Season premiere review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘Severance’: Is that all there is?

A review of the final “Mad Men” season premiere coming up just as soon as I try your veal…

“That's not a coincidence! It's a sign!” -Ken
“Of what?” -Don
“The life not lived.” -Ken

A handsome man in a grey suit once asked, “But what is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness.” And at a moment in time when that man and many of the people he worked with seem to have acquired a boatload of professional happiness – or, at least, money – a ghost danced in front of him and sang about how the best things in life are free.

And as “Mad Men” returns from its last hiatus, having carried its characters out of the 1960s altogether, “Severance” is a reminder of how elusive happiness is for everyone, and how the life not lived seems at once far more appealing and impossible to actually explore.

The series' final batch of episodes picks up in early 1970, almost in real time from when Bert Cooper died and McCann bought SC&P. And though the early '70s were in many way an extension of the late '60s (just as the beginning of “Mad Men” showed us how much of the decade's start was indistinguishable from the end of the one before it), things are already different. Don doesn't return sporting a perm or mustache (though Roger and Teddy more than take care of the latter trend), and is styled largely as he was 10 years before, but the quality of the light and color in the opening scene is wildly different. The start of the series could have been a Douglas Sirk film in Technicolor; the casting session is washed-out and sinister in a way that looks like something that Alan J. Pakula or Sidney Lumet might have directed, rather than longtime “Mad Men” producer Scott Hornbacher.

And for all of AMC's protestations that these are all part of the same season, the gap in time for us and the characters turns “Severance” into something feeling very much like a season premiere of “Mad Men.” There's a lot of exposition about what the characters and the agency have been up to since we left them – Don has become so promiscuous post-divorce that he needs an answering service to keep track of all his sexual opportunities, Lou Avery is either fired or banished far from Don's corner office, and McCann isn't allowing SC&P to be quite as autonomous as promised – as the pieces move into place for the series' concluding gambit.

Enough time has passed that we can see the impact of the McCann deal, which has managed to be less than so many of the parties involved had hoped. Everyone made a fortune on the deal, but Joan is still subjected to sexist barbs from the boys at McCann, Pete complains of the money as a burden, and though Don is awash in sexual partners, he seems in his moments alone in that apartment to be as sad and pitiful as at any point in the series. Only Roger really seems to be enjoying his life, and I suspect that illusion will last only as long as it takes us to get a Roger-centric storyline in one of the remaining episodes.

The episode's title comes from the money offered to Ken Cosgrove after a McCann exec decides to settle an old score. (Remember, Ken worked there briefly after the rest of the gang jumped ship at the end of season 3 to create SCDP.) The timing is at once perfect and cruel; only the night before, Ken's wife had talked him into quitting the agency to write full-time, and Roger is not only pushing him out the door but offering him money on the way. But the manner in which things play out poisons the experience so much for Ken that he can't just move on to the life not lived, as he chooses revenge over peace and happiness. He could probably write a good book (and, as Pete notes, would look great on the dust jacket), but instead he elects to become – as he previously described his father in-law – “a cog in a giant machine that makes weapons and poison,” all so he can stick it to Roger and Pete.

But half the agency gets reminded of lives they abandoned.

Peggy has a great first date with Mathis' brother-in-law Stevie, but because her passport is in a drawer at work and not one in her apartment (because the office has always been her real home), they can't take their impromptu trip to Paris, and Peggy suspects they never will, even if Stevie's free a few weekends from now.

After the ordeal with the sexist pigs at McCann – and after Peggy suggests that Joan's at least partly at fault for dressing to accentuate her curves(*) –  Joan opts to take advantage of her new fortune not to buy a more conservative wardrobe, but to double down on clothes that will play up her natural assets. And though we don't know for sure that she's shopping at Bonwit Teller, the young salesgirl reminds Joan of that brief, terrible period where she had to work there after Greg pushed her to quit the agency. She's come so far from that moment, yet somehow still finds herself at the mercy of men who view her as an object and little more.

(*) Those occasional moments when Peggy and Joan are friendly with each other are wonderful, but they have the power that they do because they're so rare, while the rest of the series acknowledges that these two are too different to really get along, no matter how much we might want them to. That scene in the elevator, with Peggy blaming the victim and Joan essentially saying Peggy's not attractive enough to be harassed in the same way, was ugly and uncomfortable, but it's also about how I would expect each of them to react to the situation. And it was the best scene of the hour. The exact nature of sexism at the workplace is changing along with their respective positions in the agency, but the sum total of it is so awful that they can't even find common ground over it.  

Chances for reinvention are everywhere, even if few are willing to seize them. Don suggests Topaz abandon its name and become a department store brand, but Art from Topaz has never come across as someone open to such a radical change. (His best idea to compete with L'Eggs is to simply copy their product.) Pete suggests his time in California now feels like a dream, and is back to being an anxious and frustrated New Yorker. Ken's father-in-law finally retires from Dow, boasting of all he'll get to do with his free time, but his new dreams sound awfully small, and his daughter privately suggests to Ken that her dad waited much too long to do this.

And in learning that Rachel Menken Katz has died of leukemia, Don is reminded of a life he could have had if he hadn't, as usual, been such a damn coward.
While visiting the Katz apartment to pay his respects, Don not only gets a glimpse of the children he and Rachel could have produced together (even if he likely would have disappointed them as much as he has Sally), but is told by her sister Barbara that Rachel “lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.” The only person in the whole episode satisfied with what they had is the dead one.

And as characters are reminded of paths they may have chosen incorrectly, we also get glimpses of and allusions to people who might be living those lives instead.

Don admits to Barbara that he's now twice-divorced (a fact that gives her some small bit of pleasure in a terrible time), and earlier in the episode, when his flight attendant conquest tries to clean the carpet in her underwear, we're reminded of that moment when Megan insisted on doing housework while similarly undressed as a way to lash out at Don. The salesgirl could actually be remembering Joan from her Bonwit Teller days (or has heard gossip about her from older employees), or she could just be mistaking her for another redhead who escaped this place.

On her date with Stevie, Peggy jokes about how copywriter Johnny Mathis must cause confusion and disappointment everywhere he goes for not being the Johnny Mathis, and at the diner, Don becomes convinced that he's met Diana the waitress before(**). She's not a former girlfriend, though she's very much his type, which becomes a comfort as he deals with the news of Rachel's death.

(**) A few things on this. First, Elizabeth Reaser has not been on “Mad Men” before, but she very easily could have played Midge or Rachel back in the day. Second, it took me a few viewings to entirely track what goes on between Don and Diana over his first two visits to the diner, but it seems to be this: Roger leaves her the $100 tip as an apology for being a jerk (and also to show off to the models, knowing at least one of them will be going home with him), and when Don returns to the place a few nights later and requests that she serve him, she assumes that he is there to cash in on what his friend already paid her for. (Note how puzzled Don looks when Diana mentions the $100; he surely didn't pay her himself.) She's likely not a waitress-by-day, prostitute-by-night, but in that time and in her socio-economic situation, she makes assumptions of what's expected when a strange man hands her that much cash.  

As we watch the episode, we see Don dream about Rachel – a dream in which he's wearing the black garb of a mourner – before he learns of her death. Diana, though, suggests Don is not only mistaken about having met her before, but about when he may have had the dream in relation to finding out the news.

“Well,” she tells him, “I want you think very about when you really had that dream. Because when people die, everything gets mixed up.”

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 Don's problems are relatively simple, 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.

Like the woman sings as this episode begins and ends, “Is that all there is?” All I know is that in another six weeks, that'll be all there is for us. And I'm not ready for that yet.

Some other thoughts:

* In case you missed them, we had a lot of “Mad Men” stories over the last couple of weeks, including interviews with Matthew Weiner, Jon Hamm, John Slattery and Vincent Kartheiser, predictions on how the show might end from both TV critics and a few showrunners, a ranking of every single Peggy Olson outfit ever, and my thoughts about how “Mad Men” chronicled one revolution while being part of another.

* Elisabeth Moss is usually fine at enunciating (among her many other acting talents), but her delivery of the line “I love veal” to Stevie (as she swapped her pasta for the veal he did not order but was reluctant to send back) made it sound like she was saying “I love you” very early in the relationship.

* Given the time of season (no one is dressed for winter), the long (and very Smothers Brothers-esque) mustaches grown by Roger and Teddy, and the introduction of L'Eggs to the market, we're in spring of 1970. The Nixon speech Don watches on TV was delivered on April 30 of that year, though if Don is really confused about time like Diana suggests, maybe we can't trust anything, date-wise, presented from his point of view. On the one hand, it's a bit surprising the show would decline a chance to do a New Year's Eve 1969 episode; on the other, once man walks on the moon, you may as well jump to the next decade. I do wonder if making it out of the '60s will unshackle the show from its usual month-to-month episode structure – though Weiner insists “our rules are quite flexible” – and start taking us deeper into the '70s (or even '80s), or if the plan is for the show to end before “All in the Family,” Watergate, disco and everything else.

* Not only are Pete and Ted back from California full-time, but Ted is acting an awful lot like Don and Roger in terms of his interest in partying with models. Is it possible that he finally left his wife? Or just that he's finally cheating without guilt?

* One good thing to come out of the Hershey fiasco: Don now speaks openly about his childhood of poverty, and has become quite the raconteur when it comes to his stepmom and Uncle Mac. 

* I previously wondered if Ken had really lost his eye in the hunting accident, or if he just needed to let it heal for a while. The scene where he appears eyepatch-less in his pajamas makes clear it's the former.

* “Mad Men” pop culture: The episode opens and closes with some of the spoken word portions of Peggy Lee's 1969 hit “Is That All There Is?” Roger jokes about Diana's copy of “The 42nd Parallel” by John Dos Passos; combined with the other books in his “U.S.A.” trilogy, they're one of several long-standing Great American Novel contenders.  And Don jokes that celebrated London fashion photographer David Bailey wants to take Meredith's picture. 

* “Mad Men” continues its love of '90s teen TV stars (see also Linda Cardellini, Neve Campbell, and even Ken's wife, played as usual by “Secret World of Alex Mack” star Larisa Oleynik) by casting “My So-Called Life” alum Devon Gummersall as Peggy's date. If this turns out to be the serious relationship Peggy briefly thinks it is, then two of the three most important men in Peggy's life (Don is the third) would be played by Ponyboy (from the TV “Outsiders”) and Brian Krakow.

* Good to see the return of Rebecca Creskoff as Rachel's sister, who appeared a couple of times in the first season to offer Rachel counsel on having an affair with a married man.

* It's been a while since the casual bigotry of these WASPy characters was as overt as it is in this episode as Ken, Roger and Pete each crack jokes about Ferg Donnelly (played by Paul Johansson, who also qualifies as a '90s teen TV alum from his brief stint on “Beverly Hills 90210”) and the other Irish executives at McCann.

* The way that Ed says “it was very good” when describing the wonder of making his first Pop Tart has me thinking that whoever does their advertising in 2015 really needs to approach Ray Wise about being their new spokesman.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepnwall may be reached at