Mad Men, Severance, review: 'melancholy and moving'
Season Seven, Episode Eight: as Mad Men returns after a midseason break its characters appear trapped. Contains spoilers
Mad Men: the past decade’s most stylish and stylised drama, one of its cleverest and one of its most opaque. With “Severance”, episode eight of a final 14-episode season that has been on hiatus since last year, the AMC show about the Sixties advertising men (and occasional woman) of New York’s Madison Avenue hit the home strait.
Fans are braced to bid farewell to the characters, who, despite the fact they speak in sentences so artfully formed they’d be the envy of John Cheever (one of the more obvious literary influences on the show), have been depicted in such humane detail that, as in this episode, we have found ourselves caring peculiarly deeply about them.
Not that Matthew Weiner, show creator and writer for "Severance", wasn’t out to dazzle us with intellectual brio and complexity. We were in 1969 – the close of the decade that the drama has so consciously charted – and back in the offices of the fictional Sterling Cooper, now merged (after various other incarnations) with the larger (and real) company McCann Erickson. But this wasn’t an episode about secretaries and staplers, it was about dreams and delusions, the characters’ but also the viewers’.
I felt the conscious thud of disappointment in the opening seconds as I realised, or thought I realised, that tortured Don Draper (Jon Hamm) had returned to his interminable Groundhog Day. Having shed his wife in the last episode, here he was back seducing a stranger as she sashayed around for his benefit in a $15,000 chinchilla coat and not much else. But then the camera panned back to a room full of his colleagues and we saw this wasn't a bedroom encounter but a casting session.
Still, in a double bluff, it turned out Don was indeed back to his old ways, promiscuous, dead behind the eyes, full of regret. Of course he was, the repetitive cycle of Don’s life has become Mad Men’s raison d’être, if we feel ennui it is so that we can share his. And in this episode Don’s experience of life’s tedium was intermingled with tragedy.
Peggy Lee’s quietly devastating rendition of “Is That All There Is”, a song that lifts whole lines from Thomas Mann’s short story Disillusionment, bookended the show and spread its nihilism across the hour.
Head of accounts Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) was sacked, giving us the episode’s title, but that was one of the lighter of the characters’ low points.
There was a tremendous, uncomfortably funny scene in the middle of the episode where Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), erstwhile secretaries, now powerful ad creative (Peggy) and millionaire office manager (Joan) attempted to have a business conversation about a pantyhose client with their new male colleagues at McCann Erickson. They were treated with such rampant sexism that Hendricks’s eyes took on the despair of a generation of women.
Most poignant of all, Don saw his lover from season one, Rachel Menken, in a dream sequence, then discovered she had died. He thought his dream had meant something and described his sadness to a waitress cum prostitute (implausibly equipped with a John Dos Passos novel in her apron pocket) he had met in a café, only for her to tell him, “Maybe you dreamed about her all the time. When someone dies, you just want to make sense of it, but you can’t.” We left him alone at the bar in a tableau that might have been painted by Edward Hopper, the iconographer of 20th-century American urban alienation.
So, Weiner gave us heavy melancholy this time, so much so that even when Peggy was allowed to have fun with a new date, all I could think was, “he’ll never call her”. Are we being told that all Weiner’s characters – with Don, Peggy and Joan very much to the fore (and no sign of Don’s first wife Betty) – are trapped – by society's prejudice or their own delusional fantasies? I think Mad Men will pull the rug from under us yet again. But not without, as this episode did, making us cry first.