TV Recap: Mad Men, ‘Severance’ (Midseason Premiere)


Severance Plot Summary:

Sterling Cooper is now officially an affiliate company of McCann-Erickson. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is back to his vintage playboy days, bedding woman after woman and partying with a mustachioed Roger Sterling (John Slattery). However, he has a dream of his former lover Rachel Katz (Maggie Siff of Sons of Anarchy) but, he soon finds out that she has passed away. Don is thunderstruck by this news and finds hollow solace in the arms of a diner waitress (Elizabeth Reaser of Twilight). Meanwhile, Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) is fired from Sterling Cooper after his father-in-law (Ray Wise) announces his retirement. Will this give him the chance to go back to writing? Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is set up on a blind date with a co-worker’s brother-in-law (Devon Gummersall of My So-Called Life).

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Favorite Performance: Aaron Staton as Ken Cosgrove. The character of Ken Cosgrove is one of those characters that seemed to suffer as the series went on. A main cog in the early seasons, he’s been relegated to background noise recently. He just pop ups, eye patch and all, and leaves as soon as he came in. Of course, that time the entire office was high was probably his shining moment. In ‘Severance,’ Aaron Staton got what is probably his farewell moments for the series. He is given a few fantastically bombastic scenes and knocks them all out of the park. His scene where he, in a near catatonic state of euphoria delivers this half-season’s theme (coincidences, signs, a live not lived) is brilliant. However, his final scene, where he returns triumphantly to say he’s now the head of advertising at Dow Chemical, dropping the jaws of Roger and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) was a showstopper. The triumphant look on his face is priceless and the scene is hilarious. Honestly, you can’t give a character a better send-off than that, and if we never see ol’ one-eyed Kenny again, it was one hell of an exit.

The Little Thing We Loved: Welcome to Cameo City population five. First, we have that outta nowhere cameo from Maggie Siff of Sons of Anarchy fame. It’s been a long, long time since she and Don had planned to run away together. Who knew her re-appearance would be the one to knock the wind out of Don’s hedonistic sails. We also saw the return of Alex Mack herself, Larisa Oleynik as Ken’s wife Cynthia, and did she look as good as ever. Ray Wise of Twin Peaks fame returned as Ken’s father-in-law Ed Baxter. Devon Gummersall, aka Brian Krakow on My So-Called Life, popped up (sans McFro) as Peggy’s potential love interest…if she doesn’t screw it up (which she totally will). Elizabeth Reaser, who rose to fame as the matriarch of The Cullen clan in Twilight, appeared as diner waitress who Don had a tryst then philosophical breakthrough with.

Christina Hendricks Mad Men
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

The Supporting Scene Stealer: Christina Hendricks, as per usual, has another strong start out of the gates. Usually the M.O. for Joan (since she’s become a partner) has been a strong early season and by the end, she’s kicked to the background. This trend seemed to lose steam in the first half of Season Seven, which will hopefully remain the case for the final episodes. The scene where the McCann execs blatantly and cruelly sexually harass Joan is absolutely uncomfortable to watch – as it was meant to be. Hendricks is able to convey the pure hatred, anger, and embarrassment of Joan through the glint of her eyes and the gritting of her teeth, even her cheeks flare with furious color. However, it is the grace and professional that Joan handled the situation with that made the scene even more heartbreaking. Imagine saying any of those things in today’s business world? You’d be fired and sued — and justifiably so. But then – it was the status quo.  Hendricks continued to roll in the elevator scene where she eviscerates Olsen’s character with furious anger and great wrath. A fabulous performance from Hendricks, who hopefully will get more of these scenes in subsequent episodes.

The Best Part of the Episode: Tough call. The most harrowing gut punch of the episode comes when Don drops in on Rachel’s funeral. When her sister questions what he thought he’d get out of being there, Don’s facial reaction just fells you. You can see Don’s entire life shatter like cheap glass all over the floor. Don is always awkwardly in search of truth, clarity, a meaning to it all and he never seems to truly find it. Also, seeing Peggy actually be happy on her date, when it looked to go awry, is a great moment for a constantly miserable character. Yet, the best part of the episode is still Cosgrove’s revenge. Watching the man who lost his eye for Sterling Cooper get his day is one of the more satisfying moments in series’ history. The facial expressions of Sterling and Peter were both classic and make the moment just that much better.

The Part We Could’ve Done Without: There is no part of the episode that reeked of ‘Ugh, they could’ve left this out,’ However, the ending is a bit predictable – Don being way too emotional to someone he barely knows (but had sex with) and then staring into the middle distance. Saw it coming a mile away, but is there any other to end the episode?

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Final Thoughts: ‘Severance’ obviously refers to the severance package that Sterling Cooper is giving to Ken Cosgrove (which he obviously rejects). However, the title has so much more meaning than just that (are we surprised?). The question is – Can any of these characters really sever themselves from the Sterling Cooper way of life in order to truly find happiness, to lead the life not yet lived? Don’s bed-hopping ways have returned, something he can never seemingly sever himself from. However, the vision of Rachel and then learning of her passing shows how disconnected he is from everyone. Does he really know anything outside of his selfish, hedonistic ways? He tries to make connections so desperately that he tries to connect with the waitress (who he of course has sex with) that he believes he knows. The fact he can’t remember is a reflection of how he discards people. His subsequent, ham-fisted attempt to connect with her is just sad and Don is left staring in the distance, gut punched once again at a life not yet lived. We look at Peggy – she actually has a shot at happiness, but instead buries herself back into the world of frustration and self-loathing that is her job. It wasn’t a coincidence that her passport was in her desk at work.

One could wax philosophical for hours about the symbolism and messages of this episode, but let’s look at the quality of the episode. It was an excellently executed episode for certain. The scenes with Joan and McCann execs and Don at Rachel’s funeral were tense, awkward, and excruciating scenes to endure — and they were supposed to be. This series is about emotion, for both the characters and audience, and you really felt every aching emotion that coursed through the veins of these scenes. Acting-wise, you couldn’t have asked for better performances from Hamm, Hendricks and Staton. However, it was still a table-setting episode, and in typical Mad Men fashion, we have no idea where any of these characters are going. However, this show doesn’t have the luxury of a slow start as it has had in years past. A handful of episodes remain and closure is needed. Do I have confidence in the series to give us a strong ending – yes, but let’s hope it’s not rushed.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Mad Men airs every Sunday night on AMC.

Bill Bodkin is the Owner, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beauty daughter, Sophie. He is beyond excited that Pop-Break will be six years old in 2015 as this site has come a long, long way from the day he launched in it in his bachelor pad at the Jersey Shore. He can be read every Monday for the Happy Mondays Interview Series as well as his weekly reviews on Law & Order: SVU, Mad Men and Hannibal. His goal, once again, is to write 500 stories this year (a goal he accomplished in 2014). He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site’s podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites