by: L.P. Hanners
Our quarterly Mad Men recaps commence, as the final season sets sail with Don in an all too familiar place….
“Are you ready?” Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.”
The game has changed, yet the song remains the same. Season seven rejoins Mad Men in the 3rd week of January 1969, two months having passed since the rousing conclusion of season six (Thanksgiving 1968). Don is exactly where we last left him, miserable across both coasts.
Looking back (so as to look forward), season four began with a poignant question lobbed from a reporter: “Who is Don Draper?” If, as viewers, we could answer that loaded question, then and there, Mad Men would of course cease to exist. The following season came to a close as a beautiful woman at a bar seductively asks Don, “Are you alone?” Another seemingly simple question, with wide ranging implications. And shrewdly, Mad Men’s final season commences in that very same vein, a captivating scene featuring Freddy Rumsen (trousers unmoistened) whose true significance wasn’t revealed until the end of the episode.
This initial episode of the final season ((Which will be split into two, 8-episode arcs.)), entitled “Time Zones,” ((Written by Matthew Weiner and Directed by Scott Hornbacher)) catches us instantly off guard, with Freddie provided the kind of dazzle that would well prepare us for what was to come. If that scene didn’t grab your attention, then the very next scene would: Roger, naked, awakening from the previous night’s orgy. “Time Zones” most certainly refers to the now bi-coastal firm, and the tale of two cities that will be the foundation of the narrative moving forward. But, this moniker is also a reference to how everyone is now in different places, or different planes, unable to understand each other ((A fact highlighted in the following episode during a bi-coastal conference call – but we’ll get to that!)). In this weighty episode we find Pete fully embracing his new California lifestyle, and experiencing what appears to be true happiness ((In direct contrast to the Pete Campbell who stood idly by as Don Draper fixed his kitchen sink in Season five’s “Signal 30.”)), while Don flounders like a fish out of water as he misleads Megan about his current work situation. Back on the East Coast Joan is flourishing, saving accounts for the agency and consulting with a college professor, while Peggy grapples with Don’s replacement, the insufferable Lou Avery. Yet both of them remain ((As well as Pete and Jim Cutler, more on that in the 702 discussion!)) rife with drive, pushing the agency into the modern era, as everyone about them trudges through the crassness of outdated methods and ideals.
Traveling home with Don from Los Angeles, we once again find him in the clutches of temptation in the form of a grieving widow, Lee Cabot (played by Neve Campbell) ((“He died of thirst.” she poetically tells Don.)). After a brief, yet enticing courtship, Don withdraws from an urge we all know he truly wants (although something tells us we will see Lee Cabot once again…), but his priorities have changed. He’s desperately trying to become a good man. There were many reminders, and miscues, last season that encouraged him to bring the focus back to his family, specifically Sally’s close encounter with the painful and awkward truth about him. But sometimes in life, traumatic things need to happen to allow us the opportunity to change and become better people. Once again, as an audience we find ourselves hoping Don can taste some redemption somewhere down the road, the same way we let Walter White own our hearts in the final episode of Breaking Bad.
We’ve been traveling with these characters for seven years, and we have reached a point where the show is now about legacy. We’re in the final run. Characters like Ginsberg and Benson are obviously in the middle of their rises to greatness, but it seems likely they’re not going to use the last season to elevate them to lead characters. They are there to represent the next generation of the agency, and to prove that the agency will live on. But for this moment in time, the focus will remain on Don, and his embattled apprentice, Peggy.
Matthew Weiner has mentioned in recent interviews that the theme for this season is consequences. Ken’s eye patch is a blatant indication of that, it acts as the ultimate reminder that we’re not always at the controls of our lives. And the state in which we find Don and Peggy at episode’s end is another conspicuous example. As “Time Zones” concludes, we find Peggy cuddled up intimately with rock bottom. With her collapsing to her knees it is evident that her pain, and her isolation, are as deep as Don’s. This is the bond they now share, the cross they are burdened with. As Don had to come to grips with the fact that Megan is preparing for life without him ((Unbeknownst to Don as he saunters through the airport in Los Angeles as Spencer Davis’s “I’m a Man” resounds around him in this week’s most captivating sequence.)), Peggy is too losing all that is important to her. Peggy, like Don, has been perpetually married to her work, and it does not feel far off to assume that this closing sequence suggests that these two need each other. And in “Time Zones” closing moments, we are left with the man who once was ‘King of The Ad World’, shaking and miserable upon his terrace, contemplating the tattered hellhole that his life has become, as Vanilla Fudge’s psychedelic-rock cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” plays out the credits.
It should go without saying that “Time Zones” was palatial by Mad Men standards; a classic if you calculate how dense it was. A few months before writing began on this season, the writing staff acquired academy award-winner Robert Towne (Chinatown, Heaven Can Wait, Days of Thunder). Weiner declared in a recent interview that he could be the greatest living screenwriter, and Mad Men just might have struck gold here. “Time Zones” gracefully made a point in showing how the dynamics have changed, some so complicated and profound that this final season promises to be as engaging, as it will be rewarding.
It has been foreshadowed in episodes bygone that the merger could be the beginning of an interesting turn of events, and it appears as if Jim Cutler, in this season’s second episode, “A Day’s Work,” ((Written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner, Directed by Michael Uppendahl.)) is poised to forge these developments forward. Throughout the episode, while Peggy gave us an embarrassing crash course in the ugly politics of office bouquets, and Don shopped his services candidly around, Jim Cutler was making his move. Promoting Joan wasn’t only a crafty business stratagem, but a recourse none of the partners thought once to do. By advancing Joan’s career, he has bought her loyalty. And by later showing up Roger, and then openly declaring his intentions (“I’d hate to think of you as an adversary”), Jim Cutler is making it clear that he is not one to be trifled with.
Joan isn’t the only one with new digs, as Dawn, who was bounced unmercifully around the office all episode, somehow found herself elevated to Joan’s old position. Her sense of ethics in managing the line between friend and secretary during her visit with Don foreshadowed her eventual success, as did her dealing with the demonic Lou Avery, possibly the most hated character on television now that the Young Usurper has departed ((Allan Havey’s performance as Lou is obviously very effective. Havey is a stand-up comedian who was on a short list to replace David Letterman 21 years ago. The job that went to a young up and comer named Conan O’Brien.)). It is interesting to think that if not for Cooper’s retrograded ideals, Dawn would still be running the desk at reception, where people could (gasp!) see her from the elevator.
“A Day’s Work” featured some wonderful moments for the women of Mad Men, as Don’s encounter with his former secretary, and later his precocious daughter, managed to contort a tale typically exhibiting sad men and their deceitful behavior, to a narrative about smart woman thriving under unforgiving circumstances. And within this progressive chapter, it also became evident that Pete’s real estate agent, and lover, is a force to be reckoned with. Despite landing the Chevy dealerships account, Pete finds out that this changes little, and the powers that be in New York still control his fate. Pete is losing focus and purpose (“What am I supposed to do, work my way up to your office?), but luckily he has found somewhat of a backbone in L.A., Bonnie Whiteside ((Played by Jessy Schram)). An equal, who is just as driven as him, but whose business perspective is the antithesis of Pete’s pessimistic attitude. Someone with just as much ambition as him, emphatically insists that nothing is going to distract her from success, and he shouldn’t either. “That’s the thrill. Our fortunes are in other people’s hands, and we have to take them,” she brilliantly exclaims. And Pete couldn’t be more turned on.
At the core of “A Day’s Work” was Sally Draper, once again proving to be the most mature of the Draper clan. It’s interesting to watch the dynamic between Don and Sally. In fact it’s one of the most intriguing story-lines in the show’s past few seasons. It was a relief to find Sally still enrolled in boarding school this week. It was also a relief watching her defiantly run through the gauntlet of her father’s lies. Again, embarrassment comes in the form of Sally popping up in unexpected places at unexpected times and Sally, almost literally the only girl in Don’s life he’s not playing pillow talk with in some capacity, coaxes more truth out of Don Draper than once seemed fathomable. Being himself is uncomfortable to Don, but Sally is finding out that if anyone can make him do it in a way that’s healthy for him – it’s her. Don is a puzzle that only Sally can put together.
In some ways Don is turning a corner. By opening himself up to this thriving relationship with his daughter, abstaining from extramarital affairs and booze, and by broadening his horizons with his career (taking meetings, etc.), he appears be working towards refining himself, amelioration for a re-release into a readily changing world. He didn’t move to L.A., he tells his daughter, “because I wanted to be here to fix it.”
For a show that, supposedly, is losing its audience dramatically, this episode offered a plethora of the type of magical moments that recall the height of its brilliance. Whether it was Ginsberg snarkily jesting about “gloomily masturbating,” or Pete Campbell once again losing his cool (“Sometimes maybe I think that I died, and I’m in some kind of…I don’t know if it’s heaven or hell or limbo, but I don’t seem to exist. No one feels my existence.”). Or Mad Men’s first prominent African American character coming into her own as Joan finally ascends to where she belongs. And Don, hearing from his daughter three words he needed oh so much (“I love you” – Sally) – Mad Men appears to be steamrolling towards its conclusion with a head of steam. All in “A Day’s Work.”
If this season’s premiere episode was about characters, on both coasts, stuck in some form of stasis, burdened by the consequences of their actions, then it can be said that last Sunday’s whimsical ((A prime example of the off-kilter nature of this episode was the glory that was the bi-coastal conference call!)), dizzying ride positioned the worker bees, vying for leftover scraps, against the gods of Madison Avenue, who view this whole thing as a game. And fortunately, those worker bees are thriving. Most of them anyhow.