“Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something,” says a familiar face in the opening seconds of “Time Zones”. But it’s not one that you’d expect. Since this is Mad Men, the most cryptic and literary show on television right now, and since this is an era of television in which every scene, image or stray reference can spawn an endless array of conspiracy theories; everything about this is either a mystery or a clue. The elder Freddie Rumsen’s surprisingly smooth pitch to the younger Peggy Olson kicks the mysterious show’s intriguing final season off with three questions in the first three sentences.
Are you ready? Hmm, what else can there be left for the great Matt Weiner to teach us about change, identity, authenticity, privilege, happiness or the lack thereof that we haven’t already been over in the previous six seasons? Last season, we watched a lot of things happen that seemed awfully familiar. In a way, it was tedious, but it wasn’t without reason. Still, it’s pretty clear that Mad Men couldn’t underline what’s already in bold in its final season. Ready for what, though, is the question.
Because I want you to pay attention. Yes, but why? Is Mad Men pulling a clever narrative trick on us again, already? The notoriously surreptitious Weiner seems to be saying we’re missing something not even one minute into the episode.
This is the beginning of something. Okay, this one is halfway obvious: It’s the beginning of the end. But the end of what in particular? Certainly the decade, as it’s 1969, but what else? Don and Megan’s relationship? Pete’s Campbell’s seemingly perpetual losing trick? Roger Sterling’s sanity? Peggy’s ascension to the top? SC&P’s days as an innovative agency? Or could it be of Don Draper himself? Yes, it seems the hilariously opaque AMC promos were right; “everything is up in the air this season”.
In the season finale of last year’s gloomy sixth season, Don stood out in the sunshine with his kids in front of the dump that was his childhood home. In one sense, he might have been at the lowest point since he’d escaped his scarring and life-shaping upbringing – he’d just been kicked out of the agency that he’d been spearheading since well before the show’s pilot, and it looked like he’d just blown up his second marriage – but in another sense, this was the highest he’d been in quite some time. He was connecting with his betrayed and similarly scarred daughter, Sally, by showing her a crucial piece of his true identity. It was the rarest moment of unadulterated honesty for Don Draper; a reason for his daughter – and for us – to believe that there was more to the man than the bullshit he sells for reasons both personal and professional. But, with a wife in an increasingly strange continent called “Los Angeles,” and without the job that often defined him, where would that leave Don Draper a couple of months down the road?
“Time Zones” gives us that answer, but as is often the case with Mad Men, it takes its time sweet before it lets us get there. It delves into the other side of the equation of Don’s leave of absence first. What is Sterling Cooper & Partners (as the agency is known as these days) like without its once shining creative director? Well, business carries on with or without Don Draper, it turns out, but the quality of the agency’s work is certainly in question. Co-protagonist and lady part-haver Peggy Olson has worked tirelessly to get to the top in a world dominated by dicks. She’s gone from the wide-eyed, earnest and lowly secretary of the pilot to a career-hardened professional that can produce work every bit as potent and deceptive as the great Don Draper in his prime. Her obsession with work has already driven a spear-shaped wedge into her relationship with her idealistic ex-boyfriend, Abe, and her lack of agency in her illicit relationship with “the other boss,” Ted, has left her in the bitter cold of New York, while he has fled to a seemingly sunnier situation across the country. (In reality, he’s just in another stuffy office, but like that makes a difference to Peggy. Actually, it makes her feel worse.)
And what does she have to show for it? In the season six finale, when Don ran into Lou Avery by the elevator, the writing was on the wall, but Peggy wasn’t there to see it for herself. He was going to be the one to end up with Don’s job, not her. But surely he’s a skilled pro who deserves the job over Peggy, right? They wouldn’t not give her the job just because she’s a woman, would they? It’s 1969! Sterling Cooper has changed and so has America! Not so much, apparently. Peggy goes above and beyond to try to create the best ad that she can, but she can’t win over her lame and complacent new boss. She probably shouldn’t have been so meddlesome, but you can’t fault her for aiming higher than anyone else. Lou Avery is an ad man that makes Duck Phillips look like a beacon of charisma by comparison. Let’s examine the tagline choices for the Acutron wristwatch. “It’s not a timepiece, it’s a conversation piece”. This is Freddie’s, and it’s great copy. It’s powerful if grandiose, and maybe a tad antiquated, which completely makes sense by the episode’s end. Peggy’s choice, “It’s time for a conversation,” is catchy and simple, too, but maybe not as evocative. And then there’s Lou’s: “Just in time to be on time”. Dear God is that bland and uninspiring! It’s probably the lamest Mad Men pitch since the insufferable Harry Crane’s “Broadway Joe on Broadway” brainstorm. Anyway, though the point is that Peggy is at the peak of her powers and the Powers-That-Be have hired a generic dude in a cardigan who’s apparently as immune to innovation as he is to her “charms”. And that’s not all; in fact, it’s worse than that for Peggy. Her old flame, Ted, pops up to remind her of what she can’t have, she lives in a dilapidated apartment that reminds her of the future she was supposed to have with the boyfriend she lost, and her frustrations with everything leads to her lashing out at poor ole, well intentioned Stan.
Peggy ends the episode crumbling into a weeping heap, so it speaks to the state of affairs of the show that this wasn’t even the second most depressing situation of our beloved characters’ lives. The dapper and silver-tongued Roger Sterling has long outlived his relevance at the agency. He’s been divorced twice, and claims to feel nothing at all anymore (unless he’s on LSD). Instead of sleeping with his loving, similarly-aged first wife, Mona, or his younger, prettier second wife, Jane, or Joan, his true love of his life, Roger’s sleeping with two or three nameless chicks and a dude in a disgusting commune of a hotel room. His daughter reaches out to him for a peaceful brunch, and he has two thoughts a) this is an ambush and b) there better be vodka there. To his bewilderment, Margaret only wants to offer her forgiveness for his laundry list of offenses, but he can’t even treat the situation seriously, let alone grasp everything that he should be apologizing for. Oh, Roger.
Joan’s story seems to pick up right where last season left her. She’s a partner, but like Peggy, she isn’t treated with as much respect as she would if she were a man. The increasingly miserable Ken Cosgrove forces her to meet with a condescending client who looks down on her from their very first meeting. She gets the best of him by the end of the episode, because of course she does. We know that you don’t want to mess with Joan, regardless of her title or how others view her. But the dehumanizing way in which she became a partner continues to hang over her. At one point in the episode, when she meets with a professor, he innocuously asks if she has anything to trade. He means it in a strictly business sense, but it evokes a bad memory in her guilty conscience. Christina Hendricks’ effortless mask of cool devolves instantly into indignation before her character realizes she took it the wrong way. Although it’s been a long time, it’s very clear that that wound is still very raw.
Joan’s eventual minor victory is one of the few high points of the season premiere. On the opposite end of that spectrum, we have one Don Draper (who is conspicuously absent from the beginning of the episode). You wouldn’t know it from his first appearances, though. We first see Don shaving, looking debonair as usual, while a badass song plays in the background, the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man”. And then, we spend the rest of episode seeing how Don is decidedly not The Man, anymore. In 1969 Los Angeles, dressed in suit, hat and tie, Don is a man out of place and out of time. Megan Draper has become a fairly successful actress, and her new life is 10 times as glamorous as his. (If I knew anything about fashion or cars, I’d give you more of an analysis on this than my take, which is: DAMN.) When they passionately kiss at the airport and when they meet with an objectifying agent, they are a picture perfect couple; Megan the stunning beauty of a soap star, Don the dashing businessman. When Don meets a new character, Happy Pete Campbell(!), Pete, with his head in the Californian clouds, still thinks of Don as a company man. He looks the part, Megan looks the part, they look the part together, but they’re both acting.
It’s a little ironic that Don initially had such disdain for Megan’s choice to leave advertising for acting, because acting is all “Don Draper” has ever done. It’s funny that he finds advertising to be more honest work than acting, when acting, at least, doesn’t masquerade under the pretense that it’s at all real. Of course, it’s more complicated than that due to the fact that Megan committed the cardinal sin to a man like Don Draper. She asked the perennial self-made man to use his influence to bust her into the industry. However, that is neither here nor there. What matters now is the present in which Don is trying to act like he’s not such a terrible, un-relatable husband, even though he does things like not consider Megan’s feelings before he buys her things she doesn’t want; a present in which Megan is going through the motions with a man whom she now finds much less important than her career.
The strange trip ends with Don returning home for “work,” but first, we get a dream-like flight home with a stranger on a plane. The stranger is played by Neve Campbell of Scream fame. She’s a brunette, attractive widow. The kind of woman Don easily wooed back in the front end of the decade. They chat and they flirt and she teases at the idea of hooking up with him. However, as this goes on, every line is an echo of something else, a theme of the episode or the themes of the show itself. It’s very strange, and there’s a lot that can be read into this. When it’s time for Don to cheat on his wife, as we know him to do, he relents. He has to get back to work, he says. It should be a minor triumph for Don, a mark of progress for a serial-philanderer. But it doesn’t feel that way. He does it out of despair, out of knowing that it won’t make him feel any better, than he does out of morality.
When he returns to his apartment, the trick from the beginning of the episode is revealed. It gives you a little thrill when you finally put two and two together, but it doesn’t last. Freddie Rumsen oddly walks in with sub sandwiches and says, “You’re making quite a name for me out there.” Aha! Don is supplying Freddie with the great copy; we knew there was no way he could have come up with it by himself! When the camera concentrates on Freddie at the beginning of the episode, it’s initially jarring, because it’s not Don, except it is. So, how about that? Don might be out of the game, but at least he still has it, and he’s trying to get back in any way he can, right? Well, that’s one rosy way to look at it, until the reality sets in, at least. A more sobering one is that Don is so desperate that he’s using the likes of Freddie Rumsen, the pants pissing disgraced freelancer, a man whose worldview was already showing its age in 1960, as his last – and only – resort to restore meaning to his life. (Freddie seems better off here than he’s been in a while, but still.)
The historical even taking place in the background of this episode is the inauguration of President Richard Nixon. Nixon was the man that Don and the agency promoted in the first season of the show. His 1960 loss and the original Sterling Cooper’s failure to predict that loss, as close as it was, was one of the first signs that our protagonists were going to quickly fall behind on the times. “I look at him and I see myself,” Don proclaimed during season one. His reintroduction to the center of the American conscious came with the implied notion that it was too little, too late. Does the same go for Don? Is there anything that Don can do to keep him from being in the same place as he is at the premiere’s end?
We last see him sitting outside on the balcony, a broken man, freezing and more alone than ever.
It’s an unquestionably bleak premiere, but the clever deception of Don’s pitch through Freddie is quintessentially Mad Men. This show has always been about appearances and how they have a way of not being what they seem. In the first season, on the surface, this person is a calm, privileged ad man named Don Draper, but he’s really the impulsive and dirt-poor Dick Whitman. Betty Draper is a stereotypical simple, happy housewife, but she’s actually depressed to the core. Peggy Olson is a sweet, naïve, little girl, but underneath that veneer is a cunning mind waiting for an opportunity. Salvatore Romano is a smooth-talking lady-killer, that is, if he weren’t a closeted homosexual. The list goes on and on. This is a show about fakers, and since we’re all faking something or other, a show about us. It’s asking us some hard, unsettling questions.
After all of these years of faking it, are any of these characters going to make it? Will any of us?
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.