Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Time Zones" (season 7, episode 1)

Mad Men - "Time Zones" (season 7, episode 1)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 13, 2014/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Scott Hornbacher): In a gesture reminiscent of The Godfather, the season opens with a close-up of an earnest, ordinary-looking man speaking directly to us. It's Freddy Rumson, excitedly presenting "his" idea for an Accutron watch campaign. When we finally get our reverse shot, the Don (no pun intended) considering his request is Peggy Olson - and she's surprised by how good it is. In fact, Freddy has ulterior motives and his own Cyrano de Bergerac whispering in the wings; he's helping out a friend. Near the end of "Time Zones," with Nixon's swearing-in as background atmosphere, we learn that even during his suspension Don Draper is using Freddy as a front to continue pitching his old - and maybe still current - agency. Don is in professional limbo but determined to keep up appearances. On a trip out west to visit his semi-estranged wife in her hillside bungalow, he avoids telling Megan the truth about his job status and even splurges on a lavish color TV set for her humble living room (not that he has financial worries; his SCDP exile is primarily a matter of pride, since he's still getting paid). Anyway, they have other concerns. Having fully embraced the role of late sixties starlet in glamorous image if not yet actual career advancement, Megan is drifting further and further away from Don, shrinking from advances and keeping her own quiet counsel which she denies her husband.

While in California (this is, if I'm not mistaken, Mad Men's fifth visit not including flashbacks), Don also checks in on the West Coast office which looks like a flimsy affair. Ted (who is checking on New York, and awkwardly avoiding Peggy, while Don is in L.A.) is already bored with his desperate escape plan, while Pete has fully transitioned within a couple months into a sweater-over-the-shoulders Southern Californian playboy, complete with hungry realtor girlfriend Bonnie Whiteside (Jessy Schram). Pete and Megan both impress upon Don the charms of this superficially laid-back yet still go-get-'em lifestyle, but he insists on heading home: "I've got work to do." Most strikingly, he makes this same assertion to his red eye flightmate and recent widow Lee Cabot (Neve Campbell) as she rests her head on his shoulder and invites him to her Manhattan apartment. Here we have a high-profile guest playing just the type of melancholy, mature woman Don likes to take as a mistress, suggesting either an important new character...or a head-fake tease to indicate just how dedicated he is to staying on target. But the target is a moving one while he's fairly static; every week that passes estranges him further and further away from the office. The final shot finds him, unable to fix the sliding door in his penthouse, deciding to just embrace the cold by sitting outside wrapped in a blanket amidst a deep freeze.

We also spend a fair amount of time at the place Don has been frozen out of. With his and (for the most part) Ted's notable absences, and the very different demeanor of non-creative creative director Lou at the helm, SC&P feels like a completely different work environment. Roger - first glimpsed in the aftermath of an orgy and making time during the day for a perplexing lunch with his suddenly placid daughter, doesn't seem particularly focused on his job. Joan, meanwhile, is charging right ahead. She helps Ken out with a Butler Shoes meeting and almost loses the account when MBA smart aleck Wayne Barnes (Dan Byrd) informs her he's going to take the company's marketing inhouse. Thinking fast, she visits Columbia to consult with alternately condescending and admiring business professor Irwin Podolsky (Mark Pinter) and eventually she confronts Wayne with an airtight argument against his rash decision. If Joan is thriving, Peggy is chafing under Lou's apathy, which has spread to the rest of her team. Although he compliments her work, she feels that she isn't being challenged; this plus having to face Ted again leads to growing frustration. When her brother-in-law heads home late at night after helping her out with a plumbing problem - he says he doesn't like to leave his wife alone - the very-much-alone Peggy breaks down and sobs on the floor of her apartment. Like Don in her own way, she's feeling the bite of a harsh winter.

My Response: By now Hornbacher has established a pattern as one of the most stylish directors of Mad Men. Aside from the occasional exception (like the more subdued "Dark Shadows" in season 5), his work often exhibits flourishes that push the show's aesthetic beyond its usual conventions. Think Roger's ad-addled acid trip and the high-contrast Howard Johnson's nightmare in "Far Away Places"; the moody, award-winning Billy the Kid spot glimpsed in "Waldorf Stories"; or the startling flashback cut to the doorman's heart attack in "The Doorway". But "Time Zones" may be his boldest work, not necessarily because of any single bravura technique but because the energetically moving camera, flashy slo-mo, and extreme framing so eagerly call attention to themselves (for example, the dolly back from Don's close-up on the frigid Manhattan balcony). The impression is engaging if gaudy, a nod to the spirit of '69 - in the last year of the sixties, we are already starting to edge into seventies chic, especially in Hollywood - but also a meta-acknowledgement that a new season has begun, which the creators and we both know will (sort of) be the last, and they're ready to go out with a bang. The opening shot in particular is probably the most "Look at me!" Mad Men has ever dared to be, in a fashion that feels like it has much more to do with the ten months between seasons six and seven offscreen than the mere seven weeks that passed between Thanksgiving Day '68 and Inauguration Day '69 onscreen.

Seldom has so much happened in such a short span, all of it set up in the previous finale yet still conveying the disorienting sensation of a time leap. We're catching up with characters we don't think we should have to catch up with. The gap between the internal structure of the story and the external structure of a seasonal cable product, arriving amidst a flurry of hype, feels particularly sharp here, all the more so since I'm finally viewing this premiere not in the midst of 2014's buzz but seven years later, just a few days after watching the previous entry for the first time. (If you're reading these as they are published, the seven-month break in my own viewing diary adds another whole layer to the experience, doesn't it?) That said, the zippy pace and cascade of "where are they now?" grand entrances - Pete's most hilarious among them - make a certain emotional if not necessarily chronological sense. Don is just barely clinging to his sense of purpose and discipline in a world leaving him behind. The discrepancy is best emphasized by the incongruity of his "I'm still going to dress like it's 1958" fashion against the backdrop of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood-era L.A. He spurns every opportunity he has to luxuriate, explore, and lose himself, opportunities he seized upon in the past even when he had to make them up himself (most notably his AWOL California excursion in '62 and his lost weekend attitude toward life in early '65). Now, even with nowhere to go, he's shining his shoes till they're spotless.

Season seven is going to unfold in two distinct parts which were aired a year apart and presumably, though I'm not too sure about this, produced the same way. Perhaps for that reason, this is the first season premiere since the fourth to hold itself to a trim, tight format rather than fusing together a long, meandering, meditative double episode. There is already a whole lot going for this mini-season: Peggy's tense dynamic with the dickish, indifferent new head of creative; the dawn of a California office with its own very distinct culture; Don's strained and waning bicoastal marriage to Megan (now she rather than he is the one losing interest); and Joan's further discovery that she has a talent for managing accounts. But "Time Zones" is clear: the core of the story right now is Don hanging on to the identity he spent so long cultivating, if only by the very tips of his well-manicured fingernails.

Next (active on December 13, 8am): "A Day's Work"Previous: (season 6 finale) "In Care Of"

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