Welcome to the beginning of the end, Mad Men fans! Come back every Tuesday for a breakdown of the latest episode comprising the first half of this seminal show’s seventh and final season. Want more Mad Men discussion? Be sure to subscribe to the Not Great, Pod! podcast featuring me and Messrs. Corey Atad and Kevin Ketchum. Feel free to give us a rating, and please shoot us an email with your questions, comments and crackpot theories at [email protected].
The difference between the end of Mad Men’s sixth season and the beginning of its seventh and final one isn’t drastic. The plot only moves ahead two months, from Thanksgiving 1968 to mid-January 1969. Most of the characters are where we figured they’d be, and where they had planned to be. But despite several developments that have shaken up the dynamic, not much has actually changed for the characters. They may have a different boss, or a different job (or no job), or live across the country, or be part of a bicoastal relationship, but ultimately, their situations are the same. If they were unhappy two months ago, they certainly didn’t find joy during the holidays. The premiere, “Time Zones,” focuses on characters literally moving around — notably Don, traveling to and from Los Angeles to visit the newly transplanted Megan — but they and others are actually standing still. Worse yet, they’re terribly lonely. As President Richard Nixon said at his inauguration January 20, 1969, “We find ourself rich in goods but ragged in spirit.” Better yet, to quote the closing credits song, they’re all unable to break free from someone or something — they just keep hanging on. It’s an interesting opening for the final season of a series chronicling the 1960s, a decade defined by change, and it’s a smart one. Creator Matthew Weiner has started the slow build toward the finale, and having his characters begin Season Seven in states of confusion, regret, denial, and despondency sets up perfectly a final run he no doubt hopes will encapsulate not what it meant to live in an specific era, but what it means to live.
Megan may have taken Don up on his probably not serious offer that she move to California to pursue her acting career, but she isn’t able to fully let go. “I don’t even know why we’re fighting for this anymore,” she said as Season Six ended, yet here she is in the L.A. canyons, trying to blend in with starving actresses and nervous about spending time with her husband, especially in bed. Don dutifully visits her — the slow-motion sequence of her picking him up at the airport was beautiful — playing the role of supportive husband as she meets with her agent about auditioning for an NBC pilot, but he hasn’t revealed to Megan that he is on indefinite leave from the company he helped build. They’re trying to make it work, but even the small things are starting to grate, such as when Don buys Megan a new TV. A TV isn’t what she wants, and it goes deeper than her protest that this signifier of affluence will make her look bad with her peers. They’re trying to keep the marriage together, but short visits full of pretense won’t fix anything. Don knows he’s bad at marriage, as he tells Lee (Neve Campbell), a woman he meets on the trip back to New York. “How long have you been married?,” she asks. “Not long enough,” Don says. “I really thought I could do it this time.”
Pete seems to be the happiest of the SC&P crew, meeting up with Don in L.A. looking tan and relaxed. The city may be “flat and ugly,” and the bagels there are terrible, but Pete has reinvented himself in his new world. Don says he dresses and talks like a hippie, albeit a preppy one, but at least Pete appears to be on the healthier end of the grooviness and free love spectrum. Roger, meanwhile, is spiraling, partying with hippies less than half his age and leaving his den of iniquity to meet with his daughter, Margaret. She forgives him for his transgressions (a list he doesn’t entirely agree with), and Roger is right to wonder where this new air of enlightenment is coming from. “You going to church?” he asks. “Not in any way you’d understand.” Roger has never been able to obtain that level of peace, and seeing him here when we left him in Season Six making headway with Joan and Kevin is disheartening. He’s still a child, as Lane once called him. He can’t get serious.
Joan begins to make strides at work thanks to a harried Ken (still rocking an eye patch) passing off a meeting with Butler Footwear’s head of marketing, Wayne Barnes (Dan Byrd), in his place. Ken thinks he’s too high up to meet with Barnes, but Joan jumps at the chance to work with an account. She takes the opportunity seriously, even if the young, wet-behind-the-ears Barnes doesn’t take her seriously. He isn’t the first or last businessman to make a comment about her looks and let them define her, and even the Columbia University business professor she meets with for advice on saving the account begins their conversation saying he accepted the meeting because “the price is right and the company looks interesting.” In turn, Joan, the one without a degree but who has plenty of experience, schools both men in their supposed areas of expertise. Even if SC&P loses the account, Joan is still a victor here, and she’s the only character who was able to take a step in the right direction in “Time Zones.”
Peggy is up against a similar obstacle in the new head of creative, Lou Avery (Allan Harvey), an apparently uncreative force who isn’t interested in pushing the envelope or opening the floor up for debate. She brings him a tweaked version of freelancer Freddie Rumsen’s pitch for Accutron watches, but he quickly settles for a less dynamic approach and insisting Peggy is the one making things difficult. “I think you’re putting me in a position of saying, ‘I don’t care what you think,’ ” he tells her. “Why would you put something in front of me that you don’t want me to pick?” Lou’s statement later the he’s immune to her charms severely undermines her talent, and her frustration with his disapproving father from the 1950s schtick is understandable. So is her being annoyed with her team for not rocking the boat — for doing as Lou says, to “open up and say ‘ah.’ ” Of course, her heartbreak over Ted is ever present, and his brief return to the New York office from L.A. only compounds her feelings. Ted is keen to act as if nothing happened, twisting the knife deeper. And what’s the point — what does the distance and time difference actually accomplish, Peggy asks. “Well you’re in an office here, you’re in an office there. What’s the difference?” According to Pete, however, Ted isn’t exactly living it up out west. He’s detached, and considering how his bottled up feelings for Peggy exploded at the end of Season Six, he probably won’t be able to maintain the charade of being a happily married man for much longer.
Being the landlord of a neighboring apartment is keeping Peggy and her relatives busy, with her brother-in-law serving as an emergency plumber, and provided a burst of humor for a relatively bleak episode. But once her brother-in-law left, saying he didn’t like Peggy’s sister being alone at night, she crumples to the ground. No one is rushing home to be with her, to make sure she’s cared for, and her loneliness is painful to see. Across town, Don wanders his penthouse, deciding against a drink and stepping into the cold night air through his balcony doors that won’t close. Earlier we learned what he considers “work” — ghost writing for Freddie. Don was behind the Accutron pitch Peggy loved so much, and he’s behind others Freddie has been shopping around. It’s not for the money — he’s still getting paid by SC&P — and staying in practice doesn’t seem to be much of a concern for him, either. It’s that he can’t think to do anything else. On the plane, Lee spoke of her deceased husband, hitting home the themes of the episode and series — “He worked fast. He was thirsty, and he died of thirst.” Don is never satisfied, and that insatiability has led him to his current state of affairs, on leave from work and thousands of miles away from a wife to which he hasn’t remained faithful. Shivering out in the cold, Don is aware of his demons — he’s been aware of them for a while — but is awareness enough to spur him to change?
In L.A., he caught on TV the beginning of Frank Capra’s 1937 film Lost Horizon, based on James Hilton’s 1933 novel. The opening lines displayed on the screen capture his attention: “In these days of wars and rumors of wars — haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight. Of course you have. So has every man since Time began. Always the same dream.” In the story, survivors of a plane crash in the Himalayan Mountains are rescued and taken to the idyllic valley known as Shangri-La. It’s a utopia, a paradise where they are sheltered from the cold and inhabitants age slowly. Those who do leave Shangri-La only want to return — it’s hard not to want paradise as opposed to what we actually have on Earth. But searching for utopia is a fool’s errand. There aren’t magical solutions to Don’s problems — he and Megan can’t spend a glamorous few days in the L.A. sunshine and make their troubles disappear. There’s a middle ground to be found between his current despair and a dream of a problem-free existence. But he can’t find it.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.