Mad Men's Season 7 premiere wasn't boring, but it certainly wasn't terribly exciting. Indeed, "Time Zones" was important in the way that every single episode of the series is important. But you can't get from New York City to Los Angeles without flying over a bunch of cornfields, and once you've seen one cornfield, you've pretty much seen them all. They don't account for the most exciting part of the trip, but they're an unavoidable part of the trip. And make no mistake, "Time Zones" existed firmly in the "cornfields" portion of Mad Men's transition into its seventh and final season.
In last year's Season 6 finale, the mask that Don Draper had guarded so carefully throughout the series' entire existence finally slipped just enough to derail his career while simultaneously drawing him closer to and driving him further away from his kids. There was no sign of the Draper children in "Time Zones," though Don has quite a bit of work ahead of him with regard to mending his relationship with Sally, now that she knows about the Sylvia Affair. Even though her allegiances were once decidedly in her daddy's favor, Sally found herself caught between two adults who, as she eventually realized, were equally sympathetic and unsympathetic individuals. Mad Men has often embraced the inherent duality of, well, everything and anything. Don has struggled to reconcile his two identities since before the timeline of the series itself. Setting the show during the 1960s—not at a fixed point or within a specific year, but with the intention that we would see the whole decade through—was a very conscious decision intended to embrace two worlds that very violently and suddenly merged. After all, when you picture 1960 and you picture 1969, you picture two very, very different images of American life, whether you lived through those time periods or not. Mad Men is a series that is constantly in motion. It's a journey between two points, but the thing about traveling is that sometimes, the scenery just isn't that interesting. And that's where we currently find ourselves.
It's January of 1969, just days before Richard Nixon's inauguration—Nixon being the first Republican to win the presidency since Eisenhower vacated the Oval Office in 1961, and a living symbol of the end of any lingering Arthurian aspirations that Lyndon B. Johnson may have represented (which, admittedly, weren't very many). Dawn is no longer the only black employee of SC&P. The minidress is basically a T-shirt paired with tights. The world keeps moving, but not everyone is prepared to keep the pace; not everyone enjoys the scenery.
Yet, there are plenty who do: Pete has taken completely and hilariously to the California life with pastel Lacoste shirts, a tan, and a love of all things California—minus the crappy bagels. Megan is also doing well, living the dream as a pretend struggling artist with the other actress-hippie hybrids and earning a screen test for an NBC pilot. She's merely going through the motions of being Mrs. Don Draper, but it isn't eating her up the way it did to Betty and maybe it won't. She is an actress, after all. Maybe "Don's Wife" is just another role for her.
Of course, it probably helps that Don isn't a constant presence in her life. He pops in occasionally, but it seems like he's spending most of his time with Pete or by himself. He's uncomfortable with Megan's career, her friends, her co-workers, and her home; in fact, his discomfort almost passes for a fear of living so far outside the city, in the Canyon, maybe not far from Sharon Tate, whose infamous murder is still eight months in the future.
Back in New York, Joan has also tentatively created a new place for herself. After 16 years as the office's prettiest face, someone who's often used or been forced to use her charms to advance the agency's business, Joan handled the Butler Footwear crisis like one of the guys—and when that didn't work (a business lunch without booze? What is this fuckery?) she reached out to an econ professor and came back with a plan that may have only worked temporarily, but worked nonetheless. Also: Who was that guy? Why does she know him? Is she taking classes?
In the past, Peggy and Joan have clashed with regard to how to get ahead in the office as a woman—mostly because they make assumptions about each others' career paths that aren't always entirely correct—and the Joan we saw in "Time Zones" appears to have much more in common with Peggy than the Joan we met so many seasons ago in Mad Men's pilot. Peggy has always represented the rise of women in male-dominated career sectors. Her journey is a fairly typical one: Scrappy, starry-eyed gal works really hard and proves her worth among the boys. Joan's story is different, but the same. She represents the old guard, having entered the workforce, by my calculations, somewhere around 1953. We saw her struggle with feelings of failure before she met Dr. Rapey, with the notion that she'd gone as far as she could in her career and didn't even have a husband to show for it. And even when she did find one, marriage was unsatisfying—though to be fair, she hitched her cart to a douchebag. She may not have learned as quickly as Peggy did, but Joan is now fully aware that she can be more than the best damn secretary in the pool and an enticing piece of office eye candy... and she's comfortable with that. She's not going to let it all fall apart, and she's certainly not going to allow for a repeat of the Avon Incident, where she was unprepared to do the job.
Of course, not everyone is hacking it quite as well as Ms. Harris. Cosgrove never wanted a forever-career on Madison Avenue, and now that he has Pete's old job, he's overwhelmed and burnt out and down an eye. Ted Chaough—the poor man's Don Draper who never really got the hang of balancing his affair with Peggy and his happy-by-1960s-standards marriage with the same ease that Don often displayed in his dalliances—hasn't quite taken to the West Coast, though apparently his family likes it well enough. But New York doesn't seem to be the place for Ted either; there, he's forced to face Peggy on a daily basis in the SC&P East Coast offices. And finally, Roger Sterling's struggle with mortality continues: now with 75 percent more orgies!
And there are those who are caught in the middle:
Peggy is frustrated with her career, trapped at the firm she thought she escaped. She's in no danger of losing it, still as brilliant as ever and bolstered by excellent pitches from Don delivered via Freddie Rumsen (and can I just say I was mildly disappointed that Freddie didn't get to be brilliant on his own for a sec? Dude tries so hard!), but she's also just not into it. Peggy's not fighting with Don, and she's not banging Ted. Without a pole to gravitate toward, all Peggy has is herself—and the problem with that is, for as accomplished and awesome Peggy is, I've never been entirely convinced that Peggy can actually stand on her own. While her career has blossomed, her personal life has stagnated, and I'm not only talking about romance, because I think that after Abe and certainly after Ted, Peggy doesn't really need romance in her life. She needs friends. She needs someone to take an inconvenient trip across the city at some godforsaken hour because they care about her. She has Stan and Ginsberg, but at the end of the day, she's their boss, and there are boundaries. Her professional life is boring at best, and her personal life is empty.
Don, of course, is no stranger to being caught between two worlds. He's "bicoastal" at the moment—in every possible way—but he isn't someone who can go backwards. His career is all about creating the future, and his past requires him (and everyone around him) to not only look toward the future, but to ignore that the past ever happened. Don doesn't mind being in the middle of the journey, but only if the forward movement never stops.
These days, it's actually kind of crazy to think that Don used to love California. Anna Draper was a woman who embraced the future as fervently as Don, and the frantic newness of the Golden State in the 1960s appealed to his persistent rejection of the past. While it's important to note that the reason Don was unhappy in Megan's house in California probably had more to do with the fact that it was Megan's house—and he already seems to consider himself a man between marriages—going back to New York certainly isn't something that appeals to Don, either. The swanky penthouse is now a dismal bachelor pad where he grasps at any scraps he can glean from SC&P while loitering on the patio in his underwear in a way that isn't ominous or worrisome at all...
"Time Zones" may not've been the most energetic start to Mad Men's final season, but like any good airplane landing, the descent has to be gradual. The end is nigh, but we're still en route. I have faith that the seatbelt sign will illuminate any moment now.
– "She knows I'm a terrible husband." Best line of the episode?
– Neve Campbell is apparently this season's Linda Cardellini or Alexis Bledel.
– Slumlord Peggy might just be my favorite Peggy.
– Eyepatch Cosgrove and Pirate Hooker Megan. That is all.
– Megan doesn't even know that Don's on a forced leave of absence.
– When Megan was sleeping next to Don in bed as he watched TV, the movie on the screen—the one that started pages with pages of text—was Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, from 1937. Lost Horizon is based on a 1933 novel of the same name, and it's mostly known for introducing the utopian ideal of Shangri-La. Here are the opening words, for your speculating convenience:
In the days of war and rumors of war — haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight? Of course you have. So has every man since time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia — Sometimes the Fountain of Youth— Sometimes merely that little chicken farm.
– WTF, Roger's daughter? Cult? Probably a cult.
– "Why are you making this so hard? Open the door and walk in. You do not need to parachute in through the ceiling." —Lou Avery, starting his morning by ruining Peggy's day
– Bob Benson on the line from Detroit! What do you think the chances are that we'll get to see him this season?
– In case the cross-country-flight comparisons didn't hit you in the head hard enough, here are this season's promo photos.
What'd you think of "Time Zones"? What are your predictions for this first half of Season 7?
AIRED ON 5/25/2014
Season 7 : Episode 7