Severance, the action of ending a connection or relationship. Severance is also the title of the first episode in the final season of Mad Men. The term severance is more commonly associated with the check you receive after being fired from a job. The episode “Severance“ deals with both the personal and employment implications of the word, exposing the duality of the issues dealt with in this episode.
The episode opens with a close up of the enigmatic protagonist Don Draper leaning against a support beam smoking a Lucky Strike . We can’t see who he is talking too, but we can tell it is a women by the cool heavy demeanor of his voice. The second shot is a close up of a model sporting a sumptuous fur coat. She is centered in the frame, eyes glued on Draper, she is a little nervous, maybe just coy. Her endearing gaze lets us know she is moved by Dons jive. We don’t know where they are, but we get the sense that they are the only two people in the room. The gaze they exchange in these two shots carries more weight than the actual dialogue itself. Mad Men is notorious for its omissions, a relies heavily on the body language of the actors to expose the narrative. Mad Men uses the show don’t tell mentality to deliver dramatic text in realistic manner.
The second shot we see of Draper is a close up, he is situated in the right third of the frame. He scans the model, inspecting every last part of her body. Cuts back to her looking more nervous than before, we can see she is self conscious as she searches for his approval. She is framed in the left in third of the composition, allowing their interaction to become a more visceral exchange. This technique is called split conversational framing. This approach allows the visual tensions to seem more organic, than that of a normal tight over shoulder. Instead of getting just one side of the conversation, we get both sides in balance, letting us see the importance of the characters reactions.
In life we don’t always just say what we feel. If things were so black in white, there would be no room for expression. Mad Men attempts to make its dramatic narrative tangible through using elements that develop the characters to the very point that they become real to us. Where we can feel the pain of Don Draper, see the sexism the woman must encounter on a daily basis. While the characters have their flaws it says something about human nature.
The scene continues Don tells the model to look at herself and the mirror, and think about the way she feels. She closes her eyes, we can see it is not the “15,000” fur coat that is making her feel enraptured, It is Don. As she gets lost in the mirror we see the pleasure he is giving her, and the pleasure he is getting out of it. Just as they both begin to fantasize of what could be, things progress, he tells her to show her how smooth her skin is by letting the coat drop. Just as he makes this statement, it cuts to a two shot. Their eye lines meet in a triadic fashion. He is entranced by her beauty, she stares in the mirror allured by his command. The mirror poses a sense of duality that is common thread throughout the episode. Thinking about what could be in life, our fantasies.
We now get a close up of the her leg, and the song “Is that all there is?” by Peggy Lee kicks in. This lets us infer that there is a gap in reality, that this interaction may just be imagined after all. The song alludes us to this desire, and makes it truly palpable. Then at the climax of the dream, reality breaks in. A long shot of a slue of Ad executives pilled onto a small couch eyes glued on the half exposed model.
The tension is severe, just like dreams they must come to an end. After all it was just a casting call for a commercial. It was all an act, but we know it was very real for both Don and the model. The dimension of imagination is broken really quick, and this is a common theme throughout the episode. We often times have dreams and aspirations, but sometimes life and the decisions we make affect its discourse.
We move to a scene later in the next part of the episode. Don and Sterling are at a late night diner getting some food in tuxedos. They are sitting at a table full of models. Two on each of Sterling’s arms, one wrapped neatly around Don. They seem to be happy, living life to the fullest, but it is in these moments where Don can only mask his true internal torment. The modest waitress brings them the check, Don is entranced by her. He feels as though he knows her from somewhere. It is important to know Don Draper is an anti-hero, he had a dark child. He suppresses any inkling of true compassion afraid he might be hurt.
He goes on to ask the waitress if her knows her. She struggles to give him answer, thinking its a line. He looks enthralled by her, and he we come to think he might genuinely know her. However they leave the restaurant, and the interaction goes no further.
Later that night Don has a dream. He is in the casting room again, the model walks in. It is Rachel Katz a previous lover of Don’s from season’s before. There interaction is odd, bordering on awkward, but Don seems to enjoy her company. He wakes up once again looks over at the unfamiliar face of the girl lying in his bed, and once again reality severs the moment.
Don is tantalized by this dream, and he arranges a meeting with Rachel Katz in hopes to re discover the love they once had. It is important to know at this point Don has been through two failed marriages, and leaving himself with two broken homes. His life is teetering on instability.
Don is infatuated with the prospect seeing Rachel again. The dream he had is becoming very real to him. It is important for Don to find hope in external things, because he has no hope within himself. Later that day his secretary informs him that Rachel Katz can’t meet because she is in fact dead. She passed away a week before. This is tormenting to Don, he will never be able to fulfill what could have been. His hope dwindles…
He attends the services for Rachel at her sisters apartment. Upon his entry nobody is aware who he is by sight. Rachel sisters realizes who he is by the way he talks, and delivers the high water mark line of the episode ” She lived the life she wanted to live”. It strikes Don with a heavy blow, not only because he wasn’t a part of it, but he can’t live the life he wants to live.
Mad Men’s narrative is structure in a way that is non expository. The characters are not self aware of their own destructive nature. That is what makes Don Draper so compelling. We see him grappling, and holding on for dear life, only to be broken time and time again. The exposition and growth of the characters does not come from their revelations, instead it comes from other peoples dispositions.
Towards the latter end of the episode Ken Cosgrove a senior Account manager at Sterling Cooper & Partners is fired. Sterling Cooper fires him ever so effortlessly remarking he will have a hefty severance package and there is nothing to worry about. The night before Ken was considering leaving the job to pursue a career in writing. He views this as a sign that maybe it is for the better. He catches Don 0n the way to the office the next day, and fills him in on what happened. Don is shocked, and immediately comes to Ken’s aid. However Ken isn’t upset nor worried, he has just had a moment of clarity. He then goes on to say something that carries a lot of weight for Don. “Maybe its a sign, you know the life not lived”. Don has no response, he walks away on the verge of a breakdown. This is the very question he has been struggling with internally the whole episode, but it takes someone else to expose it.
The episode ends with Don retreating back to the diner in hopes to find the woman he believe he once knew. He is searching for something in other people, but he will never be able to find it if he doesn’t know himself. He continually goes down this road, and here he is again. Except the mysterious woman is there, however she is not there for him. She tells him to leave because there is nothing here for him, which is true and it hurts him to hear the truth. He insists on staying, telling her about the recent death of his friend Rachel. While she is compelled by his story, she hits him with the honesty he needs, she tells “maybe you dreamed of her all along”…really questioning the reality of it all. She walks away and severs their relationship for ever, Don is left alone at the bar, sitting thinking about the absurdity of the passing events. We slowly zoom out, the distance is further, Don is falling down.