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Mad Men - Severance - Review: "Returning to its Roots"

Watching “Mad Men” once again is like returning to a wonderful museum to gaze at your favorite painting. You stand in front of it, letting it evoke whatever feelings may arise, analyzing the brushstrokes, searching for the painter’s intended commentary. And after such a long absence, you appreciate the artwork even more.

“Severance” was definitely a piece of art to admire. It proved an energizing and gratifying start to the final stretch of the last season. Right from the get-go, the episode evoked memories of season one. The numerous touches of seasons past felt like a nod to the beginning as we start the journey toward the end: the reappearance of Rachel; the Don of old – sexy, confident and sleeping with everyone; a re-energized office environment where naps and excitement again prevail; Don reclaiming his status at work; the re-emergence of fun-seeking duo Don and Roger; the facade that nothing is wrong when everything still is; and the continued theme of personal fulfillment. All these elements helped take the show full circle, providing a smart move in terms of story and a fun ride for the fans.

Revisiting Don’s Roots

Once again we saw Don at the top of the world, at the top of his game, the Don who is fun to watch because he acts like he has it all. The episode presents that man from the very first frame, as Don instructs a pretty, young girl in fur to seduce him with the coat (a purposeful choice that evoked the way he met and wooed Betty). He gives her specific instructions in a low, sexy voice, making you think he’s alone when he’s actually in a room full of men watching the girl audition. You immediately understand Don is back, his fall from grace forgotten.

We also see him in a tuxedo at a diner, telling old stories about his stepmother to three women and Roger. (Apparently he isn’t afraid of talking about his past any more. Roger mentions he likes to tell stories about how poor he used to be.) We hear his barrage of voicemail messages from women. We see his rendezvous with the flight attendant and dalliances with other women.

But Don’s old self has another side. This is also the same Don who doesn’t really have everything together. He calls the flight attendant to avoid being home alone. While he is enjoying all that he has in life, he still can’t shake a sense of emptiness and lack of fulfillment. The episode gives him time to grapple. I like that we haven’t just returned to a happier time. We’ve returned to the essence of who Don is: someone who is afraid to be alone, someone who can’t define happiness or how to achieve it, someone who fills his time with pleasure in order to avoid feeling like he isn’t enough. But he also realizes his fears. He doesn’t like to think about them, but he is aware of them. And Rachel’s death becomes the catalyst in his newest search for meaning.

Rachel’s Return

After a conversation with Joan about department stores, Don has a dream about Rachel in which she comes to audition for the fur coat ad. He hasn’t seen Rachel in years, but suddenly she’s on his mind. Even before that, the waitress at the diner reminds him of Rachel (a fact he doesn’t recognize until later). After his dream, Don tells Meredith to reach out to Rachel at Menken’s department store but Meredith soon informs him Rachel has just died. Don is shocked. He goes to visit Rachel’s family for shiva (a week-long mourning period in Judaism following a burial), wanting to find out how Rachel’s life had turned out. He learns she had two beautiful children and “lived the life she wanted to live,” according to her sister. Don intently watches the religious mourning, which puts him in a contemplative state of mind.

The next time we see Don, he is lying in bed, staring into the nothingness of the ceiling. And then he returns to the diner. (In between, he has visited the diner and had sex with the waitress on her break. She thinks it was an obligatory collection for the $100 bill Roger left her, while Don seems to be searching for a true connection.) When the waitress tries to avoid him, he tells her about his dream and then learning his friend was dead. She recognizes that he thinks of her as a stand-in for this woman. She hints that he’s probably just trying to make sense of his friend’s death. And she tells him, “Maybe you dreamt about her all the time.”

Indeed, Rachel represents a dream in the non-literal sense: an idea of what Don is constantly seeking. Rachel is someone with whom he had that true connection, someone with whom he could be himself, someone who knew the truth about his past and accepted him, someone with whom he felt secure. As he sits at the diner alone, Don is still searching for that acceptance in life, that fulfillment of knowing he matters. It’s elusive. But at least he’s wrestling with “the life not lived.”

The Life Not Lived

Personal fulfillment was a prominent theme throughout this episode, as several characters considered their dreams and happiness. It all boiled down perfectly to Kenny’s statement. When he tells Don he just got fired, Kenny says it was a sign of “the life not lived.” He takes it as a sign that he can now devote himself to his passion of writing and pursue something that truly makes him happy. He is free to go after his dreams, free to create a different life, one in which he is more fulfilled, one in which he seeks what he truly wants. His retiring father-in-law says he’s attacking that goal. But when Kenny has the opportunity, he doesn’t follow through. Like many people in life, he chooses a stable, steady job (and in this case, one that offers sweet revenge) over the risks of an undeveloped, unstructured, invisible dream. The revenge factor makes it all the more appealing. But the decision was still clear: he chose the familiar path instead of “the life not lived.”

Peggy was another character struggling with her own personal fulfillment. On one hand, she’s more confident than ever after her successful Burger Chef presentation. The poise with which she carries herself, her silky clothes, additional makeup and flirtier haircut all point to a self-assurance she didn’t exhibit before. She suddenly seems more comfortable with herself, and she knows what she wants out of life. She’s realized she wants love and a family in addition to her professional satisfaction. But she goes back and forth with allowing herself to pursue her “life not lived.” First she gives all kinds of excuses to her co-worker Mathis when he suggests setting her up with his brother-in-law. But then she rethinks her decision and decides to go on the date. When she lets down her guard, she has a wonderful time and finds a man with whom she can see a future. But the next day she immediately regrets her hastiness, second-guessing herself and offering excuses.

As for Joan, her ideal life includes her business skills being taken seriously. And she is fighting an uphill battle on that front, as evidenced by the three young men from McCann Erickson who have a wonderful time sexually harassing her in a business meeting. (What a great scene with all the double entendres that make you really feel Joan’s discomfort.) Even Peggy unintentionally puts Joan down by implying Joan is asking for that kind of response with the way she dresses and looks. Joan’s “life not lived” is subject to outside factors and opinions. But instead of confronting the problem head-on (which would admittedly be very difficult since no one wants to listen), she goes shopping, taking advantage of all the money she has and not wanting to be reminded of who she used to be. Joan is on the verge of her “life not lived,” but as Don has demonstrated, ignoring the past and ignoring the problem isn’t usually the best answer.

It’s interesting that each character struggling with his or her own “life not lived” was yearning for something different: a dream (Kenny), a significant other (Peggy), to be taken seriously (Joan) and to feel they have a place in the world (Don). But in reality they were all tackling the same general idea of personal fulfillment. And they all experienced different levels of success. Some moved forward (or at least thought about it) while others didn’t. Those that did move forward accomplished it in tiny steps. But even tiny steps get you somewhere eventually, as long as you stay on the path.

Additional Observations

- The song, “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee was a perfect choice to amplify the theme of the episode. I loved how when we first heard it, the message was very hopeful and positive. The singer recalls her father saving her in a fire, and says “if that’s all there is” to starting a fire, they should go out and enjoy their lives and have a ball. But later when we hear the song again, that same line takes on a much more cynical tone. After being left by someone she loves, the singer asks again, “Is that all there is” to life and love? The tone is more philosophical, wondering what gives you happiness and satisfaction in life. It mirrored and enhanced the episode’s theme perfectly.

- It was interesting to see how they all dealt with their new embarrassment of riches. Roger is throwing big bills around, Joan is buying all the clothes she wants, Pete is annoyingly lamenting how it isn’t enough. Don was the only one whose actions didn’t seem much different.

- Talking about his hordes of money while Kenny has just been fired was a classic arrogant Pete moment.

- It was fun moving into 1970. The facial hair took on a character of its own: Stan with his crazy hippie hair, Roger and Ted with fantastic mustaches. As usual, the aesthetics set the perfect atmosphere.

- I loved the elevator scene with Joan and Peggy. Despite the fact that these are two hard-working women, they are definitely not the same. How they think and how they act is very different from one another, and so are the challenges they face in life. Together, though, they are dynamite.

- Meredith actually had some nice, coherent, useful moments. She’s become such a fun side character.

- Watching Peggy on a date was delightful. I see how she could really intimidate a guy. I loved how she became funny and fearless after hearing herself described that way. And watching her drop her inhibitions to go to Paris was a rare treat. With her history, I also appreciated that she stuck to her guns about not sleeping with the man on their first date, saying she’d “tried new-fashioned.”

***All photos courtesy of AMC.

What did you think of "Severance?" Were you satisfied with the character developments? Did you have a favorite moment or scene? Join our discussion in the comments below.

About the Author - Tonya Papanikolas
Tonya Papanikolas is an online, print and broadcast journalist who loves covering entertainment and television. She spent more than 10 years as a broadcast news anchor and reporter. Now she does everything from hosting to writing. She loves being a part of the SpoilerTV team.