The first reviews for the second half of “Mad Men’s” final season are in! And as usual, they’re hamstrung by Matthew Weiner’s by-now familiar list of broad spoiler taboos, which include the year the episode is set and the all-encompassing “Don’s romantic life.” Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that “Severance” picks up where “Waterloo” left off, if not in terms of plot — the late Bertram Cooper’s name is never mentioned — then theme, with Don still wondering if, to paraphrase the Peggy Lee song that runs through the episode, that’s all there is. Closing runs tend to steer TV shows towards comforting conclusions — as parodied, intentionally or not, by the extended wish fulfillment of “Parks & Recreation’s” finale — but Weiner has shown little tendency to placate, much more towards leaving us with a hunk of gnawing emptiness to pick over. The festivities surrounding “Mad Men’s” final return to the air have swaddled the show in a sense of occasion, but “Severance” starts almost perversely small, as if preparing us for big things to come.
Reviews of “Mad Men,” Season 7, Episode 8: “Severance”
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
Ganted, a lot of viewers are not particularly interested in Don’s interior machinations, even though the entirety and point of the series revolves around those struggles, preferring instead to soak up the drinking, fashion, relationships, workplace dramas and ethnographic elements instead.
But “Severance” smartly repositions “Mad Men” onto the existential fast track, tackling familiar themes of death, aging, happiness and identity. Don, who merrily seems to be continuing the “comeback” that started this final season, has one of those wonderfully oblique and short conversations with a co-worker that always seem like road markers on his mind. “That’s not a coincidence, that’s a sign,” the co-worker tells Don. “Of what?” Don asks. And the response merits a close-up of Don pondering it: “The life not lived.”
Brian Lowry, Variety
Ever since it became clear the series would run more than five seasons and engage in time leaps that extend its fictional duration, these characters — who started out in the Eisenhower years — have seemingly had a date with the 1970s. After all, “Mad Men’s” social politics have dwelt on what wasn’t always so swell about the good old days — especially if you were a minority or woman — offering a tacit response to modern cultural warriors still re-litigating what was gained or lost amid the tumult of the ’60s.
All that serves as a backdrop to this closing run, which is still grappling with the central ad agency’s shifting internal dynamics, as well as examples of brazen sexism in the workplace. (Each time lapse inevitably brings a new wave of revised hairstyles and fashions, which can provide amusing clues as to exactly how far we’ve traveled, as well as, at least initially, be something of a distraction.)
As for Don, suffice it to say he appears to have reached another in a series of emotional crossroads, spurred in part by a figure from his past. The opener also makes good use of a song that sums up the restlessness of his character — outwardly, the embodiment of the American dream — particularly well.
Meanwhile, protege Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) continues to wrestle with finding some semblance of work-life balance, while other key players remain discreetly and conspicuously unseen, reflecting Weiner’s habit of stingily disgorging secrets at his own pace.
Ben Travers, Indiewire
Without giving away anything too too specific — Weiner always writes courteous notes to the press asking critics not spoil certain elements of the premiere — “Mad Men” is taking square aim at what’s been its central question throughout: What is it that makes us happy? Don has been the central embodiment of that quandary, as he’s been tasked with severe misfortune (son of a dead prostitute) and incredible good graces (money, women and power), but even more fascinating at this stage, in both the series and in popular culture, are the women he’s surrounded by.
Don remains a fascinating figure not merely because of his mysterious backstory or enviable talents. It’s how identifiable his plight becomes as he goes through the motions of day-to-day life. We know he wants to become a better man, in the hope that being an improved version of Don Draper (or Dick Whitman) would make him truly happy. But he’s just as easily trapped by his primal and superficial desires — as we all are on various extremes. His battle is an eternal one, and the final season premiere grips and fascinates with equal measure because we’re so eager to see what becomes of our hero. Don’s ending is like glimpsing our own fate, if not personally than as a society, and Weiner is aptly unwilling to provide easy answers (now, if ever).
David Hinckley, New York Daily News
It has signature trappings — in this case, drinking and smoking — and like all shows, it has added more characters and subplots along the way. As the storyboard has gotten more crowded, Weiner has had less time to explore peripheral characters and cultural nuances, which is too bad even though inevitable.
Again in the April 5 episode, almost all of his focus falls on the world of the core characters, not what’s happening outside. We sometimes want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them, but after six seasons we understand why they can’t always put it all together. The premiere lends support to speculation that in the end, they still won’t. They can’t. On the other hand, the premiere also leaves plenty of sky in which the sun could break through. We just don’t have a lot of clues yet on where or when.