'Mad Men' Deconstruction: Ep. 1, 'Time Zones'
There was a lot to digest in a superb first hour of the seventh and final season, including Megan as Sharon Tate, that last scene with Don, Peggy's frustrations and Roger's strange trip.
This is a Spoiled Bastard deconstruction of Mad Men. It contains spoilers. That's the point. Watch the episode before you read.
Since this was the first episode of season seven, less needs to be done here to set the table thanks to having a full-blown review prior (which you can read here). But there were plenty of elements to remark on that I obviously left out of the review for spoiler reasons. So let's get started.
This was a premiere where series creator Matt Weiner needed to continue storylines from last season and also to set in motion the characters as they begin their final journey. To that end, both Don's and Peggy's stories leaped off the screen. Don's ruse with Freddie Rumsen is beautifully constructed on a number of fronts. First, it hints at rehabilitation or, if you prefer, personal growth that leads to redemption. Even if the ideas are not Freddie's, he's out of the gutter, looking good and has his faculties -- give the man credit: He can still pitch. I would like to believe that redemption and rehabilitation will be major themes in the final 14 episodes of Mad Men.
What also works, clearly, is that Don is back. His affair with Sylvia, which sent him off in search of what's important in life, at least temporarily made him look like he was way off his game as an ad man. The Accutron watch pitch emphatically showed he's in fine form while simultaneously proving to Peggy (slowly) that she couldn't ultimately do anything better than that -- she had been thinking for a long while that not only was she better than Don, but that Don had lost his fastball. It very clearly showed why Don never thought much of Lou Avery. Lou is old school personified, trapped within the box. And SC&P having Lou in such a significant position says a lot about its current direction.
As for Peggy, we have seen her climb the mountain since season one. She has sacrificed everything. (It's important to remember that she did it by choice -- though the repercussions can still hurt, as her falling on the floor at the end of the episode, without love or companionship, so clearly illustrated.) And now here she is, blocked by Lou Avery in his grandpa sweaters and ridiculous eye-glass holders. He's the epitome of old, of the past -- and not just in refusing to think bigger, but in the derogatory way he treats Peggy. She might as well be a secretary.
Remember, as season six ended and Don was ousted, we got that iconic shot of Peggy in Don's chair -- framed exactly like the Mad Men logo, from the back of her head -- and the assumption was that she was going to fill that chair, which probably would have taken some of the sting out of Ted running back to his wife and off to California.
But with Lou in charge of creative and, in Peggy's mind, everybody willing to accept mediocrity, she's bound to be exasperated. "You're all a bunch of hacks who are perfectly happy with shit. Nobody cares about anything." Anyone for a Don and Peggy upstart ad agency?
As much as I loved the high-gloss baddassery of being reintroduced to Don with "I'm a Man" from The Spencer Davis Group pounding in the background, it was the premiere's other awesome use of a song -- Vanilla Fudge's crunching rendition of "You Keep Me Hanging On" -- that was not only the most intriguing but was inserted into one of the best elongated moments Mad Men has ever used.
Songs are used for a purpose. Often times they are a way for a writer to be more literal than he or she might otherwise be. What was Weiner getting at with the song and the metaphor of the door that, once opened, apparently can't be closed?
Is the song referring to Don's drinking issues? He bypassed a drink while at home, just prior to going out into the freezing night to sit on his deck and look, well, completely and utterly under the influence of something else. Was it the knowledge that he'll never be able to be happy, to settle for one woman? Neve Campbell (wait -- Neve Campbell!) played a character that was an exclamation point on the Don we know: He can't be faithful (and maybe realizes it's pointless to try now that Megan is in California and may not be interested in him sexually).
"If I was your wife, I wouldn't like this," says Neve Campbell (!), leaning into Don's welcoming fold on the red-eye from California back to the land of better bagels. Don: "She knows I'm a terrible husband." (That, by the way, was a great moment.)
"How long have you been married?" asks Neve Campbell (!). Don: "Not long enough. I really thought I could do it this time … I keep wondering, have I broken a vessel?"
(By the way, here's Psalm 31:12 to chew on, from the King James Bible: "I am forgotten as a dead man, out of mind; I am like a broken vessel.")
There's certainly reason to think that Don is worried about his drinking and also, simultaneously, wanting to live again. The husband that Neve Campbell (!) scattered at Disneyland? "He was thirsty. He died of thirst," she tells Don. "The doctor told me he'd be dead in a year. All of them would be."
That's some serious foreboding, people.
Now, as to Neve Campbell (!), a couple of thoughts: I didn't write about her in the review because if I'd mentioned that Don slips into the arms of another new brunette on the plane, people would groan and say, "Here we go again." But I do think something is different this time -- and not because Don didn't ultimately sleep with her. You don't introduce Neve Campbell (!) and then just have her for one scene; she'll be back. But if Weiner can clearly dictate in his writing that Don now accepts who he is -- that he couldn't "really do it this time" and thus will never be able to be faithful based on his upbringing -- then Don splitting with/divorcing Megan would allow him to just be who he is. And seeing someone like Neve Campbell (!) would be less like seeing Sylvia. That is, Don wouldn't be cheating. Don would just be Don.
But what of that last scene? The way it's shot is magnificent -- first the hint of the cold creeping in through the door that was opened but won't shut, then Don's inability to shut it. (Metaphor madness!) And then, finally, he decides to sit out there on the deck and freeze. Is that some kind of penance or a way to not drink? Was it just a guy wanting to suffer himself straight? Does the dalliance of another woman allow him to hang on yet helps him realize it just makes him loathe himself? Is the booze sustaining him? Or is it just his rampant unhappiness?
I loved the framing through the doors, the slow movement forward, the nearly blurred-out sense of being lost and oblivious on Don's face -- everything about it, including the Vanilla Fudge cover. I also was impressed by how this was the absolute 180 perspective of Don that we got during "I'm a Man." From high to low in two songs in one hour.
What Weiner did in the season-seven premiere is not so much wrap up everything from the season-six finale, but start a number of storylines that will no doubt carry themselves until the end. It was laced with humor: Ken's eye-patch, Pete's tanned California happiness and prepped-out clothes (and, thankfully, his less severe hair), etc.
And it started what could be some major storylines beyond Don's and Peggy's. Clearly, Roger is enraptured with the free love era and hasn't stopped experimenting with drugs. (He also knows how to cleverly position a phone, which is handy.) Though we last see him with his eyes open, wondering perhaps if this is the lifestyle he'll choose to continue or whether his daughter has somehow woken him up (and is anyone else worried she's in a cult now?), there's just as good of a chance that Roger will go out like a Roman candle. After all, he's always been the older version of Don. And if Don is perhaps having second thoughts about his lifestyle, it would be better for the story if Roger doesn't. I'd rather see Roger go all-in.
Lastly, one of the elements I took from this episode was a bit surprising (and perhaps remains a reach). I had thought that last season's use of Megan in the same T-shirt that Sharon Tate wore was just one of those period details meant to be a wink, not a clue with portent. But once we find out that Megan is living "in the canyon," the red flags went up. And not just because of that one detail, but because Don makes a point of asking her if she wouldn't want to move to a more populated area, as the sound of coyotes howling permeates the scene. "It's like Dracula's castle up here," Don says. When did Sharon Tate meet husband Roman Polanski? On the set of their film, The Fearless Vampire Killers. What was Dracula? Oh, right. And where did Sharon Tate get murdered? Benedict Canyon.
It's something to watch for, these Tate hints as the episodes unfurl. And for you believers that the color orange indicates someone is about to die, Don got Megan an orange scarf to wear on her head when she drives her convertible. While I doubt that Mad Men would insert one of its own characters as a stand-in for a real person to represent a historical event, Tate was killed in 1969. As Mad Men begins, it's January 1969.
OK, more next week. What did you think?