Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), looks ready to split in this promo shot for Mad Men's final season. Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC.
“In the heartland of wealth and liberation, you always hear the same question: 'What are you doing after the orgy?'” - Jean Baudrillard, America
For the first episode of its seventh and culminating season, AMC's game-changing masterpiece Mad Men spends its time checking in on several storylines and getting “bi-coastal.” It's January 1969, judging from the appearance of Nixon's inaugural address in the episode, and things are changing as rapidly as ever for SC&P employees and extended family. Even though the episode, titled “Time Zones” for its dual setting in LA and NYC, doesn't give us any gigantic moments, it sure sows plenty of seeds. As a statement, the beginning of the end for Mad Men can be summed up by the words Freddie Rumsen says, staring into the camera in the opening moments "Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something."
Pete's inexplicably loving Los Angeles and talking like some hippified version of himself — he takes Don to a dingy diner and wears a sweater tied around his neck. In a striking reversal, Kenny, besieged by work at least partly because of Don's absence, becomes a huge dickface even as Pete is mellowing out. Stan continues to have an awesome beard and be the snide but kinda sweet guy. Freddie Rumsen — remember him? — is sober and kicking ass doing freelance work, thanks to Don ghostwriting for him. Peggy is as frustrated as she's ever been, trying to cope with a new Creative Director (Lou Avery) who treats her with somewhat less fanfare than she has come to expect; at one point remarking “I don't know Peggy, I guess I'm immune to your charms.” Joan at least temporarily saves the Butler Shoes account for Kenny by shrewdly seeking the advice of a business professor, and by being an all around badass. Ginsberg and Ted each show up only long enough to each be annoying in that way that they always are. Roger is having orgies with swingers half his age as he continues his search for a whatever kind of disturbing, egocentric Nirvana is available to a man who's material wealth is matched in quantity only by the profound emptiness he carries within. And Megan, our darling Megan, seems pretty tepid with Don as she's planting roots and winning acting opportunities in LA, hoping so desperately to find a way out of being someone she never intended to be. Oh yeah, and they want her to get her teeth fixed.
“Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.” - Jean Baudrillard, America
After ending last season by blowing the Hershey's pitch with a sordid (and honest) story about his adolescence in a whorehouse, being placed on indefinite leave from SC&P, taking his kids to see his rather disgusting childhood home and swearing off the booze, Don Draper begins season seven shaving and cleaning up in an airport restroom. One gets the sense that he's recovering or coming back from somewhere hectic, but we soon find out he's in California visiting Megan, who apparently still doesn't know that he's has been placed on leave from SC&P. As the couple leaves the airport, it is Mrs. Draper doing the driving and Don riding shotgun — a sure symbol of the shifting sense of control in the relationship. It's a relationship that seems painfully strained, to the point where he buys her a gift that doesn't fit her lifestyle and she comes off as mildly repulsed by the idea of sex. Whatever real connection there might have once been between the two now seems like mere nostalgia. The viewer gets the idea that the physical distance between Don (who is still living in New York) and Megan pales in comparison to the emotional distance that now separates the two. She is becoming ever more independent and successful and Don just can't find it in himself to admit that he doesn't even care enough to fight for the possibility of their happiness together. To his credit, Don (who apparently hasn't totally dropped the sauce) for once acts as the responsible one as he soberly helps a giddily inebriated Megan to bed after an evening celebrating her callback from NBC.
On the flight back to NY, Don once again proves that he just might be turning over a new leaf, when he rejects the advances of an extra-friendly co-passenger (played by a stunning Neve Campbell). Back in New York, Don, whose kids don't appear in this episode, meets with Freddie about a few items of business regarding their joint venture (which seems to be going swimmingly) and appears, increasingly, like a man caught between a single dying illusion and an army of unfriendly truths.
As the episode ends and a brooding Vanilla Fudge cover of The Supremes' hit “You Keep Me Hangin' On” plays, Don struggles to close the door to the balcony of his Manhattan highrise, which is looking quite shabby. “Set me free, why don't you, baby?” The door won't close and thus Don, knowing that he can't keep the cold out anymore, walks out and plops down in a chair on the balcony, accepting the reality of the frigid world he has made for himself and looking as forlorn and distant as we've ever seen him. “Get out my life, why don't you, baby?” The vacuum of the city scene behind him seems to have sunken his eyes and, rather than appearing as a world teeming with possibility, reveals only an endless sea of places Don also doesn't belong. “'Cause you don't really love me.”
If Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who wrote this season debut, is a man of his word, this season will be about a person's ability or inability to change into a better person. And if the first step on the road to true change is acceptance, then Don seems to be getting that far at least.
When French philosopher Jean Baudrillard published his book America, a ground-breaking work of theoretical cultural investigation, he captured, as Mad Men does, many a valuable truth about our national psyche. Among these truths: the fact that we've sold ourselves pointlessly and wholly to the preposterous illusion of constant climb/consumption and become strangers to ourselves. Each of these works of genius expresses its truths, which are surprisingly correlated, differently, and thus each has a great deal to teach us about the other.
Check back next Monday for a recap of Season 7, Episode 2.