Since Peggy is the most fulfilling creative partner for Don, it makes sense that their plots are also partnered, with his wandering mirroring her own state of exile. She desires to get away from the shrill noises outside her apartment. Peggy’s need for a romantic night in Paris brings out the best in Elisabeth Moss, who nails the character’s wavering tone back at the apartment. Sure, an impromptu escape to Europe would be dazzling, but is it the wrong impression to give to a handsome, seemingly reliable guy you just met? Of course, Stevie and Peggy make tentative plans to fly away together. Of course, there are only six episodes left for the character to get a proper proposal.
Just as Don and Peggy are caught between two states of mind in the aptly titled “Severance,” Ken Cosgrove doesn’t know whether to be thrilled or depleted by the news that he is being fired from his accounts post. His sour history with McCann and father-in-law Ed Baxter’s retirement from Dow Chemical hasten his unemployment, but how does he feel? Wife Cynthia wants her husband to leave Sterling Cooper & Partners so he can write a book, not be like the workmanlike cogs he used to write about in his science fiction stories.
There’s a wonderful scene halfway through the episode that cements why Aaron Staton is one of Mad Men’s most underrated performers. Ken sits in the lobby phone booth, trying to make sense of the shifting tides in his life, and calls Don over. “It’s a sign,” he tells Don, “of the life not lived.” Like the two aforementioned characters, Ken is trying to find an escape to his ennui. However, just as Peggy holds back on flying away, Ken is trying to figure out whether he can really leave the lobbies of Madison Avenue.
In a surprising, inspired touch, Ken is actually promoted to a new position: head of advertising at Dow. He is going to be a new boss that the agency will have to deal with on a daily basis. So, he will be that cog for the chemical company, giving himself just the experiences needed to write about robots again later in life. (One caveat: we never see Ken tell Peggy of this promotion, not quite honoring the Olson-Cosgrove pact referred to in earlier seasons.)
Despite the strong parallels between these three main storylines, if “Severance” makes any missteps this week, it is with the ominous, too precious subplot with a diner waitress named, of all things, Di. (She is played by Elizabeth Reaser, a perfect actress for the role since, just as Don cannot recall if he has ever met her, this writer could not recall her name until the closing credits.) The dialogue from the final scene in the Edward Hopper-like restaurant, which touches on dream states and missed opportunities, is too on-the-nose. Furthermore, did we really need another zoom out of a lonely, unfulfilled Don tying up an episode?
Regardless, this was a fitting start to the last half of the final season of Mad Men. Focusing on three characters trying to figure out what the future can offer, Weiner gives direction to the rest of the series. With feelings of missed opportunity permeating through the agency air, perhaps Don, Peggy and Ken will try not to miss the next flight out of the gate.