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‘Mad Men’ Postmortem: ‘Severance’ Director Scott Hornbacher Discusses ‘Dreamlike’ Premiere

Spoiler Alert: This Q&A discusses plot details from the “Mad Men” season premiere, “Severance.”

Scott Hornbacher has been Matt Weiner’s trusted producing partner on “Mad Men” since its inception, a relationship that began when both were working on “The Sopranos.” Hornbacher spoke with Variety about directing the series’ “dreamlike” final season premiere, “Severance,” and the “singular” performances given by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and Aaron Staton.

What was the hardest part of shooting this episode?
The challenge is always doing justice to the writing and the storytelling and the characters, and trying to deliver believable versions of these people for the audience. There was definitely a bittersweet tone to the process when we were filming. But there’s a simplicity and a beauty to the story that made it straightforward, which was nice.

You must have shot Maggie Siff’s scene under extreme secrecy?
We did. Maggie dropped in out of nowhere without really knowing much about the context of the episode. She had her history with the show and she embraced it. We were talking to her for a while before she showed up to film. But she didn’t know the context of her character until right before the day of filming. It’s always emotional for an actor to play somebody who dies. She had so little to say. Matt always says that’s the hardest thing for an actor to have one line and come in and nail it. She was Rachel Menken in that moment — she was beautiful and compelling and magnetic in the way she needed to be to get Don hooked in his dream state. The whole episode has somewhat of a dreamlike quality to it.

Elizabeth Reaser is also a compelling addition in this episode. What does this waitress mean to Don?
There’s the idea of her being a doppelgänger for Rachel. When I first got the script I thought maybe the intention was that Maggie would play the waitress in some slightly shifted version. But that wasn’t the intention. To some degree subtextually she does play an important role. She’s a real fulcrum for Don. There’s a quality of mystery and sadness to her. In casting, (Reaser) just really popped as being that person.

Will we see more of this character?
I would never tell you that.

A memorable image in this episode is the shot of the red wine spilling all over Don’s plush white carpet his bedroom. Was that hard to get just right?
It’s like filming a car crash. It had to be planned out and technically executed in real time on camera without blowing our opportunity. So we did it with a lot of technical execution, and we did what we always do, which is to cheat a little bit.

Peggy and Joan had a lot to do in this episode. Can you talk about the dynamic between them?
They always have these moments where they’re empathetic to each other and close, and they have moments where they are in competition and in conflict. Joan has a very adult life where she’s a single mother and independent, especially for a woman of her time. Peggy has a group of men working under her but she’s always searching for this other component in her life. We’ve seen her struggle in relationships. She’s totally cynical about the idea of being set up on a blind date. On some level (the conflict with Joan) is a motivator for her to set aside her inhibition and go on that blind date.

Why does Peggy pull back after clicking with Stevie? It wasn’t really about the passport, was it?
The actors had such chemistry in the scene in her apartment. It was such a well-written scene, they knew exactly what to do. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other. And then (Peggy) gets this idea that this relationship might be something more and ‘I don’t want to ruin it.’ There’s a moment at the end of that scene where Elisabeth’s jacket has fallen off one shoulder. She smiles and shrugs her shoulder while trying to put her jacket back on. That moment just makes me adore her. Elisabeth just sparkles through the episode.

What else stands out for you in this installment?
All of the actors gave great performances. Jon’s performance is so singular. There are so many scenes in the episode that are just him reacting to who he is in the world and his circumstances. Another favorite thing is Aaron Staton’s performance (as Ken) and his story. It’s not that often that we get to service such a long story for some of the (supporting) characters who have been in the show from the beginning. I’ve seen this episode several times with a live audience and the scene where Ken tells Roger and Pete that he’s now going to be their client always gets loud applause and fist-pumping. It was great to have the opportunity to work with Aaron like that.

“Mad Men” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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