[This is a review for Mad Men season 7, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
At the end of Mad Men season 6, Don had been suspended from SC&P largely as a result of his inability to reel in his personal problems or gain some kind of control over his drinking. At the time, his dismissal – temporary though it may be – mirrored, in many ways, the sacking of Freddy Rumsen way back in 'A Night to Remember.' Sure, Don didn't get dead drunk and urinate down his own pant leg before a meeting with a client, but as Roger mentioned after a disastrous meeting with Hershey's, he figuratively messed the bed. There's a distinct similarity, and as told in 'Time Zones,' the equivalence of Don and Freddy is actually far more pronounced than previously imagined. It is, in effect, the closest Don, or anyone else for that matter, gets to another person in an episode that's all about the gaps and distances between people, as well as the gaps and distances between people and what they want.
The episode measures those gaps and distances in different ways. At times they're just miles underlined by the presence of the titular time zones – as is the case with Don's "bi-coastal" relationship with Megan – while at other times they have nothing to do with physical space at all. Instead, they're just expanses measured by the vastness of one's emotional detachment or the space between superior and subordinate. That concept of distance, then, is made hazy by the "Cyrano de Bergerac routine" Don and Freddy are playing at with the pitch for Accutron watches that may as well have been Mad Men directly addressing the viewer and announcing this is the beginning of the end of the series.
Of course we don't know how at the time, but Peggy's awed reaction is an indication that Freddy's pitch has a little something extra on it; it's a "home run," which she quickly amends to an "end run" – i.e., an evasive maneuver – thereby opening the door for the Freddy/Don collaboration to come to light. But that end run also shines a light on Peggy's predicament with her new, Mr. Rogers-sweater-wearing boss Lou Avery, by virtue of the fact that she tries her own, unsuccessful end run with an amended, less poetic version of Freddy's pitch. As it stands, Lou's presence, his admitted disinterest in recognizing the quality of work, as well as Peggy's charms generates a palpable void at SC&P that is partially due to the dearth of Don Draper. It's an opening made all the more profound by the slightly inflated and repeated mention of Dawn's name, as everyone hovers outside Lou's office.
While Peggy is proclaiming everyone in the office to be "hacks perfectly happy with s***," she's also dealing with the temporary return of Ted, who scampered off to Los Angeles with Pete Campbell in tow, after sleeping with his senior copywriter and telling her he was going to leave his wife. That sudden proximity sheds an uncomfortable amount of light on cyclic nature of Peggy's career and personal life, especially now that she's back to being the subordinate in the company she had so triumphantly walked away from. What's more, it also illuminates how, now that Abe's gone (largely because of her dealings with Ted), Peggy's on her own with unruly tenants clogging their toilets with unmentionables and threatening to call the alderman if the problem doesn't get fixed. That level of lonliness, coupled with the seemingly insurmountable distance between the Peggy on an upward trajectory and Peggy locked in a tailspin is enough to put her on her knees in tears.
That theme of distance from a deserved or simply perceived role of importance is highlighted again through Joan and Roger's storylines. Despite being a partner, Joan's called into Ken's office and given a task to meet with the new head of marketing at Butler shoes because Ken lacks underlings and doesn't want to look unimportant. The resulting meeting with Wayne Barnes (Dan Byrd) sets of a series of sexist assumptions about Joan and her position at the agency, which then carry over to a meeting with a business professor who questions her ability to "understand" the principles of the answer she's has been asked to provide in exchange for his information. Joan expertly handles everything thrown her way, flinching only briefly when she incorrectly assumes the professor is asking her for something she's not offering. After all her work in staying Barnes' decision to bring all of Butler's marketing in-house, Joan's told by Ken to stay out of his office before he errantly tosses back the earring she left there.
Meanwhile, Roger's nowhere near the office; he's shacked up with a bunch of women and some naked guy with a penchant for vests, apparently reaching new heights of debauchery when Margaret calls to make plans. Suspicious, Roger meets with his daughter to learn the purpose of the meeting was to hold over her father's the only thing anyone really can: moral superiority – which she does by proclaiming unmotivated forgiveness for all his wrongdoings. Typically, Roger doesn't process Margaret forgiveness with any immediate introspection; he just makes light of it and even fires back a snide "I forgive you," before returning to bed with the same woman and vest guy.
As all of this is going on, Don's in Los Angeles, checking out Megan's new place and comparing it to Dracula's castle, before asserting his presence by bringing a large color TV into her (their) home without asking. Perhaps it has something to do with Megan literally taking the wheel after picking him up from the airport. Her authoritative, slow motion walk toward Don is punctuated by The Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man" – which plays with a heavy suggestion it is for her rather than Don, further denoting how the separation between them extends well beyond their bi-coastal status. The rest of Don's trip is spent cajoling Megan into sex and telling her he'll take a cab to the office – which means meeting a slightly orange-tinted Pete Campbell for sandwiches and a reminder that he's still not back at SC&P.
Don's insistence that he get back to work – especially after his dreamlike, subtext-laden encounter with Neve Campbell on the redeye back to New York – sort of leaves it up in the air as to how much Megan knows about his current predicament, which then asks the bigger question: Does it matter what she knows? As for Don's plane ride with the mysteriously open seatmate, her oddly on-point tale of a "thirsty" husband whose ashes had been spread at Disneyland seemed less like a conversation and more like a point-by-point recap of Don's life.
The whole scene plays out incredibly, and with near-metaphysical implications, making Don's forlorn glimpse at a bottle of rye and his subsequent self-imposed seat in the cold darkness between two spaces an encapsulation of the thirsts that continue to drive him, and continue to leave him at a great distance from that lasting delight he has been seeking for so long.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with 'A Day's Work' @10pm on AMC. Check out a delightfully cryptic preview below:
Photos: Jordan Althaus/AMC