Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the 4/13/14 episode of Mad Men, be warned that this article contains spoilers.
Finally. Mad Men is back for one last lap around Sterling Cooper & Partners. A whole lot of virtual ink has been spilled on what the show means and how Mad Men, like the 1960’s, is going out with a whimper instead of a bang – an interesting comment, since no one, and I mean NO ONE outside of the cast and crew, really knows how Matthew Weiner is going to land this plane. So. I’ll waste no time jumping into that black hole here.
Last night’s season premiere was a welcome return to a familiar world turned upside down by the events of last season’s tumult. January 20, 1969 – Richard Nixon’s inauguration – is fast approaching. It’s been two months since the end of season six. Don is on paid leave. Ted and Pete and Megan are all living in Los Angeles. Peggy, who dreamed of sitting in Don’s chair, works instead for a manager who possesses the creative sex appeal of old winged tip oxford.
The episode, titled “Time Zones”, revolves around four storylines where time and distance loom large. Don, who lives on the east coast, journeys west to spend a few uncomfortable days with Megan. Ted makes the opposite journey, where Peggy is unnerved by his presence and frustrated by Lou Avery, Don’s replacement. Joan puts herself in a position where she must buy time in order to head-off an embarrassing disaster. And finally, Roger tries to turn back time by living his off-hours as a free-love hippie, sharing his apartment, as well as a pretty young woman, with a bunch of hippies.
It’s not a time piece. It’s a conversation piece
The story opens, oddly, on the delightful Freddie Rumsen, who pitches an ad for Accutron watches to a blown-away Peggy. He’s freelancing, and she can’t believe the quality of the work he’s produced. What we learn at the end of the episode is that Don is using Freddie as a front while he’s on his paid vacation. Peggy, who is most loyal to good work, is turned on by the ad, proving once again that she and Don are connected at the brain.
At the weekly status meeting, Peggy is just one of the many gathered in Lou’s office, where his Mr. Rogers sweater and habit of saying “Dang!” at surprising news have her and Ginsberg scratching their heads. He’s an old fashioned administrator, the kind of guy who says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If Don is Steve Jobs, Lou isn’t Bill Gates. He’s Steve Balmer, a well-meaning clown who is perfectly fine with the first “good enough” idea that pops into his head and doesn’t understand why one would keep pushing for a better idea that wastes time.
When Lou tells Peggy he’s immune to her charms as she fights for Freddie’s Accutron pitch, we know it won’t be long before these two are at war. Peggy rightly sees what guys like Lou do to a team. When she vents on Stan, her old ally who is licking his own wounds, he pretty much tells her to give up and go with the flow. This sends Peggy over the edge and she accuses him and everyone else at the agency of being mindless hacks who don’t have sense enough to see that there won’t be an agency if this mindset continues.
It’s like Dracula’s castle up here
Meanwhile, Don ventures to sunny California where, up until 1968, he was always renewed by the “vibrations” of the west coast. Megan lives up in the hills in a house that Don compares to Dracula’s castle. Despite the fact that Megan’s career seems to be going well, there is tension and it’s coming from Megan.
She gets drunk at dinner, Don’s first night in town, and uses it as an excuse to not sleep with him. The following night, she claims to be nervous about their relationship. She can’t or won’t put her finger on just what it is, but we know it can’t be good.
Has Don told Megan about his suspension from SC&P? They make repeated mention of Don’s going to the office and working, though he has no work to do. The point is driven home when Don meets with Pete and reminds Campbell that he’s in town to see Megan. There’s no official business for him to perform.
Why hasn’t he told her?
He could be living with her full-time in California while he waits out his suspension, helping her set-up their second household, but he prefers to spend most of his time “alone” in New York. We know he’s productive when we learn of his partnership with Freddie Rumsen, but what else is going on? Is he there for the kids? It’ll be interesting to see how his relationship with Sally has changed, now that she has seen his humble origins. Does that help soften her hard line?
Later, as Don flies back home to New York, he sits next to Neve Campbell and strikes up a conversation. It’s vintage Don Draper, taking advantage of the slightest opening to work his magic. But there’s a twist. Like with Hershey, he doesn’t close. When Campbell brings up his wife, he admits that Megan knows he’s a terrible husband and he thinks aloud, saying that he thought this time it would be different. Is he admitting defeat, saying that no matter how he tries, he’ll always be a womanizer? We don’t learn the answer to that in this episode, but it’s been a long simmering question, stretching back to the first season. Every time we think Don has bottomed out, he finds new depths to sink to.
It depends on what you have to trade…
Joan is an interesting addition to this episode. Ken calls her to his office to discuss Avon, but their meeting is preempted by a screaming fit directed as a few underlings that spills over to their meeting. He’s stretched paper-thin and asks Joan for help.
Joan’s method of assisting Ken is to nose her way into a second account, just as she did with Avon. She’s operating under the sometimes-it’s-better-to-beg-forgiveness-than-ask-permission mindset. Butler Footwear has a new head of marketing, Wayne Barnes (Dan Byrd) and Joan takes a dinner meeting with Wayne, a youngster with a freshly minted MBA who’s mildly shocked to be meeting with a woman and not Ken. Unfazed, Joan soldiers on, only to learn that Wayne intends to pull his advertising in-house – a bold move designed to impress his superiors. Joan’s freak-out is barely detectable, and she does a good job stalling, getting a commitment from Wayne to wait a few days to make the announcement, giving Ken time to take him to dinner.
Next, Joan spends a Saturday at a local college where she’s paid a professor to give her ammunition in her next interaction with Wayne. She wants to impress him with her business acumen, relying more on her brains and less on her boobs. Joan has always been cagey, but this move represents something new – more outside her comfort zone.
On Monday, Joan is eager to meet with Ken, but learns from his secretary that a meeting has been scheduled with Wayne that excludes her. She wastes little time whining and instead, makes a call to Wayne where she unleashes her battle plan…successfully.
This storyline is interesting because it is a time warp of sorts. Back when Peggy left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to go to work for Ted, she seemed empowered and on her way up. Joan, by contrast, had just slept with Herb at Jaguar, trading on her sex appeal to get ahead. She seemed trapped – having won a token partnership that was non-transferable to any other agency.
Fast-forward a couple of years and what has happened? Peggy is back under the thumb of the men in her life: Lou is a creative bottle-neck; Ted has fled the coast but they still seem connected at the loins; without Abe, Peggy is useless at fixing things at the rundown building he insisted she buy; and then there’s Don, the father she can never please. Or escape.
Joan, on the other hand, has had enough and refuses to be defined by her Faustian bargain. She has flipped the script, and where Peggy meekly asks for permission from Lou and others, Joan is seizing opportunity while no one is looking. Joan may be in hot water with Ken, but she’s happy. She knows she has the initiative, and by also having a partnership, there’s little that can be done to her – especially if her subversion generates revenue.
The fear of an ambush
And then there’s Roger.
When we first see him, he’s passed out naked on the floor of what appears to be a flophouse, but is actually his apartment. There are naked young bodies all around, all passed out but one – a pretty young girl who speculates that she and Roger reached a new height while they were…high.
Roger is as death-haunted as ever, and while one young woman seems to love him, another – his daughter Maraget – has also found her own spiritual enlightenment. The two meet at the Plaza for brunch one Sunday, and Margaret informs her father that she forgives him. It’s vague, and Roger senses a follow-up, a request for money. He admits that he’s nervous about this meeting, echoing Megan’s nervousness about her reunion with Don. Margaret assures Roger that there is no hidden agenda, only a new sense of what is important in this life. When Roger asks if she’s gone back to church, Margaret tells him it’s nothing he’d understand. Hmmm.
This is the vaguest of the storylines in the premiere episode of season seven. Roger’s death has been speculated on for years. Matthew Weiner surely knows this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he keeps Roger alive out of spite. Time will surely tell. The last we see of him is when he comes home and climbs in bed with his young lover. Another guy is asleep on the other side of the bed. Unfazed, Roger climbs in bed, only wanting to sleep. The girl rolls over and snuggles with the young guy.
Odds & Ends
One of the most commented upon elements of last night’s episode will surely be Pete Campbell. What in the hell has happened to him?! He’s gone west coast and looks like a cheap knock-off version of Robert Evans – tan, gaudy and self-conscious in his use of west coast lingo. He seems happy, but in the way that those who are in shock and about to die are happy. Like burn victims, or those with severe hypothermia.
Pete’s meeting with Don had none of the old venom and hurt feelings. Pete was so giddy to be showing Don around town and the new offices, which are small and unimpressive. Is he really that happy, or is it all a show?
Regardless, it was a brilliant touch to have Pete living near the La Brea Tar Pits, a natural trap that ensnared all who fell in, preserving their remains in a black, sticky tomb. The La Brea Tar Pits are full of fossils, and Pete Campbell seems like one more victim.
Finally, there is this. Why is Don “freelancing” with Freddie Rumsen?
Their meeting at Don’s place is interesting. We know Don is getting paid, which takes the financial pressure away. So what is it? And why is Don writing ads for other, competing agencies? Is it to get even somehow? To stay sharp? To gain intelligence so that when he returns he’ll look like more of a genius by knowing how to defeat his previous ads?
Freddie suggests they stop with the Cyrano impersonation and open their own agency. Is that where Don is headed? It seems that this ties-in with Don’s decision not to tell Megan he has been sidelined for an indefinite few months. Could it be vengeance or is this all part of Don’s exit strategy?
At the close of the episode, Don fumbles with a broken patio door. It’s night. He seems drunk and sad, and when he can’t get the door to shut, he steps out onto the patio. My first impression was that he would jump to his death. But of course he didn’t. Not yet, anyway.
The episode ends with Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which offers more clues about the nature of Don, who sits alone in the cold.
With fourteen episodes left to wrap up the business of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner will be roasted and/or celebrated each week, as the show draws to a close. The comparisons to The Sopranos are inevitable, and while we all hope for a conclusion that is perhaps more emotionally satisfying, the best thing to do for now is to enjoy the bounty set out before us and obsess over what clues are presented each Sunday night.
I can’t wait.