Missed the Mad Men premiere last weekend? No worries! Ian Philbrick breaks down the episode, so that you’re all set for episode two!
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has never looked more out of place than he does in “Time Zones,” the premier episode of the first half of Mad Men’s seventh and final season, which aired Sunday on AMC. (The second set of seven episodes will air next year, a la Breaking Bad.) It’s not just the same gray suit and feathered fedora that stick out amidst the scintillating color of January 1969, or even the clean-shaven squareness as other men’s sideburns creep ever lower. Instead, it’s the episode’s focus on movement that belies a static paralysis. Perfectly encapsulated by his simultaneously motioned yet motionless ride on an airport moving sidewalk, the season opener (which picks up just two months after last season’s finale) finds Don geographically, occupationally, and emotionally displaced.
Season 6 showed a Don whose incorrigible drinking, rampant adultery, and general bad behavior seem to have finally caught up with him. He has been forced to take an indefinite leave of absence as creative director of the New York office of Sterling Cooper & Partners advertising agency after a mid-pitch breakdown in front of representatives from prospective client Hershey’s Chocolate, in which Don revealed the sordid truth of his humble orphanhood. The season premier finds him traveling to see his wife Megan (Jessica Paré) in Los Angeles, where she has moved to pursue her acting career.
After its first appearance in season two, California has represented Don’s emotional, romantic, and business frontier. Despite the sunshine, here it’s a shadow of its former self—a place of remove that emphasizes the growing distance between him and Megan. The global conflict between East and West might have politically dominated the sixties (the Vietnam War was never farbelow the surface last season, and expect the pattern to continue as the war intensifies), but in the season seven opener we begin to glimpse the upshot of Mad Men’s national bicoastal dialogue between New York and California. A change of place, it seems to suggest, can change a person. Even the snivelling Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), now as SC&P’s California-based account executive, seems to have stumbled upon that elusive quality that has been the show’s—and Don’s—golden fleece since episode one: happiness. (Though this is Pete, after all, so expect the bliss to be short-lived.) Don, too, is someone else: exiled from the office to Megan’s apartment on the outskirts of LA. He has become a stranger to himself.
The weight of Don and Megan’s interactions in the premier rest on our understanding that Megan has no idea her husband has been placed on leave from work. Lies have always been central to Don’s identity, but they have previously fallen within the personal, rather than professional, sphere. A man whose constructed identity is as illusory and artificial as a sales pitch, Don’s lies used to center about his affairs, marital dissatisfaction, and drinking—none of which seemed to affect his uncanny advertising brilliance. “Time Zones” turns this on its head. Don’s Hershey’s revelation—the boardroom meeting being the most emblematic of Mad Men’s professional environments—displayed an unprecedented personal transparency that came at the expense of the impenetrable façade that has been his trademark for six seasons. It’s now Don’s work that’s the deception. He even offers freelance work to aged SC&P copywriter Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) in a futile effort to reclaim a modicum of professional satisfaction. It remains to be seen whether the loss of the occupational confidence that had previously sustained him will negate the progress Don’s personal confession might have signified.
But rock bottom doesn’t mean hopeless. As seems to befit a show about bad people coming to an end, the season seven premiere introduces the possibility of forgiveness to the mix. In one of those abstractly concrete turns of phrase that pepper the show, Don confesses his uncertainty to a stranger on the plane back from California. “Have I broken the vessel?” he asks rhetorically about his marriage, his work, and—though it’s not addressed this episode—his relationship with his children and ex-wife Betty (January Jones). Has Don finally learned that there may be some transgressions that can’t be undone, some betrayals that can’t be excused? And, more importantly, what actions—either self-corrective or self-destructive—follow from such a realization? Forgiveness of male transgression is a theme of the episode, with Don’s witty and downward-spiraling business partner, Roger Sterling, receiving an unprompted telephone call from his estranged daughter Margaret that turns into an unconditional pardon for his neglect. Don confronted his own fatherly demons last season when his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) accidentally walked in on the affair he was conducting with his downstairs neighbor Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini). It will be up to the rest of season 7 to determine whether forgiveness in Don’s case is possible and—if the broken vessel is truly a turning point for his character—the lengths to which he might go to earn it.
Much of the opener’s strength comes from its focus on minor characters rather than solely on Don. Don’s former protégé Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has climbed the rungs at SC&P, trading in season 1’s ponytail and secretarial work for a radical wardrobe and a gift for penning advertisements. The fulcrum of the show has always been the dynamic between Don and Peggy, and the searing themes of chauvinism, power, creativity, and codependence it raises. While many reviewers theorized that Don’s absence would signal Peggy’s rise to the top, the season opener sees her still reeling from an aborted affair with Don’s rival creative director Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) and laboring under Lou Avery (Allan Havey), Don’s mediocre replacement who not only doesn’t respect Peggy’s work but—even worse—doesn’t share the artistic vision with which both she and Don approach advertising. As one of only a few strong female characters saddled with the burden of depicting a burgeoning mainstream feminism (the other being Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks, who also does her fair share of beating back the patriarchy in the premier), Peggy’s professional and personal struggles are set to combust this season.
Mad Men is infamous for the subtle details it inserts into scenes that signify, contextualize, and foreshadow in nuanced ways that often beguile immediate interpretation. One practically needs a semiologist on speed dial to catch them all, let alone grasp at their meaning. These details are often historical (recall the emotional resonance of season three’s depiction of the Kennedy assassination or characters’ response last season to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death) or symbolic (think Don’s broken sliding door in this episode) but they are equally, of late, portentous. When Freddy Rumsen pitches the Accutron watch using copy Don wrote for him, it’s paradoxically appropriate that his opening line, delivered directly at the audience, is about beginnings rather than endings. “Are you ready?” he asks, “Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.” “Time Zones” lives up to Mad Men’s six-season precedent, setting up the show’s distinctive slow-burn, quiet drama for a resolution that promises to be as aesthetic as it is cathartic. It’s both a blessing and a curse that we have until next year to experience the full effect, but I for one am content to wait. It may not yet be clear where Don and company—or, for that matter, we as viewers—are headed, and it may not yet be clear how we’re getting there. But one way or another, the clock is ticking.