Maybe it’s just me, but it felt like forever when we last saw Mad Men, but a quick check reveals that it’s been less than a year since the sixth season’s finale, in which Don got the heave-ho after self-destructing during an ad pitch for Hershey’s. In the final season’s opener, “Time Zones” we’re looking at a new kind of Mad Men – it feels a bit like a spin-off or a reboot. A lot of the characters are scattered throughout the country and the viewers are meant to care about their lives, even if they no longer live in the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners. And while I get why show runner Matthew Weiner chose to separate the crew, it does make it a little more difficult to keep interest in the characters as some get little screen time.
And while Mad Men is definitely not a comedy, it was always a show that I could rely on for some devastating wit, but I was a little surprised at how depressing “Time Zones” turned out to be – I was hoping for a lot of progression in the characters’ lives, and I was disappointed. The episode has three plots: Don’s in L.A. trying to save his sinking marriage to starlet, Megan; Joan is trying to assert herself as a business partner at the firm and save one of its big accounts; Peggy’s trying to ingratiate herself with her new boss. It’s interesting that the first episode features the three in leading roles because their characters go through major changes in the last season, and yet where they are in season 7 is completely different than what I expected.
I’ll explain. When Don was let go, I assumed that Peggy would ascend to his throne. After all, she deserves his job. She’s brilliant like he, but she doesn’t have his self-destructive qualities. So it comes as a bit of a letdown that instead of getting the promotion, she’s now working under Lou Avery. At the end of last season, Weiner and company allowed us to believe that maybe Peggy’s would’ve become creative director when she sat at Don’s desk at the end of the sixth season finale. Instead, she’s forced to smile and play nice with Lou who is a patronizing dimwit who sees Peggy as merely a girl copywriter. Unlike Don, Lou doesn’t see Peggy’s genius, and instead dismisses her. When she comes to Lou with a great idea for Accutron (which she got from Freddy Rumsen – more on that in a bit), he doesn’t bite. And Peggy doesn’t do herself any favors with the new chief by pushing and pushing – at one point he even levels with her by saying he’s “immune” to her charms. All this makes Peggy angry and frustrated – and her personal life is shit, too – Ted’s in L.A., but visiting New York, and is clearly over their affair, but Peggy’s still smarting from the breakup. She’s also the landlord to a crappy building with a loud and obnoxious neighbor (who has a loud and obnoxious kid). It’s not surprising that when she’s alone at night, she crumbles into tears on the floor.
Like Peggy, Joan’s also continuously banging her head on the glass ceiling, which seemed to have been lowered a few feet since she and Peggy made strides in their careers. Despite being a partner, she’s still treated like a secretary. Ken Cosgrove, sporting a nifty eye patch, is now head of accounts, and he’s drowning in the pressure of the job. He fobs off Butler Footwear’s marketing head, Wayne Barnes on Joan, because he feels it’s beneath him. Barnes is none to pleased about being passed on to a lady, and informs Mrs. Harris over drinks that Butler’s going to drop Sterling Cooper. Joan manages to get the guy to hold off on any decisions and hires a business school professor to play MBA Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle so she can salvage the account – when Barnes reneges on their agreement, Joan has to play hardball, using her knowhow to intimidate the little shit into agreeing to stay with Sterling Cooper. Of course, she doesn’t get praise or hosannas, and even she realizes that her work is merely a Band-Aid, but it does show that Joan, like Peggy, is far too good for the likes of the men at Sterling Cooper…
And while I understand that sexism was (and is) rampant in the business world, it was still a bit of a grind to see Peggy and Joan slapped down again, and treated like crap. I’m not asking for revisionist history, where the two join forces to mow down all the chauvinistic men in the office (they’d be left alone), but at the same time, I worry that the writers are starting to get one-note in how they treat the female protagonists on the show. The feminist critique in the show was always something that I struggled with – on the one hand, the show was very realistic in how it portrayed just how bad women had it – but there’s also a tendency to make women into victims on the show, and despite Joan and Peggy using their brains and talents (yes, I’m aware of how Joan became a partner, but still, the woman was the wiliest person in the office), we’re still treated to scenes where they’re dismissed because of their gender. The women are left to impotent fury or frustration – I’m hoping that this season will break up this theme a bit.
I mentioned Freddy when going over Peggy’s plot line because he appears in the show, pitching a great idea for Accutron. A really great idea. Suspiciously great. Turns out, Fred’s just a mouthpiece for Don, who’s using his old colleague to sell his ideas to agencies during his exile. While Freddy’s out pounding the pavement in the two men’s bizarre Madison Avenue take on Cyrano, Don is flying to L.A. to visit Megan, who is pursuing a career on television.
Los Angeles has always been an important presence on the show – it was where Don lost himself; but he also had Anna Draper in California, so it makes sense that L.A. will always loom. So Don flies to L.A., and meets up with Megan, in full late 60s fashion glory: huge, fake, black hair and huge, fake, black eyelashes. She lives in the hills in a gorgeous little cabin, creating a parallel life for herself that Don is peripheral, at best. Megan’s career as an actress will always remain a sour point with the two because it’s the kind of career that Don knows little about, and therefore he cannot assert himself as fully as he did when Megan showed promise as a copywriter. There’s also the potential of Megan becoming successful and outgrowing her role as Don’s missus. I doubt the last point though, because for some reason, I don’t think Megan’s destined for Jane Fonda-esque fame – at best, I see her as being a Sheree North/Dyan Cannon level star. There’s little evidence to her talent, and it still feels like Megan’s coasting on her great looks. But because Don’s an outsider to the movie business, he’s an outsider to Megan’s life.
During their first few nights together, they feel awkward and stilting with each other – like they just met on a blind date. He doesn’t understand her new life, and when he tries to insert himself – by buying her an expensive TV – she finds the gift inappropriate and showy. When flying back to New York, Don sits next to a gorgeous widow (a cameoing Neve Campbell), who just got back from sprinkling her late husband’s ashes in Disney Land (he wanted Pebble Beach, but she couldn’t manage to get it done there). The two hit it off, and predictably they start to flirt with each other. When Don asks how her husband dies, the woman implies that he died of alcohol-induced illness. We’re not looking at a parallel future Don/Megan, aren’t we? If Don doesn’t do something, will Megan be the one who will be flying in an airplane after scattering his ashes somewhere completely inappropriate? During the heart-to-heart, Don realizes he’s a terrible husband – he’s full of regret. Except we know that Don’s not above feeling remorse, so I don’t think this is the start of a new improved Don, but merely another opportunity for him to indulge in some self-pity (Don’s big on self-pity).
Back at home, Don’s struggling with the sliding glass door to his balcony. It’s letting in cold air. And at the close of the episode, admitting defeat (and turning away from drink), Don sits, shivering, while Vanilla Fudge’s cover of the Supremes hit “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” blares on the soundtrack. The choice of song is a little heavy-handed – it’s about a lover who’s being strung along, and just wants to break free – but also it’s a psychedelic rock song, ushering the late 1960s, moving away from the space-age loungey early 60s that Mad Men is so identified with; as the show ends, it’ll be fascinating to see just how the 70s will make its mark on the characters.
Aside from Don, Peggy, and Joan, the only other character to get some significant time is Roger, whose life has taken a very bizarre turn. We know from his LSD-tripping episodes, that Roger isn’t averse to the counterculture, except it’s unclear just how embroiled he is in it – he now appears to be in some orgy cult, or at least attached himself to a polyamorous relationship. We see a naked Roger being jerked away in a filthy room full of naked bodies as he takes a call from his newly-repentant daughter. Over Bloody Marys, she calmly forgives him for being such an asshat of a dad, with a suspicious serenity that makes me think that like daddy, Margaret Sterling has also hitched her wagon to a cult. It’s not a heart-warming scene of reconciliation – Margaret’s pretty smug and self-satisfied, while Roger is understandably put out by her attitude. So by the end of “Time Zones” I got the feeling that pretty much everyone has had life kick them in the teeth.
The only character that seems content is Pete, who loves L.A. When Don and Pete meet for lunch, he strides in, wearing a baby blue polo, and sweater tied over his shoulders, and hugs Don, instead of offering him a manly handshake. And if that’s not enough, he’s flirting with his real estate agent, who looks like Betty’s doppelgänger. Speaking of Betty – the former Mrs. Draper was not featured in the show, and neither was Sally – which is a shame, as she is my favorite character on the show, and both she and Don have some serious moving on to do. It’s clear from oh-so slight wear and tear on the writing that Weiner is smart to end his show soon. Some of the creative spark has been leaked out, and it feels as if the characters’ individual arcs will be wrapped up soon. “Time Zones” wasn’t the best opener of Mad Men but it did to its job well: introducing the last act.