Mad Men midseason premiere recap/ review
As this is a recap, here is fair “Mad Men” spoiler warning.
After the exciting moon landing and bittersweet departure of Robert Morse’s Bert Cooper, the “Mad Men” midseason premiere had an insurmountable opening act to usher Don Draper, et al into the 1970s. Betty, Sally, Megan, and anybody from Don’s home life didn’t make their way into a scene this week. “Severance” begins with a young model and Don in an intimate moment, but clearly he’s merely directing her in an audition to model the Wilkinson fur coat she wears. In classic Draper fashion, Jon Hamm smokes, drinks, and delivers a scintillating line, “Show me how you feel.” The camera turns to a wide shot of the room to establish a few other “Mad Men” were present for her audition, as well. The moment was hardly intimate. It appears that the buyout paid wonderful dividends for the partners. Don hasn’t changed his look like the other characters. His modest haircut and whiskers look timeless; however his suits look darker as he enters a new era in American culture. As the last episode, “Waterloo,” showed the characters on the cusp of a massive financial increase, “Severance” affirms their hopes.
Don and Roger then entertain three “lucky” ladies on a night about town and have a final respite in a tiny diner that looks more like it’s on a stage than a typical television show. Don regales the women with a story from the “boarding house” where he grew up as Dick Whitman. A thickly-mustachioed Roger Sterling makes his debut and rudely summons a waitress who leaves their bill and Don attempts to apologize for his friend’s behavior. This waitress looks familiar to him and he asks her if they know each other. After all, he’s philandered during both marriages and between them. It’s possible he might run into a one night stand or someone from his mysterious past. Roger, feeling shameful after teasing the waitress, leaves a $100 bill on the table for an $11 check to apologize the only way he knows. In 1970, that’s a $500+ tip converted to 2015 dollars.
The camera jumps to Don at night’s end. He turns on the light in his apartment and the true vacancy comes to light. It’s a lonely world without his children or Megan so he turns the light right back off and falls into bed, calling his assistant for messages. The list comprises of women seeking a word with the new bachelor. Don no longer feels like the revitalized man we met at the beginning of the seventh season, but the character of old—before he bared his soul to Hershey. Instead, he invites a flight attendant named Trisha, who spills red wine on the carpet as they stumble into the bedroom. Don draws Trisha to the floor as he covers the stain. She finds an earring on the floor and asks him if he’s sleeping with another woman. “It’s the one I’m not sleeping with,” Don corrects her, stating the earring belongs to his most recent ex-wife, Megan, who doesn’t appear in “Severance”—an episode primarily devoted to original Sterling Cooper characters. He dismisses the jewelry without sorrow or regret and the camera fades.
At the office, presumably during the next day, Joan and Peggy meet with Topaz Pantyhose to discuss strategy following the success of “L’eggs.” The clients point the blame at the ladies; however, Joan indicates that she pointed this product out as a potential threat several months ago. Ken comes in to take them to lunch and the scene transitions to the break room where Mathis tries to set Peggy up with his brother-in-law. He tells her that she’s a catch, but she turns down the offer. After the meeting, Joan runs into Don and asks for some help in a strategy to keep Topaz as clients. Don suggests Topaz rebrand with Macy’s in a creative effort referencing his own life’s journey. “Severance” displayed Don at peace with his past as Dick Whitman, but not completely at peace with his entire history as mention of Rachel Menken later took over his thoughts. Later that evening, Ken Cosgrove makes his entrance as he and his wife deliver a retirement gift of golf clubs to her father who retired from Dow Chemical. Seeing Ken’s father-in-law (character actor Ray Wise) excitedly bite into a Pop Tart felt good for a laugh. Even during the final chapter “Mad Men” still achieves that sense of wonder concerning devices and conveniences that have circulated commonly for decades.
Draper then dreams of another audition as Pete opens the door for...Rachel Menken. Is this the woman Don thought the waitress was? Ted, matching Roger’s moustache, excuses himself from the conversation with Don. She wears a fur coat and dazzles Don with a simple message, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” A star-struck Don calls out to her as she leaves the room and his dream, “You’re not just smooth. You’re Wilkinson smooth.” He wakes up and startles Trisha, who sleeps next to him. After this, we peek back in with the Cosgroves. Mrs. Cosgrove suggests Ken quit the ad firm and they stop “pretending” that she isn’t from a family with obscene wealth. She puts it to him that he’s already given them his eye for the company and that his life will be next. Ken takes offense, wanting just to see if he gets a promotion that he expects to have offered to him. The next day at the office, Don asks his secretary to call Rachel to form an alliance with Topaz.
We then jump back to the dynamic duo of Joan and Peggy with McCann chauvinists who don’t take the presentation seriously and instead insist on making disgusting, misogynist “jokes” (particularly directed at Joan) throughout the meeting. The two ladies keep the focus on Topaz partnering with a department store, but nothing businesswise gets accomplished. The camera jumps to Ken and his receptionist, Shirley. His assistant scolds his lateness (he walked to work that morning) as Roger Sterling and Ferg Donnelly from McCann wait in his office. The men inform him that Pete’s taking over Dow and that he’s out of the company for good now that his father-in-law isn’t a factor as a client. This serves a complete reversal in the Pete/ Ken rivalry that began in the first season. Pete has complained about Ken throughout the years but now that Ken’s Ace-in-the-Hole has retired, the tables turn. Ken turns to Roger, “Thanks for the loyalty.” The characters on “Mad Men” have committed awful acts and hardly a one of them can be attributed to Ken Cosgrove. Here is the surface severance in “Severance.”
On the elevator ride after the McCann meeting, Joan blows up with rage after Peggy invites her to lunch. “I want to burn this place down,” Joan states, obviously upset from their meeting with the chauvinist pigs. Peggy quickly suggests that Joan’s choice of wardrobe caused the men to not take them seriously and Joan retaliates by insinuating that Peggy isn’t attractive to merit their cat-calling. “You know what? You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” After this abrupt scene ending, we check back in with Don as his receptionist informs him the meeting with Menken’s will not involve Rachel because she died the week before. Don doesn’t take the news standing up. Following the somber note, the camera jumps back to Peggy who doesn’t seem to have let Joan’s words hurt her. She stops Mathis to see if she can get back on the date, but the circumstances have changed a bit.
We’re then taken back to the diner where Don and Roger brought their dates earlier in the episode. Don has the same waitress as he did that night and asks again if she knows him. She’s sure that she hasn’t and has obviously fallen under the impression that Don, not Roger, left the generous tip and has returned to collect what she thinks that he thinks he’s owed—some sort of sexual congress. The waitress heads for her break, and Don follows her out to an alley where they briefly have sex. Eventually, they separately head back into the diner under the cloud of awkward atmosphere. He asks her when she gets off her shift, but the waitress informs Don that he’s received the extent of his tip and the man leaves befuddled. His transference of feelings from Rachel to the waitress got misconstrued over Roger’s $100 tip. Would she have taken the time of day to listen to Don otherwise? The camera doesn’t leave Don-- it merely jumps to the next morning at the office where he crosses paths with Ken—bizarrely at peace with his new circumstances. Ken explains he’ll live the “life not lived.”
Joan then receives a call from one of the McCann jerks, but rejects it and heads out on her own before we cut back to Ken, who speaks with Pete as he turns the accounts over to him. Pete and Ken seem to have ended their rivalry while Pete complains about rich he’s getting. Pete also suggests that Ken write because the eye patch would look tough in a book jacket. Ken looks at Pete no longer with disdain, but pity. Pete wrapped himself up in this world and can’t untangle himself just Ken realizes that untethering himself from the ad world seems like paradise. Then the camera cuts back to Joan, who has treated herself to a shopping spree in order to get the phone call from one of the McCann chauvinists out of her head. The shop girl recognizes Joan as a former employee and offers her a discount, but Joan assures her that she’s mistaken and buys an extravagant amount of clothing.
The camera jumps back to the office as Don and Ted discuss finding new creative. Don pushes Ted about this, who confesses he’s thought of this for years and invites Don to a party later that evening. Later that night, Peggy and Stevie, Mathis’ brother-in-law, enjoy an amicable first date. Stevie gets the wrong order, but Peggy wants it so the two happily trade dishes and go about their date. We catch up with Don that evening. He fits Rachel’s family as they sit Shiva. Her sister greets Don with a smile until she finds out whom he is and wants little to do with him. He catches her up to speed with his divorces—she’s clear with the nature of Don and Rachel’s relationship. Don sees Rachel’s two small children sitting on a couch and experiences a moment of “what could have been” before her sister explains that Rachel died of leukemia, but that she had everything she ever wanted in her children and marriage. As Rachel’s sister dismisses herself, Don looks mournfully at the people praying.
Deeper into Peggy’s date, we see that she’s really going for Stevie and they laugh while they talk about Mathis. Peggy learns about Stevie, an up-and-coming lawyer who has to interview in Boston. Peggy states that she’s never been to Paris and suggests they leave promptly. When they go back to her place to retrieve Peggy’s passport, they can’t find it, but it results in only making out as she doesn’t want to jump to sex too quickly because she likes him. They agree to fly to Paris in a few weekends. We then ever-so-briefly check back in with Don as he watches Tricky Dick rant about Vietnam—we are certainly in 1970 with both feet now. At the office the next day, Pete and Roger sit about in a “meeting” when Ken surprises them with his attendance. Ken rejects Roger’s severance offer because he’s found a new job. Roger insists on paying Ken despite what he just said and compliments Ken’s gesture. Ken informs Pete and Roger that his new job is the head of advertising for Dow and that, as a client, it will be very, very difficult to please him. This was one of “Mad Men’s” more pleasant twists as one of the few good people came out on top and got to stick it to those who stepped on him. We have six episodes remaining of Ken torturing his old bosses while they try to please him.
A hungover Peggy finds her passport, unfortunately too late, in her desk as Stan makes his debut. His beard just hasn’t quit growing and it, perhaps, makes him more likeable the more he neglects shaving. Mathis enters with a water and Alka-Seltzer for Peggy, but dishes out loud about her previous evening. He tells Stan that Peggy’s headed for Europe with Stevie, but she corrects him, stating that she was drunk and won’t fly to Europe with someone she just met. Stan, however, points out that she would get to know Stevie on the flight and that it may just turn out to be a little fun, as well. The final scene begins as Don enters the diner again. The waitress intercepts him and tells him that she won’t be serving what he had last time. Don sets her straight about Rachel—the dream and her death. She directs Don to think about his dream with care, because things get all mixed up when people die and that he just won’t be able to make sense of it. What happened to her? Who is she and why does she carry all this wisdom? The waitress finally changes up pace and instructs Don to come in with a date next time because she merely works there and nothing else. He obviously understands, but tells her that he’s just there to sit. She agrees to this and leaves him to do his sitting as the camera pans out to frame several lonely diner patrons and their waitresses as if it were Phillies diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Creator Matt Weiner keeps promising to end the series “as it should,” and if the final scene in “Severance” is a taste of the finale, then I can’t wait. He'd just better not end this series mid-sentence.