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Note: This Mad Men review is, for the most part, free of “spoilers.” However, in exploring where the series is headed from this point onward, some viewers might consider certain small revelations to be spoilers.
And now, the middle of the end.
The seventh and final season of Mad Men kicks off the second half of its split season April 5 and the episode, titled “Severance,” feels like precisely what it is — the eighth episode in a 14-episode season. Series creator Matthew Weiner has already performed two impressive feats — kicking off the first part of the season with a superb premiere episode (“Time Zones”) and deftly sticking the landing with a midseason finale that wrapped up a lot of story with big changes and smartly set the stage for this last run.
To expect fireworks out of “Severance” would be unwise since servicing the story is Weiner’s main objective and part of that is no doubt setting up what will be a very ambitious wrap-up to this phenomenal series when we get to the last episode. And yet, “Severance” has some important conceptual elements that will likely shape the remainder of the series. The primary one is, of course, Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) continued existential crisis, which has always been the backbone of the series.
With some time having passed since the previous episode, we find Don pretty much as we always find Don — internally ruminating on whether he’s happy, whether he chose the right path in life and whether anything he does (or experiences) really matters.
In that context, the song that Weiner uses — the only one in the episode — is, like the vast majority of his choices, spot-on: Peggy Lee’s cover of “Is That All There Is?” with the song’s spoken-word element serving as both Don’s internal monologue and an apt musical sidenote.
“Is that all there is? Is that all there is?/If that’s all there is my friends/Then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball/If that’s all there is.”
Now, granted, 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 drama and ethnographic elements instead.
But “Severance” smartly repositions Mad Men on 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.”
Weiner, who loves dream sequences and variations on them (fugue states, flashbacks, etc.), infuses this episode with a glorious combination of mental states that — too early to tell in just the one episode sent to critics for review — could form a kind of puzzle to be solved moving forward.
While keeping major revelations under wraps here, Don bumps into a waitress who looks familiar, but he can’t place her. Their interactions are dream-like but set in waking hours where the audience knows they’re actually taking place. The three interactions Don has with Diane (called “Di” by her co-worker, if you’re into Mad Men’s increasing preoccupation with death this season) are tonally different, as if Weiner (and director Scott Hornbacher) is trying to disorient viewers.
A similar note can be found when Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), now back in New York along with Ted (Kevin Rahm), says in one scene: “I thought I was really changing my life by going out to California. Of course, now it really feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real.”
Those are, in the lyrical (and typical) Mad Men way, superbly nuanced moments that are precisely why this series continues to appeal. Weiner has created and written so much of this classic that explores deeply intellectual themes while dressing them up as something else or cutting them cleverly with humor — you can’t wait to see and dissect even the smallest scenes in each episode.
Of course, the micro approach can get a little too into the tea leaves — reading too much into one single episode is dangerous. A lot of the familiar Mad Men characters are missing in “Severance,” but most will clearly be back (or the ones who appear only briefly will benefit from future episodes that flesh out their current state). And while there’s a faint bleakness to this episode, so too is it funny in a number of areas (including visuals).
As usual, Weiner asked critics to not indulge in various reveals, including the year in which “Severance” is set and three other elements that can’t even be mentioned because their very description is the reveal in question.
Where Weiner takes the remainder of the series is, obviously, the great unknown. How this final season wraps up will go a long way toward determining Mad Men‘s position in the pantheon of great television shows, but it should be noted up front that getting closure on all of the Mad Men characters and themes may not be the single most important objective for Weiner. He may tidy everything up and shut the door with an audible click of the lock, or he might not — choosing instead to be more nebulous and vague (which would be in keeping with the show’s tone).
He need not go out with a bang of fireworks or some finale that makes everybody happy. He just needs to maintain the high standards that have secured Mad Men its place in the pantheon.
Like the previous seven episodes, there’s no evidence at all that Weiner or the series will stumble in that regard. Mad Men remains, for the viewers who have embraced it the most fervently, a richly rewarding, wholly excellent work of fiction.
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