Welcome back to our somewhat obsessive post-episode look, usually on Mondays, at the major themes contained in each week’s episode of AMC’s hit Mad Men. As in year’s past, we begin by thanking you, the reader, for your loyalty and the time you devote to reading this blog post.
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Wasn’t it a welcome sight to see Don, er Dick, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Pete and the rest of the gang walking the halls of our favorite advertising agency again? Of course, in Don’s case, he’s a presence at Sterling Cooper & Partners without actually being in its tony NYC headquarters. But as we saw, Don can’t stay away from the business totally. On a trip to see his Hollywood-based spouse, he made a visit to the smallish, functional California bureau that Pete Campbell and, presumably, Ted Chaough inhabit.
One thing that creator Matt Weiner seems to do each season is open with a particularly good episode, updating us on where many of the major and minor players are in their lives. Although several of those opening episodes have been done in two parts, at 60 minutes each, this 7th season opened with Time Zones, a tight, one-hour installment.
Hawaii 5.1: Book ’em, Don-o
Speaking of last season’s opener, could anything have been less similar to the Draper’s luxurious trip to Hawaii in the season 6 kickoff—complete with Megan Draper, seductive in a swimsuit, urging Don to add marijuana to the couple’s sexual routine—than the doughy visage of the old pants-wetter himself, Freddie Rumsen? It’s quite a contrast to the beautiful people the Drapers met during their Hawaiian vacation. But here we are with Freddie, speaking almost as eloquently as Don, looking directly into the camera. It’s a terrific opening. Freddie’s subject is Accutron watches, but like much of Don’s best work, it’s more about an experience than simply the product itself. It’s not about a watch, it’s about changing one’s life, Freddie says.
As we find out later, it is Don’s work, resulting in many a literary-minded critic to dub Don as Cyrano. Freddie merely is the carrier pigeon. One alcoholic, formerly disgraced ad man filling in for another alcoholic, currently disgraced ad man. In just a moment Weiner has shown us much about Don’s current work status and deployed one of the series’ main themes—people appearing to be something or someone they are not—in the bargain. Of course, Freddie seems to have changed his life, or at least his pants.
Ch, Ch, Ch, Change
Life changes are part of a number of story lines in this episode. As in seasons past, people seem happy but are dealing with myriad issues that make them miserable.
* Peggy is adjusting to life without Ted Chaough and with Lou Avery, the replacement for Don, introduced in last season’s finale by that wily bird dog Duck Phillips. Avery is about as different from Don as possible, and Peggy is missing the dynamism and polish that Don brought to the office. In addition Peggy still is in that rough West side apartment building that she and Abe were running. But without Abe, she’s in charge, relying on her brother-in-law’s friends to unclog pipes—those inside the building and her own, which makes her realize how lonely she’s become.
* Kenny is miserable in Pete’s old position and is clearly unable to handle the pressure. The usually unflappable Kenny is so off-kilter that he snaps at Joan, who, as a partner, is his boss.
* Speaking of Joan, she still takes guff from younger guys on the professional front (ie, Kenny) and continues to be on the receiving end of politically inappropriate comments from the older establishment, including the business school prof whom she seeks out to help her navigate the work issues she clearly wants to handle. Clearly Weiner wants us to know that no matter how far women had come by 1968, they still had a long way to go. As such, and as we saw last season, Joan continues to be frustrated by the lack of upward mobility for her at SC & Partners and believes jumping into the handling of client issues is the way to gain respect.
* Roger still wants to project as Jolly Roger, and the retinue sharing his bed would seem to bear out that image. Yet Roger still is searching for happiness and love, and can’t deal with the fact that his daughter is looking, too. Well, she believes she’s found it through EST or meditation or something.
* MIA: Where was icy Betty? Pubescent Sally? And ambitious Henry Francis? We heard a mention of Bob Benson, but no screen time. In an episode that dealt craftily with minor characters, this foursome’s absence was notable. And if Freddie Rumsen can be resurrected, wouldn’t it be nice to see art director Salvatore Romano again? We never felt Don was entirely comfortable firing Sal lo those many seasons ago. Still, it’s only 1968, and homosexuality is years from being acceptable.
* Speaking of returns, how about Duck Phillips? He’s back in the picture as the man who referred Lou Avery to Sterling Cooper, as we saw in last season’s finale. The Duck seemed to be less ruptured last we saw him, abandoning drink and basking in the bosom of his family. You may recall he urged Pete to do the same, although he has yet to do so, instead finding a gorgeous girlfriend on the left coast. Now I was going to say that a Duck return would solve Peggy’s man problems, although if we really are dealing with a reformed Duck he won’t, er, fit the bill for Peggy. Perhaps the long-awaited hookup with Don? Maybe Ted Chaough when he navigates his plane to NY? He doesn’t seem happy in California. And there’s always Stan Rizzo, the sardonic colleague who seemed particularly kind to Peggy in this episode and who’s ready to unfurl his loins on demand.
* As you might expect, Don’s mirror image, Pete, is happy, or seems so. He meets Don in California looking refreshed and relaxed, open golf shirt, slacks and longish hair in contrast to Don’s uptight fashion—sport coat, tie, hat and greased hair. Pete’s also sporting an attractive girlfriend on his arm, his faux marriage to Trudy seemingly over in all respects except legally.
* Don, meanwhile, seems unhappy and uncertain in nearly every respect of his life. His torrid marriage to Megan has cooled considerably. Upon his arrival in California to visit her (and scope out the Sterling, Cooper outpost), there’s not much indication that this is a relatively newly married couple who’d not seen each other for a while. Nothing seemed more symbolic of the quotidian nature of the Drapers’ marriage than Megan telling the sexually aggressive Don, ‘Wait, I have to brush my teeth.’ Sure, it might seem small (OK, OK, no jokes about Megan’s teeth not being small), but the contrast with the spontaneity of earlier Draper sexual escapades seemed stark.
And what of that occurrence on the airplane with the alluring Neve Campbell? As this season’s been teased with a bevy of photos showing Don and the rest of the cast aboard aircraft, it’s safe to say flight will play a central role in the final season. The ep one red-eye encounter buzzed on media all week.
Could there be a better example of Don being not quite himself? A gorgeous merry widow falls asleep on his shoulder. And when she awakens, she asks for a ride home. And let me repeat—it was Neve Campbell, for goodness sake. Gosh, has Don lost his game or what?
As if we needed just a bit more imagery to cement the point. We get the paradigmatic instance of Don’s being out of sorts with the jammed door on the Drapers’ balcony. For a moment, we expect Don might jump when he got out on the porch, but no, instead we find him fighting a jammed door, neither fully inside his apartment nor outside it. This image reminded us of a favorite visual from last season, when we saw the recurrence of doors—young Don/Dick peering through the door to watch prostitutes and later his uncle and his stepmother engage in coitus; Don furtively waiting outside Sylvia Rosen’s back door; Don slumped outside his own apartment’s front door; and Roger Sterling noting to his psychiatrist that life is a collection of doors. Of course, Roger had at least one other great line about doors. “When God closes a door, he opens a dress.” Aw, we love ya, Roger, you mad man, you.