Recap Digest: Mad Men 7.8, "Severance"

Apr 06, 2015 by Alex Castle

It is always great to rejoin the characters at Sterling Cooper at the beginning of a new season of Mad Men; they’re all such sharply drawn, specific characters that more than most shows, they feel like real people, and it’s exciting to see what they’ve been up to since we left them. Last season (or half-season) ended on the moon landing and Sterling Cooper & Partners selling out to McCann Erickson, making the partners rich and saving Don’s job, and as the story picks up nine months later, in April 1970, Don and Roger are catting around, Don is visited by a vision of Rachel Katz (from season 1), who he soon learns has just died of leukemia, Peggy and Joan are dealing with a rather startling level of chauvinism and turning on each other in response, and Roger Sterling and Ted Chaough have some very unfortunate moustaches.

But the storyline that I found most interesting was the one that gave the episode its title (“Severance”): the plight of Ken Cosgrove. In the early seasons of this show, Ken was the guy who seemed to be above all the petty office politics, the obsessive jockeying for position and status that so obsessed his counterpart, Pete Campbell. He was the guy with the solid marriage, who didn’t cheat, who was actually happy outside the office. He got a couple of stories published in The Atlantic; he was a writer, and was only at Sterling Cooper to pay the bills.

But look at him now: fighting with his wife, who desperately wants him to quit the job that’s making him miserable; his writing career all but forgotten; no longer sunny and cheerful but angry and unhappy. He’s wearing an eye patch for Pete’s sake. When his father-in-law Ed retires and his wife begs him to do the same, suggesting “we stop pretending I wasn’t born with plenty,” Ken wants to wait and see if he can get a pay raise, and points out that Ed was unhappy because he worked for Dow Chemical, a company responsible for weapons raining horror all over southeast Asia. Ken’s wife counters that Ken helps to sell those very same products (having used the family connection to bring Dow’s business to SC&P) and that there will always be another hurdle to clear in the rat race.

When an old colleague from McCann (where Ken briefly worked after the Sterling Cooper office coup that ended season 3) prevails on Roger to fire Ken over a personality conflict from Ken’s time there, and Roger obliges. At first, Ken tries to pretend this is what he really wanted, telling Don that he was about to quit anyway (when in fact he balked at the idea when his wife brought it up) and calling it a sign that it’s time for him to get back to writing.

But then at the end of the episode, Ken informs Pete and Roger that he’s found a new job: as Head of Advertising at Dow Chemical (“Because they value relationships there,” he passive-aggressively adds), where he will now be in a position to approve or reject SC&P’s work. “I’m very hard to please,” he tells them.

As much as this show is about Don Draper and whether he can or can’t change for the better, it’s heartbreaking to see that spending the ‘60s at SC&P has definitively changed Ken Cosgrove for the worse, turning him from an easygoing, creative guy with a happy marriage to a bitter, angry person taking a job he doesn’t need at a company he thinks is evil solely to spite Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling, and the people at McCann.

Alan Sepinwall at HitFix explores the characters’ reluctance to change and what Cosgrove calls “the life not lived”:

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.
Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz looks approvingly at Peggy’s storyline:
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.
Hanna Rosin examines the return of Rachel Menken Katz over at Slate:
Rachel is there to puncture Don’s confidence and remind him—and the viewer—that Don is still Don, weighed down by his past, tortured by his failure to be better: yes, John, aware of his own mortality and always haunted by ghosts. I mentioned in my last post, when Don in Episode 6 made his confession to Peggy: “I never did anything. I don’t have anyone.” Rachel’s sister stirred that up again when she told him, “She had everything. She lived the life she wanted to live.” The implication was, not everyone is destined to repeat their own mistakes and get trapped in Don’s dreams; some people move forward, and die as saints. As for the minyan—Jews, Catholics, what’s the difference; they are just props to rattle Don.

And the waitress? She is just practicing politics. (The businessman just wants to sit here and drink his coffee). In most of the episode, I thought Weiner was wry and biting about class, but with the waitress, he got too working-girl sentimental. The roaches, the prostitution, and then the bit of wisdom at the end: “When someone dies, you want to make sense of it. But you can’t.” We already got the point from Rachel’s sister. Don is searching, again. We don’t need the magical waitress to bring it home.

The A.V. Club’s John Teti is more forgiving of the magical waitress:

Don feels a deep-seated need for his experience with Rachel to come full circle, but one of Mad Men’s enduring themes is that life does not draw in perfect circles. Instead, it draws maddening fragments, tantalizing us with the beautiful arcs that we can only imagine. So it is that Don finds himself obsessing over the diner waitress. She bears a certain resemblance to Rachel, and he had that dream right after Rachel died, and the waitress’ name is Di. Don would like to think it all adds up to something—a completed circle—but he’s fudging the math.

When Di takes him out into the alley for a quick f***, he finds it strange, but he goes along with it because it matches his emotional state, his all-consuming fantasy. As it turns out, Di is not some emotional specter of salvation. She perceived a certain message in the $100 bill that Roger left to pay their tab the other night, assuming that it was Don’s bill (reasonably, since Roger was acting like a jerk). For her, it’s a business transaction. Don tells Di the reason for his predilection with her—the woman, the dream, the death—and she’s unmoved. “I want you to think very carefully about when you really had that dream,” she tells him, “because when people die, everything gets mixed up. … Someone dies, you just want to make sense of it, but you can’t.” In other words, she’s telling him, yes, that’s really all there is.

And Grantland’s Molly Lambert surveys the rest of Sterling Cooper & Partners:

It’s the same old song at work, too. Pete Campbell is back. It turns out he couldn’t keep his California dream going for long. Joan may finally have more power, but she still gets no respect. She and Peggy get to host the meeting with McCann Erickson about Topaz panty hose, but they have to do it with smiles plastered on. Joan has to hold back from offering anything resembling her real opinion about the proto-tech bros who keep lobbing unfunny double entendres at her. The guy who tells Joan that she should be in the brassiere business deserves to get punched in the face, but Joan and Peggy have to smile tightly and nod approvingly at these morons’ jokes. Joan’s small protest is to stop smiling. In the elevator afterward, Peggy and Joan fail to connect yet again. Peggy is unable to hold back from saying that Joan “can’t have it both ways” — that she can’t be sexy selectively. Joan is pissed, understandably, given that her body is not her fault. In the words of Jessica Simpson’s creepy dad, Joe: “She’s got double D’s! You can’t cover those suckers up!” Whenever Joan complains about being oversexualized and objectified, Peggy rolls her eyes and acts as if Joan is trying to humblebrag. Joan regains her sense of power by going shopping at a department store and being curt to the girl who works there — in a job Joan used to have.

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