Season premiere review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘Time Zones’

Senior Television Writer
04.13.14 294 Comments

AMC

“Mad Men” is back for the start of its seventh season – which is or isn't the final season depending on whether you value contractual language (which says it is) over scheduling (which will give us seven episodes this spring and seven more next year) – and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I'm seated next to a man in a hairpiece eating a banana

“Why are you making it so hard? Open the door and walk in.” -Lou Avery

We return to the world of “Mad Men” a scant two months after our last glimpse, late in January of 1969. It's by far the shortest time gap between seasons, but almost as much has changed in those two months than in the 11 months between the heist of Sterling Cooper and our first look at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It seems only appropriate given the period. In the early '60s, social change still came at a glacial pace; by the decade's end, it was happening so rapidly that even some of the older hippies were starting to grouse about these damn kids today.

“Time Zones” brings us to the last year of the '60s on a deliberately disorienting course. We open not on Don, or Peggy, or any of our other heroes, but on long-lost pal Freddy Rumsen – last seen arranging Peggy's move to Cutler, Gleason and Chaough near the end of season 5 – doing an ad pitch. Only he's not just doing an ad pitch; he's doing a Don Draper ad pitch. (Even if we don't find out until much later in the episode that Don wrote it, it's so much his style that we can't help but make the connection.) And Scott Hornbacher shoots him in such a way that Freddy doesn't seem to be delivering this pitch to another character (who will be revealed in a moment to be Peggy), but straight to us. And he's not telling us about Accutron watches, not really. Instead, the subtext of his pitch seems to be something like this:

Hi there. Tonight, the role of Don Draper will be played by… me. Good ol' recovering drunk and reformed pants-wetter Freddy Rumsen. Only in a few minutes you'll see that the role of Don is now being played by cuddly old man Lou Avery, and that Pete will now be played by one-eyed Ken, and Joan will somehow be filling Ken's shoes, and Roger will be hosting a non-stop orgy in his apartment, and Pete will have gone completely native in LA while the actual Don Draper won't fit in on either coast. And the only constant will be Peggy Olson catching grief from decisions made by all the men in her life, past and present. 

“Mad Men.” Trust no one, and expect the unexpected.

It's an excellent starting point for an episode that, even more than the average “Mad Men” premiere, has to spend an awful lot of time (especially given that it's our first one-hour premiere in a few years) filling us in on what happened during the hiatus. Lou Avery (whom we saw Duck Phillips bringing in for an interview right after Don was suspended) is the new creative director, and seems to be getting along well with everyone (Dawn in particular seems positively glowing to have a boss who's not an alcoholic disaster area) but Peggy. Ken has taken over as head of accounts and is miserable over all the pressure and responsibility that comes with the gig. With Pete basking in the California sun, “Not Great” Bob Benson wooing the Chevy execs in Detroit (while simultaneously traveling through time to hang out with Mork from Ork and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Roger in a more hedonistic phase than ever and Jim Cutler both lazy and untrustworthy, suddenly it falls to Joan to save the Butler Footwear account, giving her the sort of role she wanted, but more abruptly than she might have planned for.

And then there's Don Draper, who's kept off screen for a surprisingly long stretch at the beginning of the episode (he usually appears in either the first or second scene of each season), then introduced not in an office, a bar or a bedroom, but in an airplane bathroom, trying to make himself presentable for Megan as they attempt to hold their marriage together despite the continent separating them.

Don is a man caught between two places, comfortable in neither one – he and Megan walk on eggshells around each other, and where once they were in constant lust, here they don't even have sex on the first of his two nights in town, and when they do on the second, her demeanor is more resigned than excited. Don looks at how rapidly the quintessential New York boy Peter Dychman Campbell turned himself into a tan and happy Californian and is both impressed and a bit sheepish; he's supposed to be the chameleon, not Pete. Back home, we find that he's playing Cyrano with Freddy, not because he needs the money (as he notes, he's still getting paid as an SC&P partner, even if he's persona non grata at the New York office), but simply because writing copy is the one thing he still knows how to do.

As he admits about his marriage to his lovely seatmate on the flight home from LA, “I really thought I could do it this time,” but he can't. He's a man who technically still has a job but has none of the power or duties that come with it, who is legally married but at best making what seems to be a doomed effort to keep it together, who has children he loves but rarely sees (and it doesn't seem an accident that Sally is absent from this one), who lives in an apartment with a great balcony view but sliding doors that won't shut properly. He's neither entirely in nor out of anything, but simply… there, waiting for his world to make sense again and going through the motions until they do.

And as we check in with the episode's other major and minor characters, we find them in similar forms of limbo.

One of last season's closing images suggested power and opportunity for Peggy, as she sat in Don's chair and was photographed just as he is in the show's opening credits. But her stint as SC&P's de facto creative director didn't last long at all, and the Mr. Rogers-esque Lou Avery – old enough to have spent a few lifetimes in the ad game before he might have dealt with a woman like Peggy – is operating on a completely different frequency. She's stuck in this job she doesn't want because of one lover who ran away – and unlike Pete, Ted has not acclimated to California in the slightest, and remains an East Coast man miserable in self-imposed exile – stuck in this big building in a bad neighborhood with annoying tenants because of the previous lover who ran, and left holding the bag for everything because Don (who may not like her at the moment, but has always understood her) blew up his own life to try to save Ted's. If you're a Peggy Olson fan – and/or someone who believes that at this stage of the decade and the series, her character journey is more novel and interesting than watching Don repeat the same mistakes again and again – this was a tough one to sit through, even before she broke down crying in the apartment. Peggy has been insulted, and she's been abandoned and hurt, but she's almost always found a way to push through and speak her mind and get at least some of what she wants. Here, though, she's simply stifled by a boss who has no use for her and won't so much as consider her arguments. So she lashes out at good buddy Stan because he either doesn't see what she sees in the Freddy/Don Accutron pitch or because he simply doesn't want to ruffle the feathers of the new guy. And then she goes back to the dump on the Upper West Side (which will one day be worth a fortune, but only after a few decades of misery and heartache) and just lets out her feelings to the empty audience she lives with.

Things are so topsy-turvy at the agency that Ken(*) treats Joan like an underling, even though, as a partner, she outranks him, and she lets him because she's worried about the state of things and also has designs on solidifying her position by becoming an accounts woman. She has less formal education or professional prestige than young Wayne from Butler Footwear, but manages to turn the tables on him so quickly (with some Cyrano coaching of her own from a business school teacher) that he's suddenly pleading with her for advice. His company's in transition every bit as much as hers (though hopefully with less drama than SC&P's been through in the last year), and the roles keep changing. Maybe (if we're lucky), Joan winds up sitting on the Iron Throne before the show's done.

(*) Ken's still wearing the eyepatch, but the short amount of time between seasons means that his eye could still be healing. Or he may just be a Moshe Dayan impersonator for the rest of his life.

Roger's midlife crisis descent into counter culture hedonism continues unabated. Yet despite the many attractive young women (and men) floating through his pad, he still seems lost, and is completely thrown when his daughter Margaret lays her forgiveness spiel on him. Whatever it is that she's found (and she smugly tells him he wouldn't understand it), it's put her at peace in a way Roger clearly doesn't feel, and the brunch encounter knocks him for such a loop that he spends the rest of the day drinking before returning to his den of iniquity just to get some sleep.

Even Don's seatmate on the trip home finds herself caught in limbo, settling for second best and waiting for something to happen. She's a relatively young widow, and she had to dispose of her husband's ashes not at his dream of Pebble Beach, but at the Plan B of Disneyland. She's ready, willing and able to turn this cross-country encounter into something more, but Don turns her down, whether out of an attempt to be true to Megan – talk of Disneyland evoking memories of when he fell in love with her – or simply a recognition that he's no good to anyone at the moment. She could perhaps reappear and be the Midge/Rachel/Bobbie/Faye/Sylvia of this final season, or she could be evoking them while showing us that Don's unwilling or unable to repeat that particular bad habit again.

He doesn't go home with the beautiful widow, but instead bonds with Freddy, who can relate to getting an indefinite suspension from Roger and Bert Cooper – and who also has ample experience with the damage a man can inflict on himself while drunk. (Remember, Ted ordered Don to drink before the Hershey pitch to make the shakes go away.) And when Freddy goes off to sell another of Don's secret pitches, Don's left alone in that big apartment, feeling the draft from the doors that won't close. He doesn't need to be here. He could be out in the warm California sun with his sexy wife, and maybe even take advantage of his connection with Pete to begin working for SC&P West on the sly. But he's lost, and doesn't know where he fits in or what he should be doing, and so he goes out onto the balcony – through an open door that takes him nowhere useful in the January cold – and sits, and shivers, and waits for the world to make sense again.

At this rate, he may be waiting a very long time.

Some other thoughts:

* I've had a number of requests to detail what was on Matthew Weiner's annual list of spoiler no-no's that accompanied the premiere screener. They were “Year season takes place. Don”s work status. New characters. SC&P”s West Coast presence. Freddie Rumsen and Don”s relationship.” Given when last season ended and that Weiner was never going to just jump over the end of the decade, there was no way we weren't going to start sometime in 1969. On the other hand, Don and Megan's marital status (which was very much up in the air after the season 6 finale) was considered fair game.

* Vincent Kartheiser, Jessica Paré and Kevin Rahm all remain regular castmembers, so I imagine we'll be spending a fair amount of time in LA. On the other hand, Harry Hamlin retains recurring guest star status. Anyone want to wager on whether he's ultimately in more episodes than someone like Christopher Stanley as Henry Francis?

* As for guest stars listed at the end of the episode – some or all of whom I'd expect to see again this season – we have Neve Campbell as Don's redeye partner, Dan Byrd from “Cougar Town” (sadly, appearing without Dog Travis) as Wayne from Butler and Jessy Schram from “Falling Skies” and “Last Resort” as Pete's flirtatious realtor.

* If I know the internet, there will be a gif or a Vine of Ken (who has no depth perception due to the eyepatch) tossing the earring to Joan within minutes of publishing this review.

* Notable songs tonight include “I'm A Man” by Spencer Davis Group as Don and Megan's slo-mo 1969 entrance music and Vanilla Fudge's cover of “You Keep Me Hanging On” over the closing shot of Don shivering on the balcony.

* Megan's audition is for “Bracken's World,” an inside showbiz series that actually ran on NBC for a season and a half in 1969 and early 1970. Based on this extended promo from 1969, it doesn't seem like an enormous step up from her daytime soap work, nor was it a launching pad of note for any of its young actresses.

* At what point do references to Megan having to fix her teeth get added to the “Mad Men” drinking game?

* Based on her past experience, you can't blame Joan for assuming the business school professor is about to proposition her when he mentions taking something in trade. Her look of embarrassment and relief was priceless, and I was also amused that the scene cut away right before we had to listen to her explanation of the difference between commissions and fees (which previously came up in the episode of the same name).

* As Megan sleeps beside him in the LA house, Don appears to be watching Frank Capra's “Lost Horizon” (which would be remade with Peter Finch a few years after the events of this episode). Among other things, it features a powerful man around Don Draper's age debating whether to stay in a warm paradise or return to the cold reality of his everyday life.

* Anyone have any thoughts on what specific brand of self-help jargon Margaret was giving to Roger? EST was still a couple of years away at this point, but movements like it were out there in the late '60s. Is it a therapist? A cult? And how much of Roger's discomfort comes from her now looking exactly like her mom?

* In case you somehow missed it and need the Draper mystique brought even lower than the last few seasons have, you can enjoy a floppy-haired Jon Hamm on a '90s dating show teaching us all about “fabulosity.”

Finally, I'm assuming this is the last episode of 2014 that I'll be getting in advance, so same drill as usual: I watch the episode, then I stay up and write, or else I collapse and finish in the morning. And given that the “Game of Thrones” screener pipeline could be shut off at any moment as well… well, let's just say my Sunday nights and Mondays are going to be a madcap romp for the next couple of months.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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