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Mad Men Season 7 Premiere Recap: The Men and the Girls

Like most Mad Men episodes, “Time Zones” is about more than one thing, but its core is about disappointment. Specifically, it’s about the gap between fantasy and reality, and the ache that we feel as we stare into it. This hour’s four central characters are Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, and Don Draper. All have achieved great things. But the difference between their dreams of happiness and their reality is never far from the episode’s mind. This is a brilliant episode, different from but as good as The Sopranos’ similar “College” and “University.” The four characters’ similar problems are placed adjacent to each other like time zones on a map. The episode switches from one subplot to another via transitions (dissolves that become wipes, and unnerving cuts-to-black). These certify that we’re seeing parallel stories that mirror each other but that don’t overlap or converge.

The opening monologue is about manufactured desire, and smoke and mirrors. Freddy Rumsen is staring at us in close-up. ”Are you ready?” he asks, “because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.” Right away we’re thinking beyond the drama—as well we should, considering how often Mad Men has called attention to the fact that it’s a TV show. This is the beginning of something, all right: the beginning of the end of Mad Men. Of course we’re paying attention!

The shot is reminiscent of the opening shot of The Godfather, and the opening shot of Miller’s Crossing, which paid it homage. In both films, the character doing the speaking is in a socially inferior position, begging a more powerful person for a favor. Freddy, once a pants pissing drunk, now a freelance ad writer committed to A.A., sounds brash and centered here, but he too is in a supplicant’s position. The camera starts to zoom out, Godfather and Miller’s Crossing style, as Freddy says “The watch appears, bottom third, the second hand movies with a fluid sweep, and above it: ‘Accutron Time.’”

Like pretty much every advertising pitch, this one either preys on existing insecurities or creates ones that might not have been there in the first place, then offers a product that promises to make everything better. It’s a great monologue, one of Mad Men’s best, and wonderfully deceptive: Freddy has gotten his life together since we first met him, but we’re a bit taken aback by how much his copy sounds like Don Draper’s, and sure enough, the episode’s final section reveals that Freddy is acting as a front for Don, whose drunken ineptitude earned him three months suspension at the end of season six. This is, as Freddy puts it, a “Cyrano de Bergerac routine.” He later advises Don to get hired somewhere else rather than sock-puppeting with Freddy. “You don’t want to be damaged goods,” Freddy tells him.

Don is damaged goods. He’s pre-AA Freddy Rumsen, plus genius, with Rock Hudson looks. Those attributes are nothing to sneeze at. Nevertheless there’s nothing about Don in this episode that reeks of fantasy. In fact, the only fantasy sequence (or I should say the only fantasy sequence clearly marked as such; more about that at the end of this recap) comes during Don’s introductory montage. We see Don shaving in an airplane washroom before his flight lands (pathetic). Then we get a Graduate homage, with Don gliding in profile past a mosaic-patterned wall on a people mover. In The Graduate, that shot foreshadows a tale of post-adolescent aimlessness, the story of a profoundly depressed person just drifting through life. Asked by his father why he’s spending all day on a raft in their pool, the film’s hero, Benjamin Braddock, replies, “I’m just drifting, here in the pool…it’s very comfortable just to drift here.”

Don is in Los Angeles to see his wife Megan: it is January 1969, judging from the shot of Nixon’s inaugural address at the end of the episode, which means we are little over two months from the end of season six. Megan has a swanky pad in the Hollywood Hills. Don compares it to Dracula’s castle. Coyotes howl in the canyons. Megan describes Don to her producer as “bi-coastal,” but that’s being generous. Even though he meets with his former coworker Pete, now the agency’s man in LA, and they share a good laugh over the stick up Ted Chaough’s ass, Don has no business to conduct. In fact he’s placed in a socially inferior position from the minute he steps off the plane.  His and Megan’s interaction is charged with the possibility of irreconcilable differences. Megan has dug in here and has her own way of living. At different points she specifically tells Don what her rules are so he can abide by them. She tells him the seat in her new sports car can't move even before he asks. She warns him not to throw his cigarettes off the balcony because if a forest fire begins, the fire department, somehow, can figure out who’s responsible. When she goes to work, leaving Don in the apartment the way he used to leave Betty at home in early seasons, she asks him not to tear advertisements out of her magazines. Don used to be The Man; now she’s the man, and he’s just visiting.

This makes the music cue as Megan meets him outside of the airport terminal deliciously ironic: "I'm A Man." Between the song's raspy lead vocals and the scene’s sensuous Wong Kar Wai-esque slo-motion shot of Megan exiting her car and stepping up on to the curb (director Scott Hornbacher shifts out of regular motion and into slo-mo again to give us a longer look at Megan’s legs), it’s the only sequence in the episode that is obviously subjective. It’s Don’s image of himself, or at least the image of what he used to be, or could be. Or maybe he’s just horny. But of course nobody sees Don Draper as glamorous anymore—not even Pete, who mortifyingly forgets during their lunch together that Don has been suspended with pay and isn’t actively part of the company’s accounts. Look at the arc of Don’s trip to LA, and it appears that its highlights were lunch with Pete (“Keeping busy,” Don tells him lamely), sex with Megan (just once, though, and only after he nagged her like a high school boyfriend), and lots of sitting around Dracula’s castle (Ahh-rrooooooo!).

At one point Megan falls asleep on Don’s shoulder as he’s watching Frank Capra’s 1937 film Lost Horizon, based on James Hilton’s Orientalist novel about a utopia that shields its inhabitants from the unpleasantness of war. Over the years Don has both sought out and stumbled upon many versions of utopia, or what he hoped could be utopia, in the form of romances, marriages, locales (Los Angeles, Disneyland, Hawaii) and living arrangements (see the Los Angeles swingers compound in season two’s “The Jet Set”). But the idea of paradise has likely rarely seemed as far away as it does at this point in Don’s life. In season one, Rachel Menken accurately said of him, “You don’t want to run away with me, you just want to run away.” There’s nowhere left to run now. 

The final zoom-out of Don on the balcony of his New York apartment, drunk as hell and weeping, is a mirror of the opening shot of Freddy pitching Accutron. Don is the “before,” Freddy is the “after.” That doesn’t sound tremendously exciting, given that Freddy lacks Don’s movie star looks and has to wander from agency to agency and will always be known as That Drunk, even though he hasn’t touched a drop in years. But his life is still altogether preferable to the rotting shell that is Don’s.   

It’s not quite as bleak as Roger’s, though—a rather astonishing statement, all things considered. I don’t believe we ever see Roger in the office in “Time Zones.” He seems to be living out of a hotel room with a couple of young women and a man, a living arrangement that evokes that “Jet Set” commune. When his daughter calls him, he’s passed out naked on the floor. He uses the phone as a fig leaf. She invites him to brunch. He needs to be assured there’s vodka there. He toasts the expectation of a trap. She tells him she forgives him. Just that she forgives him. It would be heartbreaking if it didn’t sound—as certain “I forgive yous” do—like a power trip. But make no mistake, there’s a lot to forgive. Roger can’t even grasp how much. That’s why he keeps turning it into a joke (“I forgive you”) then returns to the Debauchery Cave, climbs back into bed and stares up at the ceiling.

For all their misery, at least Don and Roger have penises. A comeback of some kind is more easily imaginable for them than it is for the show’s equally fascinating female characters. None have been able to claim positions of authority befitting their gifts. When you see Freddy pitching Accutron to Peggy, you might at first think she’s in a position to green light it. But she has to answer to Don’s replacement, Lou Avery, a boss from Hell.

And it’s here that we should digress and talk about another of the episode’s preoccupations: marking territory.

One source of humor on Mad Men is the Wild Kingdom-style appreciation of human beings as intelligent mammals in suits who are constantly asserting power and marking terrain, when doing so gives no benefit to the pack and it’s all just a knee-jerk assertion of ego. We see petty versions of this in scenes of writers working out slogans, and of creative directors deigning to swoop down and “improve” their work, and then in scenes of top bosses, and ultimately clients, either saying yes to the best stuff or “improving it” in ways that water it down or make it stupid or meaningless.

Peggy is sharp, but she’s not immune to the urge to piss on fire hydrants just because she can. When Freddy delivers Don’s slogan, which is excellent (“Accutron: it’s not a timepiece, it’s a conversation piece"), her first instinct is to change the slogan into something that is not only less provocative and snappy, but is not as good a punch line to the narrative that preceded it: “Accutron: it’s time for a conversation.” The spot is meta, in that Don Draper way—like the Carousel spot from season one. Peggy thinks the watch’s value is expressed through the Steve McQueen-looking guy wanting to talk to the spot’s hero, a scruffy young man who’s joined the corporate world and is probably feeling a bit guilty about having done so. But that’s just the first layer. It’s really about something deeper: the way that objects can confer a sense of self worth and imply that shallow people have depth. She doesn’t get it, but assumes she does. More importantly, she needs to add something, otherwise what good is she? Whether she realizes it or not, that’s what she meant when she described the spot as “a home run,” then amended that to “an end-run,” meaning an end-run around Peggy the ad agency gatekeeper.

Peggy’s decision to overwrite Freddy/Don’s slogan kicks off every major and minor humiliation that follows. She doesn’t understand that Lou is not interested in choosing the best campaign for every account, but simply in managing the flow of projects and not making too much work for himself.  He complains that he asked her for two slogans and she really only gave him one that she believed in. He’s right. There weren’t really two choices being offered to him. The slogan he chose was a placeholder, obviously meant to force Lou to pick Peggy’s inferior rewrite of Freddy/Don’s, “It’s time for a conversation.” Peggy screwed the pooch, as the Right Stuff astronauts liked to say, within seconds of hearing Freddy’s pitch, and even at the end she doesn’t seem to realize it. In a fit of Don Draper-like petulance, she complains to Stan about how hard it is to be the only person who cares about excellence. Stan is disgusted, but probably not as disgusted as he would be if he’d known that Peggy had a boards-ready slogan and shrugged it off to feed her ego.

In an example of the best post-Sopranos theme-driven writing, the episode compares many divergent roads in Peggy’s life, all of which could be interpreted as bad calls.  Should Peggy have bought that apartment building with Abe? Should she have tried to work things out with Abe, find some middle ground that reconciled his desires and hers, or otherwise done something differently so he didn’t end up with a bayonet sticking out of his chest? The tenants are harassing her at work for maintenance jobs that used to be Abe’s responsibility. Should she have willingly joined in the fantasy with Ted, who shows up at the office break room months after promising her forever, screwing her once, then going back to his wife? Should she have left her old agency to join Ted’s in the first place and should she have returned to an old version of her workspace when her new employer merged with her old one? We have no way of knowing how many of these questions surged through her head in her final scene, or if any of them did, but few images in the show’s history are as wrenching as that shot of Peggy falling to her knees and bursting into tears.

Joan has more power at the agency than Peggy does, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she’s treated in “Time Zones.” She’s a partner, yet Ken Cosgrove summons her to his office as if she were just another secretary and asks him to represent him by having dinner with Barnes,  the newly installed head of marketing for Butler Footwear. This character, known hereinafter as Shoe Boy, has the bright idea of handling the company’s business in-house. Ken Cosgrove might have been able to talk the guy down from the ledge if he’d gone to the dinner, but he didn’t, because of pride. Ken didn’t want to appear small.

Shoe Boy makes Joan feel small, or tries to, every second he’s around her. “I’m sure you had a hard time keeping this seat empty, but this conversation is best kept for Ken,” he tell her, then proceeds to mansplain to her on the basis of his business degree, as if Joan isn’t a consummate badass who once wrapped a man’s lawnmower-mangled foot while everyone around her was screaming and covered in blood. Shoe Boy talks about going home to see his kids as if Joan couldn’t possibly have any, being a single woman in a bar after 5:00 PM on a weekday. Every other line out of his mouth is pipsqueak sexist horseshit. (“Don’t get emotional”, he tells her), even though she displays nothing but Eastwood level cool here  (“Can I get a splash of whiskey in this?”) When she visits a business school professor for tactical advice on how to deal with Shoe Boy, the professor condescends to her as well. “I don’t know if you can answer this or even understand it,” he prefaces presuming Joan can’t possibly give him the informed answer she gives him. She handles Shoe Boy masterfully. Her reward is a snit fit from Ken over Joan using his office without permission, capped by a poorly tossed earring. (Ken and his eyepatch!)

The most uncomfortable and illuminating moment in Joan’s story comes when the professor asks if she has anything she can give in trade. You can practically see the blood drain from her face before she realizes that’s not the kind of favor he was asking for. This is how many professional women were treated then, and how some are treated now. But Joan's reaction is more complex because she had sex with a client in exchange for a partnership. The knowledge must hang in the backs of the minds of everyone who knew about it originally, and—this being a workplace—it's surely spread from there, and in moments like this one it seems that even Joan has internalized the gossip as self-hatred, assuming any requested "favor" will be sexual. Joan is a partner in name and paycheck only.  Where’s her deferential treatment? Why can’t she hole up with three drug-and-sex buddies and continue to draw a paycheck like her baby-daddy Roger? We know why.

Patriarchal entitlement hangs over this episode like brown Los Angeles smog. Lou Avery talks to Peggy, an award-winning senior copy editor, as if she were a “bossy” intern who needed to be smacked down. “I guess I’m just immune to your charms, Peggy,” he tells her before showing her his back, as if Peggy gave a fiftieth of a damn about being charming. We see Megan endure a smarmy, show business version of this gender-based hazing. Her producer speaks of her solely as a commodity and refers to her as a “girl” four times, at one point compounding the indignity by prefacing “girl” with “this”, addressing Don as if Megan weren’t sitting next to him. And as wrung out and beaten down as he is, Don behaves with sexist arrogance too, carving out psychological space in Megan’s life by ordering the delivery of a huge color TV without asking her first. For the inroads these women have made, men still treat them as girls.

At the risk of inviting James Michener to come back from the dead and break my fingers, I need to extend this already excessive recap and talk about one more scene that I’d like to explore. I’ve saved it for last, because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it and want to know what you all think.

I’m talking about the scene on the plane between Don and a beautiful, brown-haired seatmate played by Neve Campbell. She entered and exited the story like a dream apparition. And remember, Don’s flight was, by his own description, a “redeye,” a type of flight most people sleep through.

The whole thing played like the rumblings of a subconscious working things out during dreamtime. The interchanges were “realistic” rather than realistic. She kept asking questions he didn’t answer, and he kept answering questions she didn’t ask. Most of her lines felt like meta-textural references to prior moments in Don Draper’s life. “I usually sleep alone” echoes the great closing line of season five, “Are you alone?” There are references to Disneyland, where Don impulsively proposed to Megan as the end of season four, and to a beach (Pebble Beach), which might remind viewers of Don’s creepy tropical hotel pitch, which suggested a suicide-by-drowning. She tells him she’s a widow, which of course teases the show’s preoccupation with morbidity, including its credit sequence. She says her husband didn’t live to see 50 (Don is 42 now) and describes her husband’s death in tantalizingly vague terms.

“He was thirsty,” she says. “He died of thirst. His company sent him to a hospital. I was supposed to be part of the cure somehow, and all I did was observe. I thought he was really getting better and a doctor told me he would be dead in a year. They all would be. I’m going to close my eyes now.” This whole section of dialogue paints a vivid picture of the episode we are watching, in which four major characters are in some sense dying of thirst. It is also an episode in which Don encounters women who echo the important women in his own life. Pete’s real estate agent is a dead ringer for the young Betty Draper, and even says to him, “When you’re tired of commuting, give me a call.”  Depending on the lighting and the rhythm of her speech, Don’s seatmate evokes Betty, Megan, Rachel Menken, Suzanne Farrell, and Dr. Faye Miller. “All I did was observe” made me think of Megan, who was “supposed to be part of the cure” for Don’s thirst but is now drifting away from him, no doubt because of his shenanigans in season six.

When the seatmate wakes up with her head against his shoulder, she says, “If I was your wife, I know I wouldn’t like this,” making us think of every woman Don has cheated on, which I guess is every woman.” “She knows that I’m a terrible husband,” Don replies. Then he adds, “I really thought I could do it this time.” “This” could be a reference to any number of Don’s sins—it almost doesn’t matter which, though, because the key words are “this time.” Don keeps cycling and recycling through life, inventing and reinventing himself and running from himself, but he can never escape who he was, or is.

Then he opens the window and lets the sunlight in. The dream is over.