We’re never gonna get that fire Mad Men’s been teasing us with.
Whether it’s figurative or a literal blaze like the one Joan threatens when she says she wants to “burn this place to the ground,” whatever all that fire imagery in season 7A was hinting at—it’s not coming.
That’s not the kind of show this is. There are no mafia dons waiting for a gunman to walk through the door while they’re dining with their families, no kingpins whose sins finally catch up with them. Mad Men is a show almost entirely about character development, and “Severance” seemed to indicate that that’ll be the focus of these final seven episodes. And why wouldn’t it be? We’ve already had the fires—moments like the end of season three, where our main characters risked everything to start their own agency, or “Waterloo,” the episode prior to this one, where they got everything they’ve been working for (a multimillion dollar deal with McCann, power, a big client in Burger Chef). These feel like infernos in the moment, but once we keep moving and eventually return to the status quo, we remember them more as sparks or flares.
Because that’s the thing about being so consumed by one single goal—once you achieve it, you have to keep on living. The midseason finale asked us “What do I do now?”, and Matt Weiner wastes no time in showing us his characters are still grappling with a similar question in “Severance,” bookending the episode with Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” (“I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire/I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up/In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement./I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames./And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”) and opening on Don leering at a model in a casting call like he might’ve in season one.
But “Severance” isn’t so much about regression as it is about what might’ve been. Don’s bedding so many models he’s got an answering service to handle all their calls, sure, but then he’s visited by his season-one love Rachel Menken in a dream. She’s wearing a fur coat just like the woman at the beginning of the episode, and she shows off her smooth skin—the real product here—like a pro. All Don can do is rattle off the slogan for the razor commercial he’s casting, telling her “You’re not just smooth. You’re Wilkinson smooth.” And then, just like that, he finds out the next day that she’s dead. He attends her shiva, where he’s painfully reminded thanks to a series of questions from her sister that he did not leave his wife for Rachel, that the kids sitting on the couch in the distance mourning their mother could have been his, but “she lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.”
So Don copes with this loss the way he does best—by having sex with a random waitress in an alley. But Weiner’s not about to throw away seven seasons’ worth of character development, and the whole thing feels different, from the way Don’s openly telling stories about his childhood at the brothel the first time we see him and Roger in the diner (something he pretty much drove his brother to suicide to avoid doing in earlier seasons) to his persistence with the waitress, who he insists he knows from somewhere. The old Don would be content with another one-night stand, but here he asks her what time her shift ends, and when she shuts him down, he’s back the next day, still looking for some sort of connection. It’s like she says, “when people die, everything gets mixed up.”
Meanwhile, things might have been different for Peggy, too, we learn. She goes on a blind date with Mathis’ brother-in-law and casually reveals that “I once quit a job because I wanted to go to Paris.” This is fascinating, because this whole time we’ve assumed that she quit Sterling Cooper because Don didn’t respect her and it was time to move on to more money and better title at CGC. She also mentions she’s never taken a vacation (way more in line with what we know about Peggy’s character), so as the wine keeps flowing, she and her date decide they’re gonna leave for Paris that night. The whole plan comes screeching to a halt, though, when Peggy can’t find her passport, so they decide to reschedule. It turns out her passport is in her desk at the office, right next to her heart and her soul. When Stan expresses some genuine excitement about her upcoming romantic getaway, she shrugs it off as an embarrassing mistake, “nothing some aspirin won’t fix.” Paris, like Rachel Menken for Don, is still just a dream.
That’s the thing about everyone at Sterling Cooper; work is all they know. It’s the basket in which they’ve dumped all their eggs, the only thing they’ve enjoyed success at, and even now that they’re starting to ask “Is that all there is?”, they can’t tear themselves away from the office long enough to find out. Even Ken, who has always sort of barely tolerated working in advertising and long dreamt of becoming a writer, can’t bring himself to do it. After his father-in-law retires, his wife urges him to follow his lead and finally write that novel. Then, the very next day, he’s fired because of an old beef with McCann. It looks like he’s gonna do it, finally, when he tells Don it’s not a coincidence but “a sign of the life not lived.” But he soon finds himself sucked back in, as Dow’s head of advertising, meaning he’ll be Pete’s client. He opts for revenge and score-settling over his own happiness because, as his frustrated wife told him, “there’s always another hurdle.”
Because no one wants to discover that that’s all there is. So we keep rubbing two sticks together, trying to make fire, trying to find another obstacle to overcome that’ll finally make us feel content. “Severance” put all the pieces in place for Mad Men’s final act, where, hopefully, at least a few of these characters can figure out that there is more out there before those last flickering embers fade to black.
—Peggy and Joan’s confrontation in the elevator was a heartbreakingly realistic depiction of victim-blaming. The worst part is, Joan doesn’t even dress inappropriately. She’s always pretty covered up, but I guess because she’s not wearing a burlap sack she has to face criticisms like this. Not your best moment, Peg.
—Ted and Roger’s mustaches are hilarious.
— “He loves to tell stories about how poor he was, but he’s not anymore.”
—It’s interesting to me that Peggy and Joan spend this episode working on a campaign that covers women’s legs (Topaz) while Don’s working on one that emphasizes the bare leg (Wilkinson razors).
—Pete finds himself unhappy with the success he lusted after for seasons too…he talks about his newfound wealth as if it’s a burden and wistfully says things like “I thought I was really changing my life in California. Of course now it sort of feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real.”
—Based on that Nixon speech on Don’s TV about withdrawing 150,000 troops from Vietnam, it seems like we’re in late April/early May of 1970 now.