The end of Mad Men begins with a return to the start. With “Severance,” creator and episode scribe Matthew Weiner harkens back to characters or other aspects of the show’s premiere season in 2007, as well as the flashbacks that accompanied the series’ eight-year run. We begin with Don Draper, at his most commanding, back to working on selling fur coats – the job he was doing when he first bumped into Roger Sterling. We get our first glimpse of Rachel Menken, played by Maggie Siff several years back, and then are heartbroken (along with Don) by some sad news. Oh, and the misogyny that had become more muted as the series progressed returns in a disarming scene with Joan, Peggy and the lewd folks from McCann.
Perhaps it is appropriate that, with just six more episodes left, Mad Men is bringing up relics, past flames and old jobs. Bert Cooper’s sign-off from “Waterloo” – one that apparently happened nine months prior to when this episode is set – was for Don to remember that “the best things in life are free.” Self-worth is a major theme of “Severance,” with many of the characters trying to figure out what they really want. (Although, what many of the show’s fans may really want is for Roger and Ted to get a good shave.)
At the hour’s start, Don seems a lot more upbeat than when we left him. He is at the helm of casting (a job we haven’t seen him in for a long time) and he is making the most of his time as a recently divorced single man. He even finds out that four women he met as a bachelor have tried to call him back during his night on the town. He later greets his stewardess fling with a big smile and doesn’t mind that she leaves a wine stain on his bedroom carpet.
But then he sees Rachel walk into the casting session, in an ambiguous, dream-like moment. “I’m supposed to tell you, you missed your flight,” she says, eyeing him defiantly. This is yet another callback, to season one’s “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” when he decided to leave New York with her spontaneously, but she resisted before flying away by herself the next week. Of all the women Don has been involved with in the series’ history, Rachel has probably been his most serious fling. Don is then aghast when Meredith tells him that Rachel passed away the week before. One possible journey for the protagonist is now gone.
In the episode’s most poignant scene, Don visits the Shiva in Rachel’s family apartment. (On that note, it’s a bit strange that an episode that features a Shiva and a lot of melancholy is dedicated to late Jewish director Mike Nichols.) The dim golden lighting and the morose tone of the people in the apartment shuts Don down even more. “She had the life she wanted to live,” says Rachel’s sister, Barbara. “She had everything.”
Don takes a look at Rachel’s children, looking crestfallen on the couch, feeling connected to his own kids for the first time all episode. If this were Don’s funeral, he would not be a man with everything. Don cannot join the minyan for mourning prayer, since he is not Jewish, but he certainly feels a kinship with their exile. (Another interesting note: at a Shiva, it is customary to cover all the mirrors, so that one doesn’t vainly focus on his or her appearance. It is the precise opposite of Don’s command to the model in the first scene, for her to reflect on her beauty in the mirror.)
As Rachel’s last message to Don was about boarding a plane, Peggy has an urge to do the same – if only she could find her passport. Peggy once told Don that she had never been on a plane and she believes her first chance to get that escape is by shacking up with Mathis’s brother-in-law, Stevie (Devon Gummersall of My So-Called Life fame). Stevie is a lawyer far less brash than the men Peggy has been romantically linked with, as indicated a bit too blatantly by how “weak” he would feel if he sent back a meal at their first date dinner. After switching her main course with Stevie’s and then getting a bit drunk, though, Peggy makes a bold statement: “Let’s go to Paris.”