Monday, April 14, 2014

"Mad Men" Season Premiere Review: "Time Zones" (Season 7 Episode 1) - "This is the beginning of something..."

Mad Men has returned for the first half of its seventh and final season on AMC, and just as I did two years ago - I unfortunately had to take Season 6 off, due to circumstances beyond my control - I will be reviewing and analyzing each and every episode of the new season in depth, on Sunday nights shortly after the episodes air. We begin tonight with the season premiere, "Time Zones," and to do the episode justice, this review contains heavy spoilers - as always, do not read unless you have seen the episode. 

Spoilers for "Time Zones" after the jump...

The title of the Mad Men season premiere, “Time Zones,” refers not only to the literal, geo-temporal division between the two coastal sects of Sterling Cooper & Partners, but to the era (and cultural) straddling being done by the show’s characters. Don Draper, as ever, is out of place, stuck between the man he has been – and fears he always will be – and the better man he wants to become, a future he is terrified he will never be able to reach. Peggy Olson and Joan Harris have both come so far despite many professional and personal adversities, but still find themselves hitting brick walls of sexism, continuing to be underestimated, belittled, or ignored in a patriarchal power structure that, for all the progress of the 1960s, is still firmly entrenched. Pete Campbell tries to convince himself he’s a West-coast hippie, but he’s still just as lonely and insecure as ever, while Roger Sterling can’t escape the many personal failures of his past, no matter how hard he tries to embrace a ‘modern’ swinger lifestyle.

Time is catching up with all of our characters, and as the 1960s draw to a close, one can sense the weight of their nine-year journeys starting to bear heavily on everybody’s mind. Joan has one such moment when she notes to the Professor that she has been in this business sixteen years, which sounds like a very long time, until one remembers that we, the audience, have been privy to over half of those. We are entering the final stretch of this masterpiece series (haltingly, as the case may be due to AMC’s obnoxious two-year split of the final season), and “Time Zones” appropriately acknowledges the totality of the existing story as a springboard to setting these characters up for whatever their final decisions may be. It is not a great season premiere – Mad Men has given us plenty of those, especially in the prior two years (the two-hour episodes “A Little Kiss” and “The Doorway” are among the series’ best installments, premiere or no), and “Time Zones” lacks the immersive, hypnotic, vibrant quality of the show’s best introductions. This is more of a table-setter, reorienting the story and characters without necessary telling a fully compelling narrative on its own terms, something I suspect Matthew Weiner and company could have done with a two-hour episode (which might have existed here had the season not been split). Yet even as I wished the episode had a little more room to breathe and experiment, I felt, as always, exhilarated by the writing, enraptured by the performances, smitten by the style and, most importantly, fascinated by the depths to which Weiner and company explore these characters. After six seasons, there is an immense amount of weight to Mad Men and its ensemble, and even in a non-great episode such as this, the show knows how to utilize that weight to full effect.  

“Time Zones” is at its most masterful exploring Don and Peggy, for these two are not only the show’s main characters, but also its best and most fascinating, and it is utterly fitting that the final season premiere tie their problems and fates very closely together – all without ever having them share a frame. Peggy is still reeling from Ted Chaough’s romantic rejection at the end of last season, and it’s helpful to think back to last year’s finale to fully grasp how those emotions inform Peggy’s other challenges here. Ted’s choice to stay with his wife and kids, after flat-out telling Peggy he would leave them for her, hurt Peggy less for the specific personal rejection then for the message it sent – that no matter how far Peggy progressed, no matter how accomplished she became, men like Ted would still get to make hurtful decisions like these with impunity. Ted didn’t just turn Peggy down – he very clearly cast her as the ‘other woman’ in this story, viewing her not as the strong, talented individual she is, but as a distraction subservient to his own fears and desires, and that understandably made Peggy feel like shit, even as her career had come further than ever.

We pick up with Peggy seeing those same barriers appear in her professional life, bumping up against the incompetent and pandering new creative director, Lou Avery – whose job Peggy, by all rights, deserves – and complaining to Stan that she is “tired of fighting for everything to be better” in a context where nobody else has the ambition to do so. It’s a great, angry monologue, and one that feels completely earned. Having had to fight for everything to get where she is, Peggy, unlike the majority of her coworkers, is anything but complacent. She’s run into the barrier between her own creative drive and the patriarchal stagnation of the world she inhabits, and I suspect, as I do with most of our characters, that much of Peggy’s final arc on the show will be about reconciling her inner self with the realities of the world around her. Here’s hoping there is room for true forward momentum, because Peggy continues to be my very favorite character on this show, something strongly solidified here by, if nothing else, that wonderful, hilarious argument with her young, rude tenant (“There, this is yours, it’s a gift!”).

Don, meanwhile, is kept at an arm’s length from the audience for a long time in this episode, in large part because he seems to be at an arm’s length away from himself. Drifting between two coasts, appearing extremely uncomfortable on each, getting along decently with Megan, but without any real spark or deeper understanding. It’s impossible to fully grasp what that relationship is at this point, because while Megan seems mostly content with Don as an intermittent presence, Don doesn’t know what he wants with her or how to achieve it. Megan doesn’t need him anymore. She has her own space now, one that is much more natural for her – Megan seems a lot more at home in Los Angeles than she did in New York – and that makes Don uncomfortable. It’s not the apartment he would have chosen, geographically or decoratively, and while the ‘surprise’ purchase of a new TV acts as both a gift and a feeble attempt to leave his own stamp on the place, it’s clear that Don is and will always be out of place here, as he probably always shall be in Megan’s life moving forward.

But Don’s story here is about more than feeling out of touch – that’s something we’ve explored before, and after seeing Don relapse into his most vile, selfish, destructive ways last season (an arc I found fully engaging as an honest look at the character’s patterns and failings, but some erroneously perceived to be the show unconsciously repeating itself), it is fascinating to be introduced here to a Don Draper who is at least partially self-aware. The exchange with the widow on the plane is a lovely little sequence, filled with more than a few major revelations about Don’s current state of mind.

The widow herself is, like all Mad Men characters in this episode, stuck between ‘time zones’ of a sort, having been married to an older man who was clearly from a different era (Don’s era, of heavy drinking and no consideration for health), and perished because of it. That strikes a chord with Don, because he knows death (or, at least, the metaphorical ‘death’ of irrelevancy) is his fate as well if he continues to live shackled by the behavior and personality patterns of the past. “She knows I’m a terrible husband,” Don says, admitting an obvious truth in a surprisingly down-to-earth, self-deprecating tone.

“I really thought I could do it this time ... I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?” That’s the most important question, the question that will, I suspect, fuel Don’s arc through this entire two-part final season. Is he really and truly broken, or is there is a path to salvation? We’ve seen Don go back and forth between promise and downfall enough times over the last six seasons that the question bears an awful lot of weight at this point, and the sense I get – from the entirety of Season Six and now this year’s premiere – is that Don doesn’t have any more chances past this one, if he has any chances at all. What he does now, as the 1960s draw to a close, will determine the man he is going forward; either he really and truly makes a significant, lasting change, or he falls back into his own ways again, and all will be lost. Don’s refusal to hook up with the widow is a positive indication, but he’s exercised momentary self-control enough in the past to render it a fairly minor one; combined with Don’s final action from last season, though – taking his kids to the whorehouse he was raised in, and being perfectly honest with them for the first time ever – the signs are a little bit brighter.

The episode’s final twist – that Don has been feeding Freddie the copy that Freddie has been selling to Peggy, and thus making his presence felt at the agency even after having been kicked out – gives us further insight into Don’s mindset. Such actions are, on some level, petulant, but they also indicate that Don is willing is to do the work to get himself back in, something he has not done for a long while now. Until the climactic Hershey pitch last year, Don had not been writing any significant copy since the fourth season (and even there, his work was growing increasingly half-hearted), but the Accutron pitch he gives to Freddie is a certified Don Draper classic, so much so that, looking at the wording of the pitch in isolation, one can easily hear it coming out of Jon Hamm’s mouth. Let’s take a look at that speech, because I find it to be an absolutely fascinating piece of writing, and suspect its ideals shall continue to be important throughout this final season:

“Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something. Do you have time to improve your life? Do you have precisely thirty seconds for a word from Accutron watches? The watch appears, bottom third. The second hand moves, fluid sweep, and above it, Accutron time. You go into a business meeting. Is there food on your teeth? Ashes on your tie? You’ve got nothing to say. The meeting is boring but you can’t be. But you’re wearing an Accutron. This much makes you interesting. It’s a boardroom, black and white; we hear light traffic, no talking. We just see our man, you, late twenties, shaggy, youthful colic, but in a suit and tie. This is a businessman, staring at his watch as muffled conversation swirls around him. Now we just hear the electronic hum. Hummmmm... He stands up, and the faces come into view, a couple of white-haired men and a contemporary who looks like Steve McQueen. You shake hands and Steve McQueen gets a look at your watch. You hear the first words. Is that Swiss? Now we’re in color, and it’s a little interview for the two of them while other men look, outlining the benefits of this watch. It is Swiss. It is accurate. It is the height of design and technology. Accutron. It’s not a timepiece. It’s a conversation piece.”

Like most Don Draper pitches, this is an appeal to emotion, nostalgia, and image – and yet there is something new here, a look towards the future (or, at least, an acknowledgment of time’s passage) that extends from considerations of the past and present. The copy keeps progressing, almost relentlessly, from introduction, to a scenario rooted in one context (a common boardroom experience, rendered in black and white with muffled audio as a byproduct of its common, played-out nature) that explodes into another (color, contemporary, exciting) when the unique trait of the core figure is unearthed. The core figure in the copy is the watch, but the watch is of course a metaphor for something else – for Don himself, I believe. A designer watch, stylish, defined by outward appearance, something we’ve all seen before, but which is actually vital and relevant. It is sleek and accurate, “the height of design and technology,” “not a timepiece,” but “a conversation piece,” something that should not be relegated to the past, but kept alive in the present. That, in a nutshell, is what Don seems to want throughout this episode, the breakthrough or end-goal he’s searching for – an affirmation of his own enduring importance, if it exists – and as always, those anxieties come out in his copy. He’s either a timepiece or a conversation piece – he cannot be both, and the crossroads, the moment at which this distinction shall become clear, is fast approaching.

The anxieties expressed in that copy are relevant to all the characters in this episode, of course – Joan has to be at her most forceful and persistent to get through to the men who dismiss her outright, Roger is deeply shaken by his daughter’s unconditional display of forgiveness (for problems he constantly tries to repress), and so on – but it most clearly links Don and Peggy, not only because Don delivers it to her through a proxy, but because Peggy picks the copy up and starts banging the drum for it. She sees something in this ad, for its message applies to her too. She initially alters the tagline to “A conversation starter” – which seems to express her own unique anxieties, as a woman in a man’s world, a novelty for others to ogle at – but eventually comes round to seeing the wisdom of the original version, because being “a conversation piece” – enduring and eternally relevant – is what she really strives to achieve. Peggy’s struggles are much more external than Don’s, but both are at this crossroads, between an unsustainable past and an unknowable future, and that pressure is closing in on both of them, as expressed beautifully in the tightly intercut closing sequence. These two characters have drifted very far apart, but deep down, they do understand each other, and they probably need each other more than either would care to admit.

As Peggy breaks down in her apartment, Don sits alone drinking at home, and rises to go close the door to his balcony. He finds he cannot, though, so instead opens it wider and walks through. Denied further time spent in his sad status quo, Don is forced into taking his first step outside, and it is brutally hard, sitting out there in the cold, suffering and feeling sick. The meaning of the moment is obvious, so much so that any further interpretation on my part is useless. This is the entire episode, and, I suspect, the final season, in a nutshell. The image, as it often has on Mad Men, says it all.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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