“Look at yourself,” Don Draper tells an auditioning young model in a fur coat as she stares at her reflection in a mirror. “You like what you see.” The first bit of direction is physical, the second emotional.
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”). The four central characters here are Don, Peggy, Joan, and Ken.
In Ken’s story, he thinks about quitting the agency. His wife strongly urges him to; they both know he’d be happier writing fiction, and the idea of a major life change is in the air following the retirement of her father (Ray Wise) from Dow Corning, whose ad account Ken oversees. Ken resists and then relents, but before he can muster the nerve to give notice, he finds out he’s being revenge-fired by the agency’s new owners, McCann Erickson, following Ken’s father-in-law’s retirement, and replaced by Pete Campbell. (The exact nature of McCann Erickson’s resentment is complicated: They bought Putnam, Powell, and Lowe, an agency that Ken briefly worked for — and then left, taking millions in accounts with him while disparaging McCann Erickson as “black Irish thugs.”)
This story ends with Ken being hired by Dow and put in charge of advertising. Later, he marches into the office of Roger Sterling, who smugly witnessed his firing and didn’t lift a finger to stop it, and tells him and Pete that he’s going to be their bosses now: a client from hell. I wouldn’t call this progress. It’s certainly not a personal leap of the sort that Ken’s wife would have preferred. Ken is repeating old patterns, flirting with the idea of leaving advertising, then continuing his association. He doesn’t need the money. “Let’s stop pretending like I wasn’t born with plenty,” his wife says. More so than many characters, he could just quit. There have been many junctures where he could have quit. But he stays in the system, and from the triumphant smile on his face as he tells off Roger and Don, he doesn’t consider this the emotional equivalent of a lateral promotion, even though earlier in the episode he told Don that the order of events is “not a coincidence” but “a sign (of) the life not lived.”
Peggy’s story likewise has a touch of Robert Frost’s road less traveled, but it’s more hopeful than Ken’s. She goes on a date with her co-worker Johnny Mathis’s brother-in-law Stevie Wolcott (Devon Gummersall of My So-Called Life, y’all!), and hits it off in a way we’ve never seen Peggy hit it off with anyone. Although it would be stupid for viewers to get their hopes too high — if you want to make the gods of Mad Men laugh, tell them how you’d like a story to turn out — there does seem to be a different, altogether healthier sort of chemistry here than we saw between, say, Peggy and Duck (who was good for her professionally, but too old and paternalistic) or Peggy and Abe (who positioned himself as a non-sexist, enlightened Nice Guy, but could be peevishly resentful and chauvinistic).
On the basis of their one magical date, Stevie seems as if he appreciates Peggy as a person first, and an attractive, successful single woman (“a catch,” per Johnny’s description) second. He’s easygoing about everything, accepting a meal he didn’t order (veal instead of lasagna) as one of life’s little surprises rather than an affront to his rights as a customer, then going along with her idea of taking off for Paris. (She can’t find her passport, alas — and how appropriate that she later finds it in a desk drawer at the office.) Stevie is, despite his natty suit and lack of counterculture bona fides, less hung up on playacting masculinity than Abe, a Village Voice writer and outspoken counterculture sympathizer. She has a bit too much to drink and becomes more unself-consciously assertive, talking to Stevie the way we hear some of the show’s more successful and charismatic men talk to their wives, lovers, and dates — and he’s fine with it. “I didn’t go to college,” she admits to him. “I went right to work.” This doesn’t make him think of her as low-class; it’s just one more biographical detail to him. He’s the only man Peggy’s met so far who seems entirely interested in Peggy as Peggy and not as a representative of this or that, or a reflection of his own sense of self. He radiates positive energy and seems unthreatened by Peggy’s natural assertiveness. He thinks she’s sexy and funny and just wants to spend more time with her. His only uncomfortable moment comes when he accepts a meal he doesn’t order and worries that Peggy’s leaving him just two choices: send the meal back and be “a prima donna” or eat it and appear “weak.” Once he’s assured that Peggy isn’t going to do that, everything’s hunky dory.
One of the episode’s finest moments, and evidence of Mad Men’s control over language, comes when Peggy offers to trade meals with Stevie. She says: “I love veal.” The first time I watched this episode I thought Peggy blurted out, “I love you.” Bizarrely and wonderfully, if you say “I love veal” out loud it’s easy to lean on that V and turn the sentence into “I love you.” There are a lot of lines like this on Mad Men, in which the careful arrangement of consonants and vowels almost expresses an unconscious wish by one of the characters. They take a rain check on Paris. Will Stevie be back? I hope so. He’s about as nice as a character can be, without seeming like an idealization or a secret con artist.
Joan’s story is the briefest of the four, in terms of screen time: She and Peggy take a meeting with the pantyhose-makers Topaz about fending off a marketplace threat by L’Eggs, then take another meeting with three men from McCann-Erickson whom they hope can get Topaz into Marshall Fields’ department stores. The former is maybe a five on the condescension scale, but the second is a nine, a hail of sexual innuendo and harassment that Joan and Peggy have to grin and bear because (1) there aren’t many women in positions of real authority in advertising circa 1970, and (2) the men across the table are in a sense their bosses, in that they work for the agency that owns their agency. The post-harassment elevator conversation between Joan and Peggy reveals how even two women of a proto-feminist mindset can internalize the values of their oppressors. Peggy suggests that Joan is, in a sense, asking to be harassed by dressing the way she does. This is absolutely the wrong thing to say to a woman who was raped by her husband and pressured into prostituting herself for the good of the firm and a payout that would support her and her son indefinitely. Joan shoots back that Peggy can’t dress the way Joan does because she’s not attractive; we may be reminded that one of their first conversations had Joan advising the new secretary that she should take her clothes off, put a bag over her head, and look at herself in a mirror to figure out what her assets are.
Peggy ends the scene by pointing out (à la Mrs. Cosgrove to Mr. Cosgrove) that she’s loaded and doesn’t have to put up with any of this if she doesn’t want to. Joan loves the work, though, so she buys herself some new clothes at the same dress shop where she briefly worked, turning down an offer of an employee discount by telling the dresser, “That’s tempting, but I think you have me confused with someone else.” (This is one of many lines in “Severance” that feels like a secret summation of everything Mad Men is about: Don, Peggy, Joan, Pete, Ken, and so many other characters used to be someone else, or are trying to become someone else and always falling short or getting distracted.)
Don carries most of the psychological and symbolic weight in “Severance” and has the darkest story line. While living a seemingly comfortable swingin’ bachelor lifestyle again post-divorce, he learns that his old flame from seasons one and two Rachel Menken Katz (Maggie Siff) has died; the revelation shocks and depresses him, and he fixates on a waitress named Diana, “Di” for short. The revelation of Rachel’s death is heralded by a dream in which she auditions for Don like those girls in their fur coats; they speak to each other in advertising taglines, or what sound like advertising taglines. Di seems like a dream figure, and talks to Don like a dream figure. (She even reads John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A trilogy, a set of three novels meant to put the first half of the 20th century in historical and cultural context, is an acknowledged influence on Mad Men.) Di is of the same basic physical type as many of Don’s significant girlfriends — and his stepmother, and his mother, whom Don hallucinates dying after giving birth to him in season three’s “Out of Town.” Di has a one-syllable name that begins with a “D,” just like Don. Go ahead, say “Di” aloud, why don’t you. Or maybe never say Di?
Don’s childhood and adolescence, and his dysfunctional adult reaction to having survived them, put the psychological frame around Don’s story in “Severance.” His compulsive womanizing is driven by a need to possess and define women, which is itself a subset of Don’s desire to shape his own image and identity, and write his own life story with himself as a Paul Newman–esque antihero. His frequently cold, controlling, destructive, and self-destructive behavior is partly a reaction to a string of youthful traumas. These include his prostitute mother dying shortly after giving birth to him, his upbringing by a stepmother who never let him forget he was a whore’s son, and his rape by a prostitute working in the brothel where he lived for a while. (Interesting that a lot of viewers don’t see the latter for what it was, a sexual assault, or consider that many sexual assault survivors react to the trauma by becoming compulsively sexual in order to reestablish control over a part of their psyche that was violated along with their body; see Abigail Rine’s “Don Draper Was Raped” for more.)
Don is working through traumas here, even though he might not be aware that he’s doing it; his whole story has the mix of specificity and mythological vagueness that we associate with dreams interpreted by a psychologist, therapist, or mystic. Every Don scene has a dream-logic connection with every other Don scene. Every one is about sex and death, and chances at happiness that were thwarted, or seemingly thwarted, by fate, or inattention. It’s also about Don’s sophisticated caveman’s sense of what a woman should be (an embodiment of fantasies, and a mother-whore-angel figure). Even the scene with the flight attendant is a mother lode (ahem) of un-packable symbols: His date is a woman who, in more than one sense, comes and goes, which at this point is exactly how Don prefers his women. The flight attendant spills red wine on Don’s white carpet. Don covers up the wine stain with a blanket rather than cleaning it up before it sets — Don’s strategy for dealing with every screw-up in his life. The Romans considered the accidental spilling of red wine to be a bad omen, and the very next Don scene is his dream about Rachel, which presages the revelation that Rachel died. It’s a dream about a woman who truly meant something to him and could’ve been a soul mate in another life, and he’s having it while lying in bed with a woman who means almost nothing to him.
At the heart of all this romantic-sexual-dreamspace symbol-play are Don’s Hugh Hefner–style sexual fantasies — which Don can make real because he’s handsome and eloquent, and which he validates and repackages for national consumption through his ad work. A lot of this comes down to woman as plaything versus woman as woman: a sex partner who is disposable, like the plastic egg that holds L'Egg’s cheap pantyhose, versus. a romantic partner who is treated as an equal, or at least not as a mere diversion or object.
It’s no accident that the opening scene of Don auditioning a young model before a tribunal of men is followed immediately by a scene of Don and Roger out on the town with three young women (maybe former auditionees?) at a coffee shop. Nor is it an accident that Don is telling a story from his youth involving his stepmother and her second husband, Don’s Uncle Mack, that occurred in a brothel, and that sounds funnier in Don’s recounting than it would be if you were actually there witnessing it. (A man was nearly electrocuted.) Note that Don’s story is followed by Roger immediately and correctly deducing that Don’s telling it partly to reveal his humble origins and impress the audience with how far he’s come and how successful he is; as we’ve seen before, Don’s embodiment of the Horatio Alger myth is a big part of his Get Laid strategy, and it works well when he’s in a room with guys like Roger, who were born into money. Note also that Roger pays for the meal with a $100 bill, which the waitress, Di, a sex worker on the side, interprets as a down payment on a future rendezvous, which Don (to his seeming surprise) later enjoys in an alley behind the diner, if enjoy is the right word for Don’s compulsive sex life.
Where is all this compulsive behavior coming from? I don’t want to reduce it to one or two things, but since everything people do is ultimately rooted in childhood, it doesn’t seem unfair to turn back the clock and look at where Don, or Dick, came from.
Maybe Don is attracted to Di because she reminds him of somebody he knows, or knew. There has always been a sense in which every woman is a refraction or reflection of Don’s childhood traumas, and the idealizations that might have sprung up in response to them: his mother, stepmother, Rachel, Megan, Midge, Joy, Allison, etc. are distinctive characters but also variations on a myth created and carried by Don’s imagination. “Do I know you?” he asks Di, and somehow his tone makes the question seem rhetorical. Something about Don’s seven-season romantic-sexual trajectory reminds me of The Odyssey, and Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut, which was strongly influenced by The Odyssey: It is, on some level, the story of a wanderer trying to find his way back home (though in this case a home he never actually had rather than one from which he’s been displaced) while encountering women who represent some aspect of the ideal mate from whom he was violently separated (his mother, maybe — a trauma repeated somehow via Anna Draper’s death in season four; the episode’s title is “Severance,” after all). There’s an intriguing, if undefined, parallel between Don and Di’s story and Peggy’s date with Stevie. Both are about sudden, unexpected, powerful connections and the question of what, if anything, we should try to do with them. In Peggy’s case there seems to be a There there: She tells Stevie that at first she thought he was just a “fling,” but now she thinks he’s “something more.”
Back to Don and the model: “Severance” begins with the aforementioned audition scene. The first part is a long exchange of close-ups. We don’t see the model and Don in the same shot until 56 seconds into the scene. They are visually and geographically separated, so pointedly that their camera angles might as well have been filmed on different days. In cinema, conversations between living people and phantoms or metaphors are often photographed this way: close-up, close-up, close-up, then finally a wider shot revealing that the living person is talking to empty air (at which point the theoretical viewer thinks, Aha, I have been fooled, I thought this was really happening!).
The model here is real, but just barely. She has nothing to do with Don besides embodying his fantasy, or his client’s fantasy, if indeed there’s a difference, and there might not be much of one. (At one point Don name-checks David Bailey, the Swingin’ London photographer who was the basis for the hero in Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s thriller. The character is an arrogant but handsome high-fashion photographer who treats women as raw material for images, and looms over them in photo shoots as if he’s attacking them.) This pervasive fantasy is of a sexy young woman who exists solely to be looked at, comports herself in a manner that validates the aesthetic preferences of the man doing the looking, and who is happy to do nothing else but be an available goddess. Don is a disembodied voice here: part voice-over announcer, part all-seeing God, which we know from watching Mad Men is one of his favorite modes of performance. Don is also the embodiment of the male gaze, defining this anonymous auditioning woman in his mind and then through his vocal instructions — and because he’s in advertising, there is a muted sort of power behind his fantasy. Popular ads, films, TV shows, and songs can nudge people’s self-perceptions subtly in one direction or another. They show women how to be women and men how to be men, and they can show each sex how to appeal to the other. The images and roles can date easily, but at the time of their first appearance they’re potent, and almost nobody questions them.
When Don is auditioning the models, or hanging out with Roger and their young dates, or calling his answering service to choose from a possible list of assignations, he seems content, but also vacant. There’s an emptiness to his life, expressed in the episode’s many long shots of Don examining spaces devoid of any life save his own (like the shot of him looking at his now-empty and dark apartment) and in shots where Don is framed in a way that makes him seem like half of a conversation with a person we can’t see or hear (when his secretary delivers news of Rachel’s death and then leaves the room, we see Don at frame left and an empty chair at frame right, as if Rachel ought to be sitting there). It’s sadly right that Don would dream of Rachel auditioning for him, like one of those pretty but pretty vacant models. Only in Don’s dreams would Rachel do something like that. Only in his dreams could Don possess Rachel as Don likes to possess women.
The closing encounter between Don and Di in the coffee shop is one of those unsettling Mad Men scenes that appears to be unfolding between reality and dreamland, rather like that scene on the plane between Don and Neve Campbell’s character in the season-seven premiere. It’s as dreamlike in its way as Don’s dream conversation with Rachel’s ghost. “I had this dream about a woman that I once knew, and I found out the next day that she had just died,” Don says. “Is that who you think I am?” Di asks. “No, I don’t think so,” Don says. “Well, I want you to think very carefully about when you had that dream, because when people die, everything gets mixed up,” she says. “Maybe,” Don says. “Maybe you dreamt about her all the time,” she suggests. “Maybe,” he says. “When someone dies, you just want to make sense out of it, but you can’t,” she says, tying Don’s current distress over Rachel in with many other traumas stretching back over his entire life. Then she tells him to bring a date the next time he comes in there, and walks away, and the camera dollies back and back.
“Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee sings, in a music cue that’s used here three times, a record for a single song in a Mad Men episode. We hear it used once in the opening audition montage, again when Don is leaving the coffee shop after meeting Di for the first time, then again at the closing. Like the best Mad Men scenes, lines, and situations, there is more than one way to interpret it. “Is that all there is?” expresses a sort of Antonioni-esque ennui or disappointment that’s characteristic of a lot of Mad Men episodes, but at the same time it conveys a sense of relief that no matter how bad things can get, and how screwed up you and other people can be, somehow life goes on. “Is that all there is to a fire?” Peggy Lee sings. Is that all there is? How sad, and what a relief. We move on, we forget or make ourselves forget, then we die, and the universe forgets us. In the meantime, there’s work, sex, friendship, and maybe Paris, if we can find that passport.