Severance, as it turns out, in the thus-title mid-season premiere of “Mad Men” ’s final season, is less easily achieved than one expects. Indeed, the episode shows how the characters remain as bound to their corporate identities as ever, with little promise for respite in the last seven episodes. And on a meta-level, severance eludes the audience, who feel stuck back in the thematic mud of early “Mad Men” — less like an homage and more like a déjà vu that refuses to leave.

Mad Men

The Final Episodes: Episode 1
Sundays at 10 p.m.

Where once Don Draper (Jon Hamm, “Bridesmaids”) plumbed the less-than-glamorous depths of alcoholism, the thick veneer of advertising coats everything in “Severance.” Way back in season five, Draper’s fall from corporate grace was poised to offer a phoenix-style rise from the ashes. But in typical “Mad Men” style, Draper’s whorehouse past has simply been repurposed into another tool of the trade — in this case, to seduce a young model.

The episode’s strength is in showing how entrenched Draper’s life is in advertising. In its opener, we see him in the midst of a psychological mind fuck (the type that typically prefaces his brand of sex). Then the camera pulls back to reveal it’s just a hyper-sexualized casting call.

And reunited as the ultimate wingmen, Sterling (John Slattery, “The Adjustment Bureau”) and Draper are living in the financial excesses of their McCann buyout. While a brooding discontent with civilization characterized late-series “Mad Men” (think of season five’s string of visual death metaphors like the empty elevator shaft), “Severance” evokes its old brand of cynicism — one in which the rewards are reaped and the pathos is swept under the shag rug.

But just as Peggy (Elisabeth Moss, “Girl, Interrupted”) cryptically suggests to a client, “I’d never recommend imitation as a strategy,” perhaps this circularity is intentional. After all, “Severance” is laced with callbacks: Draper’s latest is a fur client, and ingenue Rachel Katz née Menken (Maggie Siff, “Sons of Anarchy”) reappears in a dream to model it for him. She dies the next day, and all of Draper’s attempts to extract meaning from that well grooved symbolic network of brunette-cum-mother-cum-whorehouse figures run dry.

Where narration is telling Don old metaphors run out of significance, other characters like Ken (Aaron Staton, “L.A. Noire”) are running head-on against the narrative fates. After his father-in-law retires, his wife urges him to quit the job that he can afford to quit and write the book he should have been writing. The next day, internal politics lead to Ken’s firing, providing the deus ex machina that eludes Don this episode. Rather than yielding to the direction fate is channeling him into, he yields to pettiness and takes his father-in-law’s old job — purely to torture his ex-colleagues.

Other characters are chained to their stakes: Peggy flirts with escaping to Paris with a promising date, but can’t find her passport. Of course, it turns up in her office desk. You can leave work in “Mad Men,” in the literal sense, but figuratively, it’s a whole different story.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.