The advance screener for the premier of Season Seven of Mad Men bore so many warnings, that I initially wondered whether it came from Pfizer instead of AMC.
We kindly ask that you please refrain from mentioning any key Mad Men story-lines in your review, specifically avoiding mention of the following:
- Year season takes place
- Don’s work status
- New characters
- And if you experience unusual swelling or thoughts of suicide please contact your doctor immediately.
I know that showrunner Matthew Weiner is a spoilerphobe, but when I read those admonitions my thoughts bounded immediately to the last time Weiner worked on the first episode of a bi-furcated final season of an iconic show. The year was 2006, the show was The Sopranos, and the episode was quite eventful. At the beginning, there was a fair amount of housekeeping, with Tony off his meds surprising Carmela with a Porsche Cayenne.
Then Gene Pontecorvo hangs himself.
And with a couple of minutes left, Uncle Junior shoots Tony.
Which led me to wonder. Who pops a cap in Don Draper? Given the way our hero left things with those near and dear to him, there’s no shortage of candidates. His wife? His ex-wife? His daughter? Any of the partners at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Chow-guh-Whatever?
The smart money was on Pete Campbell. Or Bob Benson. Or maybe Sally’s creepy friend Glen.
Instead “Time Zones” delivers a drastically different kind of premiere, one that’s all about stasis, at least for Don Draper. What has Don been doing during the two months between the last episode (Thanksgiving 1968) and this one (January 1969)? In a word-or two: Not much. On the other hand, the world around him—and us—has been changing with dizzying speed.
We should have known something was up when the first image we see is a close up of Freddy Rumsen delivering a subtle, spellbinding pitch for Accutron watches.
“Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.” But what? we wonder.
Even Peggy is stunned at Freddy’s eloquence and can’t hide it. Rumsen’s response sounds like a page from the Roger Sterling Book of Quotations: “There’s a nice way to say that. And there’s the way you just said it.”
And speaking of Roger, at first glance it seems like he’s lying on the floor of same dark, crowded jail cell where Don spent the night in the Season Six finale. But when the camera pulls back, the site of the squalor is his suite at the Plaza, where a naked Roger is deftly covering his privates with the telephone.
As we bounce around Mad Men land, everything seems a bit off. The normally Zen-like Ken Cosgrove is shouting at his subordinates and freaking out about how a shoe company owner will perceive him if he deigns to take a meeting with the new marketing director. While still wearing that eye patch.
Next we watch as Peggy brokers an uneasy truce with Ted/Don replacement Lou Avery. He is clearly immune to her charms, and says so in so many words.
And then it’s time for our hero, Don Draper, Man Out of Time. He’s riding a magic sidewalk at an airport, just like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. The groovy colored tiles in the background say it’s 1969. Don’s grey suit, white shirt, and fedora are right out of 1959. The retro style that was such a part of Don’s allure suddenly seems more than a little dated.
In case we hadn’t gotten the message, out pops Mrs. Draper. She struts out of her British Racing Green Austin-Healey convertible, wearing a sheer, flouncy mini dress cut-to-there that looks like it began life in the lingerie aisle. She completes the trendy look with bright blue eye shadow and bangly earrings. She plants a kiss on him, but with his fedora, Vitalis’d hair and double chin, Don and Megan don’t look so much like husband and wife, as father and daughter. It’s the episode’s most iconic–and disturbing–image.
For those of us who aren’t entirely under Don’s spell, the season six finale offered so much promise. It seemed like Don Draper had finally hit rock bottom setting us up for a deep dive into his psyche. What makes this guy tick? Instead, Don seems to like things at the bottom. He’s still drinking—if not to excess. He’s pretending to go to work, even though there’s no work to go to. And on the flight back, he flirts with the attractive young widow in the next seat on the plane.
“If I was your wife I wouldn’t like this,” whispers Lee Cabot, played by Neve Campbell.
“She knows I’m a terrible husband,” Don half-quips.
“I keep wondering if I’ve broken the vessel,” he says. Does he mean an urn? Or his aorta?
In short, it’s the Same Old Don in a Brave New World, a freaky world in which Pete Campbell wears a baby blue Lacoste polo over plaid go-to-hell pants and muses about “vibrations.”
The episode’s big spoiler isn’t Sally filling her Dad full of lead with Henry’s hunting rifle—indeed we don’t see Betty or the kids at all. It’s the fact that Don is so desperate that he’s willing to play Cyrano with Freddy Rumsen. And not just at Sterling Cooper, but at rival agency J. Walter Thompson too.
Once the hottest creative director on Madison Avenue, Don Draper is now the anonymous auteur of Freddy Rumsen’s freelance copy that’s too good by half.
But why? It’s not the money. (Don’s still getting paid.)
It’s not the exposure (Everyone thinks Freddy’s the creative genius.)
In the last scene, we are led to surmise that churning out glib copy about electronic watches and lunch meat is all that stands between Don Draper and the abyss. His Upper East Side apartment is still chic and 0h-so-expensive, but it’s littered with liquor bottles, and the door to the balcony is stuck open even though it’s the middle of the winter. And empty except for him. Don walks out into the cold in his t-shirt and robe looking every bit as broken as we’ve ever seen him. Is this really rock bottom?
Maybe so? And the single ray of hope, if it can be called that, is that across town at that exact moment, Peggy Olson is crying on the floor of her own apartment, pretty close to rock bottom herself, her own self worth tied up in crafting just the right tag line. In an episode full of characters at cross purposes, this might be one connection waiting to be made.
What did you think of the Mad Men premiere? Where do you see Don Draper’s story going from here? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Allen St. John is the author of Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, published by Ballantine Books