‘Mad Men’ Season 7 Premiere Recap: “Time Zones”

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It’s a classic Mad Men advertising pitch. We open in extreme closeup on a pudgy face telling a story about how the Accutron Watch changes a man, with hear several slogans: “This watch makes you interesting.” “Accutron. It’s not a timepiece. It’s a conversation piece.”

The face belongs to Freddie Rumsen (played by excellent Murray brother Joel Murray), erstwhile Sterling Cooper Advertising employee, the man who got Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) promoted from secretary to copywriter — the first step in her glass ceiling-breaking journey — who was fired for drunkenness and pissed his pants, only to appear like a ghost in the occasional episode. And here he is, in extreme closeup, back on track, it seems. Pitching like a madman. Peggy is duly impressed. ‘Wow, Freddie. That’s a home run… that is not what I expected.”

And here we are! Back in the world of 1960s NYC and advertising. Mad Men returns for its final fourteen episodes, its last season cruelly split up by AMC, hoping for more buzz and more money with bifurcated storytelling, and it is more Mad Men than ever, with everybody talking and the mood mostly one of dread and miscommunication. It’s January 1969, Sterling Cooper & Partners may be trying to figure out their watch pitch, but everyone’s out of sync — heck, Nixon is being inaugurated — and that’s what we’ll see, moment by moment. When we last left her, Peggy seemed ascendant as the potential new creative director of the firm, but she’s striking out at a meeting, lacking the power that Don had, working under the nose of a superior who seems to like women barefoot in the kitchen. She didn’t get the job and she’s not getting the respect. A still eye-patched Ken Cosgrove asks Joan, queen-like in purple, to meet with the head of marketing for Butler Footwear. And what about Don Draper, “on leave” since he whiffed it with Hershey’s by telling his truth, the whorehouse origin story?

Don is in a cool dude montage: leaving an airport, looking level 1 Don Draper handsome as the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” surges on the soundtrack, organ blaring and British beat sounding cool. Megan’s all leg and a baby blue minidress (baby blue: Betty’s color!) in a sweet little curbside convertible, ready to drive him back to her place in the canyon. They are in California, as promised last season. California, the place of endless potential rebirth for Don Draper and Mad Men, the land that beckons any weary New Yorker with promises of sun and a laid-back attitude.

But Megan’s there for work, and in a meeting with her agent, we learn that she’s got a callback for an NBC pilot. The Drapers go back to their canyon hideaway to hear the coyotes roar and see Los Angeles twinkle in the friscalating dusklight. Megan is all alone out there; whereas Don is just visiting, “bicoastal.” He takes a meeting with Pete, resplendent in pastels, at the L.A. classic, Cantor’s Deli (open 24 hours and still in business!). Pete has taken to the left coast, squiring around a Betty-lookalike flirt in real estate. Don, on the other hand, still seems like a man in a suit. When he comes home to Megan, there’s a chill. Unlike most long distance relationships, the Drapers don’t spend their rare time together pawing at each other, rather, they watch TV and when it’s time to do it, Megan’s nervous. They look so beautiful together in a montage, but when the montage is over, is something wrong in the Draper household?

Meanwhile, back in New York, Ted Chaough is making a visit from SC&P’s Los Angeles branch. Everyone asks him, repeatedly, “why aren’t you tan?” Perhaps it’s a sign of acclimation. But Ted’s mere presence is enough to make Peggy miserable — there’s another life where they’re together, but she’s stuck in this one. Stan tells her “let it go, baby, it’s dead” and whether he’s talking about Ted or her stubborn insistence on trying to get Freddie Rumsen’s watch pitch through the upper brass of the agency, well, the line works several ways, obviously. Peggy’s life is not improved once she gets home: her brownstone is an urban nightmare out of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, and I expect Peggy to snap at some point and yell, “because I’m desperate!” as the high point of an upcoming episode. Maybe.

Joan, goddess of the Avon account, spends most of her time in this episode trying to make Butler Footwear happen. First she meets with the twerpy head of marketing there (played by Dan Byrd, familiar as a dorky friend in teen stuff like Easy A), and then she meets with a professor in order to get her ideas in order. The professor condescends to her face, but Joan persists in her effort to keep the account at SC&P, resulting in the one win of the night.

Roger Sterling is stuck in a Spencer Tunick orgy nightmare, naked bodies, free love hippies on the free love freeway, and his daughter’s trying to reconcile with him. Maybe it’s too much acid?

Whether it’s Cantor’s, Pete’s hippie-talk, Freddie Rumsen’s face, Ken’s eyepatch, or the general lack of communication and hazy dream-feeling, this episode, like the show, owes a lot to David Lynch. (Lynch, of course, is a reported fan of Mad Men, and has had drinks with Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm, only referring to them by their character names, as “Peggy” and “Don”.) Mad Men entering the end of the 60s means that the style is a late 60s nightmare remembrance of the good old days of Americana, the same daydreams that Lynch recreates for his work. Like Lynch, Matt Weiner has a knack for casting beautiful actresses straight out of teen shows (Alexis Bledel, the Gilmore Girls‘ “Rory Gilmore” as Pete’s messed-up paramour, anyone?) where their stiff line readings and perfect look add to the gorgeous texture of the show.

This trend continues with Don meeting Neve Campbell (Party of Five, Wild Things, Scream) on a plane. She’s sad. She’s brunette. She has short poofy hair. Her husband has died “of thirst,” at the symbolically significant locale of Disneyland, you know, where Don and Megan first connected. She talks with Don, and Don gets loosened up, admitting to her that his marriage is a sham, and he can’t make it work. She offers him some comfort (sex) and he says he has to work…

Because that sweet Freddie Rumsen pitch that started the episode? Vintage Don Draper, kids! Turns out as an advertising underdog, kicked out of the game, Don’s getting back in through a Cyrano de Bergerac situation. Freddie’s the looks, and Don’s the voice. And it seems to be working, so far.

But we cut to a montage of sadness: sad Peggy’s weeping in her home, and Don, where’s Don? He’s out on his balcony, drunk in a robe, the doorway’s half open, and Vanilla Fudge’s dudely psychedelic cover of “You Keep Me Hanging On,” made famous by The Supremes, surges on the soundtrack. It’s a man bleating, loudly: “Set me free, why don’t you babe?” And here’s the Vanilla Fudge album:

Out of sync, the whole lot of them. Trying to dance together and everyone’s on different rhythms.

And that’s all she wrote! Meet us here next week where we see more NYC depressives dream about California and make half-steps in their lives, moving along with the times like a stubborn animal that makes the same mistakes. (Besides, California’s dead, baby. There’s a Joan Didion essay for that feeling of the Santa Ana winds and decay. Let it go.) Will Don and Megan break up? Will Don cheat again with a gal who’s pretty open to threesomes, famously? Can Peggy find happiness, and stop hitting her head on the glass ceiling? Or is Joan going to snatch the throne? What’s going on with the Francis family and the epic bitchface of Betty and Sally, anyways? All this and more when Mad Men: Matthew Weiner’s final fourteen hours about the change of the 1960s and how that reflects America and the way we live now continues.

Your homework: marinate on this quote by Matthew Weiner, in the latest issue of The Paris Review:

These men don’t take no for an answer, they build these big businesses, these empires, but really it’s all based on failure, insecurity, and an identity modeled on some abstract ideal of white power. I’ve always said this is a show about becoming white. That’s the definition of success in America—becoming a WASP. A WASP male.

See you next week!