The second half of “Mad Men’s” seventh season — and, despite the nearly nine-month hiatus, it does feel feel like a continuation and not the product of a contractual loophole — begins as the first half ended: with a song and a death, though in the opposite order. In “Waterloo,” the recently late Bert Cooper returned to remind Don that “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” In “Severance,” Peggy Lee asks, repeatedly, “Is That All There Is?” Don’s old flame Rachel Katz (née Menken) — the great love that got away, and the first woman to really understand who he was, and run from it — has died, but not before having what her sister tells Don was “the life she always wanted.” Don drops in on Rachel’s apartment, where her family is sitting shiva, but he doesn’t belong. He may have “lived in New York a long time,” but he’s still unfamiliar enough with Jewish custom to quizzically pull aside the sheet covering the mirrors on the wall. That mirror also recalls the one in the episode’s opening scene, when Don creepily coaches a model wearing a fur coat and little else to look at herself and like what she sees. Don dreams Rachel into the same scenario — “Here’s another girl,” Ted Chaough tells him, although she was never just that — but she was never Don’s to control, which is both why he loved her and why he lost her.
The loss of Rachel only underlines the sense of failure and isolation that overtook Don in “Waterloo’s” startling final seconds. As I wrote in my “Severance” recap for Rolling Stone:
It’s been eight years since Don saw Rachel, enough time for her to marry, have two children, and lead “the life she wanted she wanted to live,” as her sister tells him. Her family is sitting shiva, and Don has a passing familiarity with Jewish custom (“I’ve lived in New York a long time,” he points out). But he’s not mishpocha, as is underlined when Rachel’s husband goes looking for a tenth man to form a minyan. As they pray, they turn their backs to Don. He’s shut out, a man with no family, no community. He has only his Clios to keep him warm.
“Severance” is a fantastically dense episode: Even after two viewings and several hours of writing, I still see things I missed, like the fact that the fur-wearing models recall both Don’s first advertising job and the circumstances of his meeting Betty, or the parallel between Rachel’s “the life she wanted” and Ken Cosgrove’s lament for “the life not lived.” Only a few fleeting seconds are explicitly framed as a dream, but so much of the episode, especially the scenes with Don, feels like a hallucination, the way that the diner waitress Diane (Elizabeth Reaser) warns Don that “When people die, everything gets mixed up.” Critics had plenty of time to sit with “Severance,” which, as per Matt Weiner’s spoilerphobic protocols, will be the only episode of the season released in advance, and many took the opportunity to go both long and deep, scrutinizing every inch for the themes that will undergird “Mad Men’s” six remaining episodes. Peggy took a step towards happiness, Joan towards self-acceptance, but Don’s still running in place.
Reviews of “Mad Men,” Season 7, Episode 8: “Severance”
Molly Lambert, Grantland
The episode is all about impulsive moves, the kind that are sometimes rooted in a deeper regret for the road not taken, the novel not written, “the life not lived.” Ken Cosgrove’s firing is just one of the plot’s motivators, but it feels indicative of a central theme. As good as all the characters are at their jobs, working in advertising is not meaningful or satisfying for basically anyone on the show. It’s a cynical business, built around selling lies rather than the truth, appearances rather than realities. Everyone at the firm looks successful, but who among them is even mildly happy?
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
Not many characters on “Mad Men” like what they see when they look in the mirror. There are a lot of reasons for this. Some of their discomfort stems from a mix of cultural conditioning and psychology. Some is a matter of looking at that face, however old it is, and thinking about the life that led up to this moment, and perhaps going over past choices and wondering how things could have been different. Written by series creator Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher, “Severance” is one of the series’ deepest episodes because it’s about all of these factors and how they reinforce and glance off of each other. A lot of the show comes down to mirrors and faces, memories and voids, and the question of whether to obsess over past disappointments (or question marks) or shrug and move on (“It will shock you how much it never happened,” Don memorably advises Peggy after she gives birth in “The New Girl”).
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Maybe Don has, like Billy Pilgrim (whose adventures were published about a year before this episode takes place), become unstuck in time, and he’s remembering Diana from a future encounter, and the rest of the season will feature a fractured chronology. Maybe Diana is foreshadowing Don’s demise at the end of the series, and the show will get increasingly mixed-up as we approach that point.
Or maybe it’s all a slight bit of confusion that will have cleared up by the time we get to next week’s episode. Maybe that’s all there is, no matter how much we might want to analyze more deeply, and no matter how much Don and the show’s other characters might hope for more — more happiness, more respect, more stability — in the past, present, and future.
Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times
A new decade has dawned on “Mad Men,” but for Joan and Peggy the future can’t come fast enough. In a meeting with executives at McCann-Erickson, they’re subjected to offensive (and offensively lame) jokes about spreading L’Eggs and the brassiere market. Peggy’s method of dealing with the harassment is to ignore it and try to win the McCann goons over with her steadfast professionalism. Her method seems to work: Eventually they bother to look at the spreadsheet she’s prepared. Joan, the primary target of the sexist barbs, is more clearly bothered by it. “I want to burn this place down,” Joan says, giving voice to the frustrations of professional women the world over.
Hanna Roisin, Slate
God, did I love that pitch meeting with Peggy and Joan, and particularly their tense expressions on the elevator ride afterward. John, you ask why Joan took the abuse from the sexist morons at the meeting. I wouldn’t expect anything else. Peggy always has to prove herself with every interaction, but Joan’s dignity has more reserve. It reminded me of the scene last season when Joan’s friend took her to a club, and she just patiently waited out the come-ons from men. To Joan they are children, and she can soothe herself later in a haughty grown-up way with an extravagant shopping spree.
This aspect of Peggy and Joan’s relationship is one of our favorites, not because we love seeing them be so cruel and thoughtless to each other, but because it’s so true to their characters’ histories and relationship with each other. Joan resented how smoothly Peggy was able to glide through that awful meeting, not least because Peggy wasn’t on the end of as many sexist comments, but also because Peggy has way more experience rebuffing and ignoring this kind of attention. Joan doesn’t have the “I hope you die in Vietnam” tools that she had at her disposal when she was an administrative professional. But Peggy’s pretty awful for making a “If you’re going to dress that way…” comment, even in the context of a less enlightened time. Given their long antagonistic history and decidedly different ways of approaching the world, it only makes sense that their sisterhood only goes so far before their vast differences rear their heads. Neither of these women would be likely to call themselves feminists (even though they both clearly are), and because of that, they can’t really see how much they have in common. People don’t change. The judgmental Catholic schoolgirl and the Queen Bee can’t see eye to eye.
Logan Hill, New York Times
All series long, we’ve watched these ad men and women climb the corporate ladder. Now that they’re at the top, it seems the final run of episodes will ask what it all meant. What does this show have to say about how people change? Watching this elegant, evocative, self-referential hall-of-mirrors premiere, it was hard not to look back and think of Hegel’s curse: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
Don continues to be unsatisfied. This is an episode-to-episode, season-to-season examination of his ongoing existential crisis. It’s what “Mad Men” has always ultimately been about. But here we are at the end, a full decade in the lives of these characters, and Don has blown through two marriages, countless women, vacations in paradise and the highest of work-related highs only to come back to the realization that it’s not enough. It’s not what he expected. It’s not what he hoped. Is that all there is?
John Teti, A.V. Club
The Jewish narrative resonates with Don, but in the past he has also twisted its sense of wandering, construing it for himself as an escape. It’s this contorted interpretation that ended his relationship with Rachel in the first season: He asks her to run away with him to build a new life in Los Angeles, and she spurns him, understandably repulsed that he views a nomadic existence as relief from a stable home. Perhaps this is what Rachel is referencing in Don’s dream when she tells him that “you missed your flight.” It comes out of Rachel’s mouth, but it’s still Don’s sentiment, and the line tells us that Don views Rachel as an unfinished story, one he always intended to revisit someday.
Sarah Larson, New Yorker
I love “Mad Men,” and, with minor fluctuations of feeling, always have. Its flaws — its portentousness, its flashbacks, the sunshiny self-importance of anything that happens in California — are far outweighed by its brilliant pleasures. Like Don, like Joan, like so many of its characters, the show is gorgeous, tragic, funny, and strange. Remember the odd mix of emotions you felt when Joan tried to salvage her husband’s dinner party by playing the accordion? Or when Lane’s father beat him with his cane? Or when Pete fell crazily down the stairs? Or when he screamed “Not great, Bob!“? Or, god knows, when Megan sang “Zou Bisou Bisou“? The show is one of the main reasons we all lost our minds over TV in the past decade. But this episode’s moments of portentousness, its dreams and its in-jokes, made me feel a little exhausted, not just with “Mad Men” and the weightiness it likes to cloak itself in — like a naked woman under a fur coat, perhaps — but with our fixation on TV generally, and the importance we attach to this show and others. Don Draper, unlike the narrator of “Is That All There Is?,” cares deeply; like her, he’s never satisfied. We, the viewers, are much the same way.
Ken Tucker, Yahoo!
Me, I’m tired of being asked to feel to superior to half the people in this show — my smugness just isn’t in it anymore. However, I continue to admire the way Jon Hamm has wrung more changes out of world-weary despair than any TV actor since Jerry Van Dyke in “My Mother the Car.” In the end, the camera pulled back to leave Don alone in the midst of people in an Edward Hopper-lit diner — he was one depressed nighthawk. Waitress, can I get a refill on this coffee, and hold the philosophy?
Starlee Kine, Capital New York
We never recommend imitation as a strategy, Peggy tells the Topaz client. Being second is very far from first. Sometimes though, the order doesn’t have anything to do with it. Patterns are cyclical. Megan came after Betty but wound up in the same place. Don keeps being drawn to the same copy, having long forgotten who the original one even was. The closest he gets to remembering is while dreaming, which he spends an increasing amount of time doing. The concept for Pop-Tarts was first developed by Post. Kellogs swooped in with their version and won out. The key to their success was a better name.
Sophie Gilbert, Atlantic
As ever, mortality hovers over Don like an ash cloud. The red wine the stewardess spilled on his bedroom carpet looked uncomfortably like blood, and Nixon’s speech brought to mind the countless Americans who died in Vietnam. Then there was Rachel’s sister, sitting shiva in her apartment, and silently reproaching Don for his belated interest (far too late, in fact) in someone who died seemingly content without him. “She lived the life she wanted to live,” the sister told him. “She had everything.” How does that compare with Don, who’s had more than everything and let it all slip through his fingers, willingly?
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
As he sits there in that final shot, like a figure from an Edward Hopper painting, Don is probably thinking about his own death. The rest of us probably are, too. So much has been made of the falling man in Mad Men’s credits and the constant threats to Don’s health throughout the series that many people seem to believe the show will end with his death. But Peggy Lee’s line feels prophetic here: “I thought I’d die, but I didn’t,” she sings in the background. And somehow that’s way more dramatic: Don Draper keeps living, long after his moment has passed. Is that all there is? Well, let’s keep dancing.
Matt Prigge, Metro
Soon after Rachel has popped back into his psyche, Don learns that she has suddenly died. This shocks him, less because he deeply cared about her — they hadn’t talked in many years — but because it rocks his complacency as a man’s man plowing through another stable of stewardesses but having an unstable foundation. Perhaps the key scene in the episode found him going to her shiva, mostly in an attempt to find out what became of her. He’s surprised to learn that not only did she have leukemia, but she had two young children, and a life that, her sister assures him — as though intentionally stabbing him, since she says she knows, nudge nudge, who he is — was well-lived. While Don has stumbled through life with little to show for it, Rachel went and found a form of happiness, short-lived though it was. And Don was not remotely a part of it.