Mad Men “Severance” Review (Season 7 Episode 1)

Mad Men Severance Season 7 Episode 8 13

Sometimes I don’t understand the enthusiasm for Mad Men. The costumes are beautiful and the sets are meticulously constructed. But each episode rests on me like one of those heavy lead vests at the dentist’s office. It’s an oppressive and depressing feeling. Every character on that show has a miserable existence. It’s like being trapped in Revolutionary Road.

I gave up hoping for redemption for Don Draper a while ago. People can’t change who they are without working on their problems, and that’s the exact opposite of Don’s coping strategy. His life of debauchery doesn’t feel sexy anymore. It’s just sad. Sensuality has become so commonplace that it’s just another aspect of his job. In the beginning of the episode, we see Don giving sensual directions to a woman draped in fur. What initially seems provocative changes tone completely when his cigarette butt falls into his empty coffee cup. It’s an audition for a commercial. He’s become so detached that even the closeness of a physical connection has lost its meaning. This explains why he’s able to have sex with a waitress in an alley without any apparent sexual interest.

Don’s life is trapped by nostalgia. When he and Roger are sitting at the diner with the group of attractive young women, he regales them with stories of the good old days. Who knows if the stories are actually true. But they smack of Don’s persistent inability to evolve. Just like in season one, he womanizes his way through the episode, gets trashed, and sleeps off his hangover at work.

At one point, he has a vision of his old flame Rachel returning to him and trying on the fur coat. He feels her seductiveness, unlike his response to the other women. It’s just a dream, though, and he finds out the next day that Rachel has passed away. His vision is another piece of nostalgia. He’s thinking back on this woman who captivated him for a brief time and his connection to her throughout the episode is a wistful desire for the way she made him feel. Rachel’s sister sees him for who he is: a sad man with a sad life. He knows she’s right and talks about his two divorces, which just reinforces her perception of him.

Unfortunately, the dark rain cloud doesn’t only hover over Don. Peggy and Joan battle their own demons. The two women struggle to help a failing nylon company by discussing a new angle with another agency. In response, the three men relentlessly belittle and harass them. Joan is justifiably offended when one of the men comments on her breasts and suggests she get into the brassiere business. Peggy ignores the comments and later shrugs them off. Then the women turn on each other. They’re yin and yang—Peggy is taken seriously, but never the attractive one, while Joan is objectified and never given credit for her business acumen. The saddest part is when they accept that dichotomy and perpetuate it. Peggy criticizes Joan’s clothes and Joan criticizes Peggy for not being as pretty. It’s not bad enough that they have to deal with the sexist men, but they can’t even rely on each other for support.

Peggy tries to soothe her wounded ego by agreeing to a blind date. The guy is a total tool, but after a rocky start they get along fairly well. Drunk Peggy is a lot less uptight than normal Peggy and talks about taking a spontaneous trip to Paris. She can’t find her passport, though, so they settle on going the following week. When she is at work the next day, insecure Peggy takes over and she changes her mind about the trip. She is so afraid of losing control that she will end up alone because she pushes everyone away.

Joan doesn’t fare much better. She consoles herself by doing a lot of retail therapy. Even this moment is ruined, though, when the shop girl recognizes her as a former employee and suggests she could still get the discount. Joan replies that the girl is mistaken. It’s sad that Joan feels ashamed of her past. I think part of her problem rests in the fact that she knows she slept her way to the top—literally—and that wasn’t what she wanted. Now the only way to hold on to her self-worth is to embrace the idea that she is powerful and independent. She’s embarrassed by her more working class background, but at least that was an honest living that didn’t require her to sacrifice her integrity.

The only one who comes out on top is Ken. Sort of. Ken exemplifies the dilemma of the rat race. His wife wants him to pursue his dreams of writing, but he’s already adjusted his sights downward. He’s content if he gets the raise at work. He’s doesn’t see it coming when he gets sacked. You think at that point things might turn around for him. He talks again about returning to writing and that losing his job may be serendipitous. Before that happens, he gets a job at Dow and becomes the agency’s client. He’s pretty much right back where he started.

By the end, Don is alone at the diner, befuddled and vaguely depressed. This is the same state of mind we always leave him in. This is the tough part for me about the show. I am a fan of depressing Victorian literature, where you know things aren’t going to work out for the hero/heroine. But those stories only hook me in if I feel like the character believes there’s a chance for something better. They may fail, but they still try. I don’t feel like Don or the others try. I’m not sure I see things getting better for any of them this season, but I guess we’ll see.