SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the season opener of “Mad Men.”
Here we are bracing for the heartache of knowing we’ll be saying goodbye to “Mad Men” in a mere 14 episodes — and season seven opens with a joyous treat, the equivalent of a slab of birthday cake topped with a double scoop of ice cream. A closeup of Freddy Rumsen, delivering a pitch. He’s working again! With Peggy! Be still our hearts, it’s good to see you, pal.
“This is the beginning of something,” he advises. Yes, we know but interesting to see a beloved character articulate it just so. Within another minute, we get one of those “Mad Men” lines — a laugh line that also informs, greatly, on the state of the characters in the scene. “You really put the ‘free’ in ‘freelancer,’ don’t you,” Peggy quips after Freddy makes a point of telling her he’s going to have another cup of coffee before he goes.
This exchange tells us so much about Freddy’s station and Peggy’s too. That this is the first scene of the first episode of “Mad Men’s” final season seems significant. Of course, this show from beginning to end is the Don Draper story — defined by where that guy is — mentally, physically, emotionally — at any given time in his times (which as season 7 unfolds is January 1969).
But if the opener, “Time Zones,” written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornsbacher, is any guide, this is going to be a hell of a run for the two female heroes of the story, Peggy and Joan. And this makes sense. The full flowering of the modern women’s movement is just around the corner, and even in this first episode, the indignities large and small that Peggy and Joan endure are perfect illustration why lighter fluid is about to hit foundation garments in the next few years.
But first, let’s check in with Don. Once again, he seems kind of frozen in time — a time that is not the present day that he’s living in. He’s fallen hard, obviously, since we last saw him getting put on extended leave (aka: fired) from Sterling Cooper. Although he’s still getting paid, he gets no joy out of the free ride. He’s reduced to brainstorming pitches that he delivers through the vessel of Freddy Rumsen. Kind of a return to the old theme of Don hiding behind someone else’s identity, isn’t it?
He’s also out of step with the times in so many other ways — starting with his look. Sure, he’s still got his “matinee idol” quality. And maybe his tie has widened a half-inch or so since the series started. But the opening scene of him shaving in the airplane lavatory underscores how much he’s still into the crisp white shirt and remaining clean-shaven at a time when hair is pouring out all over the place even for professional men. Pete Campbell is hardly a hippie in his plaid pants and tennis sweater, but his sideburns look like lamp posts compared to Don. The stiffness of Don and his gray suit and his un-hip hat is reinforced as he’s standing on the moving sidewalk at LAX against the backdrop of the brightly colored tiled wall. And yet, as we see later in the episode, despite the Day-Glo color of the cultural moment, Richard Nixon is about to move into the White House, so maybe we should see Don Draper as the embodiment of the Silent Majority?
But there are other ways that Don is frozen in time. Drinking too much, hiding the truth of his situation to Megan, chasing anything in a skirt (or pants suit in the case of Pete’s realtor girlfriend) and drowning his sorrows in work when all else fails. He hasn’t found the confidence that he lost at the end of season six. He can’t quite close the gap that troubles his life, just like he can’t fix the sliding glass door of his balcony.
His weekend visit with Megan is painfully awkward from start to finish — even if she is a big ol’ hypocrite for complaining about him buying her a fancy TV set — out of concern of how it will look to her starving-artists friends — yet it’s OK for her to have a showpiece pad with a spectacular view in Laurel Canyon (or maybe Topanga) and sleek sports car?
Don simply doesn’t get California, as evidenced by the way Megan explains how the canyons amplify the howl of the coyotes. And he’s probably thinking about how he used to visit Anna Draper in the South Bay.
Megan in general comes off as incredible self-centered — the influence of her obsequious agent Alan can’t help — even though we know why she was pushed in that direction by her oh-so-distant husband. His snuggling on the plane with a woman who kind of looks like his last mistress only reinforces his never-satiated yearnings to be loved and desired by other women, even if he dumps poor old recently widowed Neve Campbell before the wheels touch the ground.
As we veer off of the Don Draper track, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the greatest use of a telephone as a fig leaf in the history of filmed entertainment.
When we catch up with Roger, he’s living the mantra of “if it feels good, do it!” We come upon him in the midst of a hippie-orgy scene, entangled in a throng of bodies when he answers his daughter’s call. The setting is hardly glamorous — it looks seedy and dirty and you can feel the hangover (and then some) that Roger awakes to.
Roger is the antithesis of Don — he’s ready to jump in feet first and see what the counterculture has to offer. I suspect he still has some growing up to do in the next 13 episodes. He’s so anything goes that his anything-goes girlfriend is more cloying than he is, even as she has to shove another guy in bed over a few inches to make room for Roger.
Certainly Roger’s disconcerting meeting with Margaret at the Plaza hotel restaurant (some habits die hard) laid the groundwork for him dealing with some kind of curve ball. Margaret’s demeanor and choice of words indicate that she’s become involved in a kind of movement too, probably more spiritually based than the movement her father is investigating, but it could also be stirrings of a cult or commune situation, despite her conservative look at the Plaza. This I found very intriguing and well played by Elizabeth Rice with just a hint of something ominous (or at least unsettling) to come.
Now to Joan. While Don is flailing and Roger is fornicating, we see once again how Joan is born to be a CEO. She’s smart, resourceful (fighting a headstrong MBA with MBA wisdom received in a crash course with a college professor on a Saturday), quick on her feet and a master of manipulating people without them realizing it.
By the end of the episode where boy-wonder marketing guy Wayne asks her “What do I do?” we just have to stand back and applaud. Damn, she’s good, and unflappable, too.
The Unsinkable Joan Harris stands in sharp contrast to the Agita of Ken Cosgrove. The loss of his eye has coincided with the loss of most of his humanity. We learn quickly that more authority and responsibility has turned him into a yeller and a schemer and a self-pitying jerk. None of these are qualities we would have ascribed to Ken the short-story writer of old. Be careful what you wish for — it turns out he didn’t really want Pete Campbell’s job after all.
Peggy is also struggling with her new-found authority and the limits of it as she battles an ultra-obnoxious boss that probably makes her pine for Don at his worst. It seemed like she was going to be in the Don Draper seat, literally, at the end of season six when the coup was initiated against Don. But as we learn, she now answers to a guy from the Cutler, Gleason and Chaough side.
Lou sets the tone for his insensitive obnoxiousness with his quip about “Gladys Knight and the Pips” when secretary Dawn lets Peggy and the other creative execs into his office. And it’s downhill from there. “I guess I’m immune to your charms,” he tells her. Insulting on a personal level and belittling on a professional level.
We know that Peggy is a fighter or she wouldn’t have lasted past episode 2 of season one. But she drives the point home again in her exchange with Stan as she’s trying to barrel through with the Accu-Tron pitch that she thinks is from Freddy but we know is from Don.
“I’m tired of fighting for everything to be better,” she says, disgusted at the laziness around her. This moment may have been the most ham-fisted part of the script, but I can sense the importance of putting those words in Peggy’s mouth right now. It helps explain her literal fall-to-the-floor breakdown at her apartment later that day. She expends so much energy trying to hold her own in the office, and then she has to deal with the lover who jilted her months ago on top of it.
Peggy should have taken that coffee can to Ted Chaough’s head when they finally ran into each other in the office break room (not that I’m condoning violence but did Ted really need that toast? No.).
There’s a lot more that could be said about “Time Zones” — including some chatter about who wasn’t in the episode, like Betty or the kids — but let’s wind up with a few personal “bests.”
Best Don Draper line: “Those are some nice-looking properties,” delivered with that smoldering stare.
Best Joan Harris comeback: “You’re going to need another pad.”
Best Pete Campbell line: “The city’s flat and ugly, the air is brown but I love the vibrations.”
Best line that could easily be spoken in 2014: “There’s someone above you and someone below you and everybody’s buying everybody dinner.”
Best hint of things to come: “Bob Benson’s on the line from Detroit.”
Best special guest star appearance by a location: Canter’s Deli
Best cameo appearance on a TV set: Joey Bishop
MONDAY MORNING THOUGHTS:
As always, the minute I file this I think of other stuff. This time around, it was the episode’s multiple references to balconies. Megan mentions cigarette disposal balcony protocol to Don in L.A., Don is perched on the balcony with the busted sliding door in his apartment. These seem like ominous bread crumbs for a show with the image of a man falling from a tall building in its opening title sequence…