Mad Men, Ep. 7.01: “Time Zones” – the bicoastal final season starts strong

Mad Men - 7.01.01

Mad Men, Season 7: Episode 1 – “Time Zones”
Written by Matthew Weiner
Directed by Scott Hornbacher
Airs Sunday nights at 10 on AMC

As the United States swears in its new president, Richard Nixon, the country finds itself in a transition period, caught between the two worlds of its past and uncertain future. “Time Zones” splits is central characters up in a similar way that exposes just how noticeable the precipices are that they stand on. Don Draper isn’t just living an existence that has him dividing time between his New York life and the Californian one he shares with his wife, Megan. He’s also in a rough limbo, biding his time until Sterling Cooper & Partners calls him back to the office. Roger Sterling is even more lost at sea. Our re-introduction to the man–completely naked in a room full of post-coital men and women–poses plenty of questions as one of the more interesting plotlines to start the season. Peggy Olson tries to slog through a familiar situation as her insatiable ambition causes her grief and frustration amid people she thinks just don’t care about the work they’re doing. It wasn’t long ago that she had climbed her way to a top of sorts only to be thrown back into her past via last season’s merger. Where does she go from here? And how else can she react other than breaking down and sobbing? Finally, Joan Harris, ever the one to be underestimated by people who don’t know her, is still figuring out her new place in the company now that she’s proven her utility to the right people. The characters of “Time Zones” possess a whole lot of inertia but can’t quite find an effective outlet for all their energy.

It’s a hell of a contrast from last season’s premiere, in which Don and Megan sunbathed in Hawaii. But this is the final season of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, and with only seven episodes in 2014 and seven episodes in 2015, the frantic tensions of “Time Zones” get the ball rolling immediately. At the center of this has been and will always be Don Draper, and while I can make sense of the various critical voices that have denounced his position as Mad Men‘s most interesting character (others like to champion Peggy in his place), I still fervently disagree with that opinion with every fiber of my being and see it as a pretty glaring misreading. The patterns we see Don fall into are never repetitive in the sense of episodes treading ground that’s been used up. Each new affair, each new professional relationship and each new lapse in responsibility as a father adds something new to the Don equation, and what we get in “Time Zones” helps establish where he’s at now compared to where we left him last year. One of the major hanging questions from season six had to do with what Don’s marriage to Megan would be like going forward. She just…left. It was a strange if curious conclusion to that part of the season, but with two months gone by, we have much clearer answers in the forms of the scenes between Don and Megan and the exchanges Don has with his female flight companion.

“I’m a man. Yes, I am, and I can’t help but love you so.” – Spencer Davis Group

As “I’m a Man” plays over the slow motion sequence of Megan arriving at the airport to pick up Don, we immediately see a new status quo that’s elaborated on over the course of the episode. Whereas Don was vocal about his issues with Megan’s acting career last year, he’s taken his foot off that gas pedal and is merely acknowledging the facts of his new life. He opens the car door to let Megan in, but he winds up a passenger without any protest. At a meeting with one of Megan’s biz friends, he plays the supportive husband and congratulates her on a callback to a new NBC pilot. It’s almost as if he exhausted himself trying to control Megan’s life, and now he’s attempting to make up for it in the only ways he knows how: buying expensive shit and having sex. Neither of those fly with Megan, though. The huge television set that Don has delivered without consulting her betrays the image she wants to share with the rest of the “starving” artists she’s surrounded by. And being drunk and tired, on two separate occasions, are convenient excuses to hold off on sex with the man she genuinely loved not too long ago. Don’s able to get her to let her guard down, but the scene that follows the morning after outlines how disconnected the two are. “I hate this,” Megan says. “We have the rest of the day” is Don’s way of making her feel better. But the “I know” she delivers afterwards is full of disappointment–and not because they don’t have much time together but because Don doesn’t understand that “We have the rest of the day” isn’t what Megan wants to hear; she wants Don to commiserate, not try to talk her into feeling less upset.

The conversation Don has on the flight back is much more telling, however:

“If I was your wife, I wouldn’t like this.”
“She knows I’m a terrible husband.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Not long enough. I really thought I could do it this time.”

But does Don even want that relationship? And is he actually capable of having it? Ever since Anna Draper died, he’s been missing a piece of himself that no person has been capable of filling in a permanent capacity. Like Bryan Fuller’s version of Hannibal Lecter, Don Draper is a kind of shadow figure who has grown to detest human beings for not being able to live up to some kind of imaginary standard. Unlike Hannibal, as Mad Men has gone on, Don’s allowed himself to think about that and to consider who he is, which only seems to make things worse for him. Some moments of humanity come through, such as his pitch in last season’s finale or his decision to bring his children to the whorehouse he grew up in. But Don still has massive issues with himself that he’s trying to deal with, which is why he sits out on his balcony in the freezing cold instead of opening another bottle of liquor.

Mad Men - 7.01.02

Peggy, who is so often used as a parallel to Don, suffers through some similar self-loathing. For one, she hates how she feels about Ted. As someone who is so strong and driven and capable in nearly every aspect of her life, to let her feelings for this man affect her so deeply is a huge flaw. She tries to retaliate by going head-first into the Accutron material, but no one–including Don’s unenthusiastic replacement, Lou Avery–is giving her the response she’s looking for. Several of Peggy’s scenes in “Time Zones” are played for laughs, especially her talk with her neighbor’s son, Julio. This might be why I find her final moments in the episode so powerful as indicative of how the absurdity of her life can break her. Peggy, like everyone else on this show, has some rather detestable characteristics, her need for validation being one of them. The two people who have supported her the most are nowhere to be found now that Ted’s burned that bridge into ashes and Don is still on leave (you could extend that count to three with Abe, but even if he was still a character on this show, stabbing people tends to turn them against you). Having someone like Peggy taking out her frustration on everyone at the job because her creative talents aren’t being used correctly is toxic, and I don’t see the potential for appeasement while Don is out of the picture. Certain people work best certain partners. Lou is not that ally for Peggy, and continuing like this only brings her closer to how she felt before quitting Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

The Sterling part of that equation doesn’t even spend time with his coworkers in “Time Zones.” We see Roger in scenes with his new bedmates and with his daughter, Margaret. The former aren’t there to do much other than to situate Roger. He comes back drunk, angry and verbally abusive before lying down and staring at the ceiling. I wouldn’t say that his meeting with Margaret is the thing that throws him into that purgatory, because he’s clearly not in a great psychological place before she calls. But Margaret’s forgiveness speech is something that’s going to send him into a darker place until he can make sense of it. He might not detest people in the same way Don does, but he has a natural distrust. A daughter can’t just call on her father to have an amicable meal. He spends the time waiting for her to reveal her ulterior motives, and when they don’t come, he’s thrown off-guard. He’s never been the ideal father or husband. However, when he’s been given the chance to do the right thing, Roger has had a way of coming through. Right now, he’s too far gone to see any of that light.

After a strong, if controversial, fifth season, last year was one in which Joan was mostly underused. The seeds of something larger were planted, however, with her involvement in the Avon account. While it’s great to see how nifty and strategic Joan is in “Time Zones,” I’m hoping this isn’t another instance of a worthwhile use of her character only to see her disappear for a couple weeks, because her interactions with Ken and Barnes show how much potential she still has this late in the game. She’s surprised when Ken gives her the chance to meet with a client (after being talked down to in a way that doesn’t quite suit Mr. Cosgrove, but I’ll ascribe it to how busy he is and the fact that his eye patch is really ruining his depth perception). At that meeting, she schmoozes as well as Don or Roger would, but when she learns the client is looking to do in-house advertising rather than using an external agency, it sends her on what might be the episode’s strongest plot. Joan is rarely the center of attention in Mad Men, and even though “Time Zones” probably features Don more heavily, there’s something exceptionally satisfying about seeing Joan do her research with a university professor so that she can convince Barnes that they need SC&P (or at least to give them the dinner they had originally arranged with Ken). It isn’t the make-or-break account for the agency, but each one counts at this point and everyone needs to be contributing and showing the same kind of initiative that Joan is and that Peggy is looking for in other people.

– Sean Colletti

Other Thoughts:

– Welcome to the final season of Mad Men. As mentioned earlier, the season will be split into two parts (a la Breaking Bad‘s season 5A and 5B) with seven episodes to air over seven weeks in 2014. This is, without a doubt, my favorite television series ever, so please feel encouraged to post some comments, since I’d love to talk with other fans (or haters, even).

– I usually don’t do these kinds of bullet points in my reviews here, but there’s far too much to talk about in any given episode of Mad Men, which means some characters (like Pete in this case) won’t get attention in the main write-up. I’ll try to touch on as much of the leftover stuff as I can in this section.

– Speaking of Pete, that’s one heck of an outfit. If you’ve not already encountered it over the years, check out Tom and Lorenzo’s blog for some in-depth analysis of the costuming in Mad Men.

– As good as Peggy’s scene with Julio was, Ken’s face after throwing Joan’s earring nowhere near her hand is the highlight of the episode. End of discussion.

– That’s good ol’ Freddy Rumsen delivering Don’s pitches for him. Freddy gets opening honors for the season in a fantastic scene where he’s looking at the camera. If those hadn’t been Don’s words, I’d be convinced of Freddy’s ability to deliver an engaging speech.

– Bob Benson is somewhere in Detroit, but he still manages to annoy the hell out of Ken by calling him. Is it strange that James Wolk went to The Crazy Ones, which is also about an advertising agency? Time-travelling Bob Benson is also television series-travelling Bob Benson. That is what I take from it.

– Yes, that’s Cougar Town‘s Dan Byrd as Wayne Barnes. In the Mad Men universe, he has a wife and children.

– How was Lou’s weekend, you ask? “Peachy. Cut up some firewood.”

– Massive points to director Scott Hornbacher for the transition shot from the bright California sky to the lampshade that Peggy shuts off before working on a pitch. Light comes up several times in “Time Zones.”

– Next Week on Mad Men“None of this has anything to do with me!” If you say so, Lou.




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