the voice of wisdom at SC&P, Ken has grown bitter and now wants nothing else but to one-up those who talked down to him. It’s a petty decision that will have damaging effects, but it remains a decision that he made of his own accord. It’s the things you have no control over that really leave their mark though, as witnessed by Don’s realization of Rachel’s death from leukemia. The entire interaction between Don and Rachel’s sister plays out with such an elegant sense of melancholy, never overselling Don’s reputation in Rachel’s life, but recognizing the hurt he created for her. His grief is enough for him to go all Vertigo and enjoy a quickie with a diner waitress (Elizabeth Reaser) who reminds him of Rachel. The emptiness of that action does finally become clear to Don, and his crushing disappointment seems indicative of a world where the crafting of illusions is as much a social and psychological necessity as it is a full-time job.
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