Monday, April 14, 2014

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x1)

Time, time, is on my side. 

Welcome to 1969. And, at the same time, welcome to the end of Mad Men. About a year ago, I started this little blog with no direction, no idea what I wanted it to become. Now it's basically a full fledged TV blog and mostly because I decided to talk about an episode of Mad Men early on. I've missed this show. I've missed Don Draper's mountain of never ending emotional problems; I've missed the entire SC&P office; I've missed Peggy's gritted determination to fight for her career over personal life. And I've missed the crazy outfits! Oh 1969--year of color and life and war and death and counterculture and hippies and bell bottoms and the love movement. And then there's Don Draper, skinny tie, monochromatic Don Draper who is fighting with his whole being to stay in the late 1950s/early 1960s because if there is one lesson or axiom of Mad Men, it's that people can't change. Welcome to 1969--sit down, have a drink, and get ready for a terribly depressing but somehow familiar episode of Mad Men entitled "Time Zones."

 It's always nice when a TV show just points out its central theme in the opening moments. Less picking apart for me. "Do you have time to improve your life?" In a pitch to Peggy, Freddy nicely sets out the main idea for not only this episode, but I'd wager for the whole season. Is it too late to change your life? 7 seasons in which we move through 10 years and here, at the end, how much have these people changed? And more importantly, are they capable of change? Don moves stoically down an airport ramp, bright neon colors to his right, but he is literally standing still--the same Don Draper. Hat and all. Everything California once was for him before Ana died--life, color, freedom--is now tainted by the mountain of internal conflict that is Don's life. Still out of work (but getting paid) Don is flying back and forth (being bi-coastal) to see Meghan, who has finally decided that she's going after her dreams, marriage be damned.

Damn, Meghan Draper. First off, that is an impossibly short dress. Like, I fear what would happen if a good breeze were to stir. However, there is no denying that Meghan is in her element. She's everything Don is not: progressive, moving forward, fearless. She's in control now--did you notice how she's the one who drove the car not Don? Ah, the times. They are a-changing. Are Don and Meghan still in love? It's a question I asked myself repeatedly while watching this episode. And that question was followed by, "were they ever in love?" I don't know if Don sees Meghan anymore (I might be over analyzing but Meghan's dress is the exact color of one of the wall panels Don passed in the airport, and to which he was completely oblivious). And more to the point, I don't think Meghan wants Don to see her anymore. She can barely stomach being in the same room with him, never mind the same bed. Their one intimate moment at the end of the episode was awkward and forced--it felt necessary because he had come all this way and they are married, so might as well have sex, right? There was no actual intimacy between the two, a fact that is punctuated by the actual intimacy (but no sex) Don shares with a total stranger on the flight home.

Their time together in LA continues to be awkward as Meghan leaves for class and auditions and blatantly ignores time with Don, saying that he isn't even there long enough for there to be a fight. Meghan wants nothing from Don anymore, including a giant TV in her new home. This is a home Meghan made herself; she chose it (Don wanted to be near the ocean); she decorated it and an extravagant gift from Don is unwelcome, an invasion even. Their lives are lived one weekend at a time and Meghan is perfectly okay with that. Don, however, is not, though I suspect it has nothing to do with loving Meghan and wanting a life with her--this is how Don thinks the world works. He buys the lady an expensive gift for which she is grateful and impressed by the strong man who can provide. But Meghan is on her own and doing better than Don. So Don's trip to LA is mostly spent trying to pretend his life is the same as always, but at every turn we see it is not. Meghan rejects him sexually until the end; Don is not working but instead watching TV that touts the idea of a paradise where life is a delight instead of hardship, a concept Don cannot grasp despite his worldly possessions.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: Don Draper will not--indeed cannot--enter 1970. When it comes to Don's death, I know the popular theory is that he'll throw himself off his work building but I'm starting to wonder if he won't drown himself. One of the themes replete last season was the idea of drowning--including a drug induced haze in which Don saw his body in a pool, dead, until he was actually pulled from the watery tomb by Roger AND a client pitch in which his entire ad is for suicide by drowning in the ocean, a maudlin reversal of Don's baptism in season 2.  That motif was picked up again in this episode: Meghan wants a pool at her next house, Don wishes the house in LA was near the ocean, and on the plane home the stranger reveals that her husband died of thirst. All of this, in my opinion, is careful foreshadowing that Don Draper will die by drowning by the end of this season. Does Don Draper even belong in this world anymore? Where is his paradise? If season 6 was about the Inferno, then season 7 is about a move to paradise, but Don's paradise is not part of this world anymore. He's not at home in New York City (can't even get the doors of his balcony closed anymore! Metaphor alert! Metaphor alert!); California is a like a foreign land to him now where once it was where he could be his true self. 

California now belongs to Don's doppelganger, Pete. Tanned, plaid pants wearing, hugging, happy, sunny, carefree, Peter. Mr. Campbell has always been following in the footsteps of Don: one failed marriage, distant father, trying to be more than he can. But California has been good to Pete; he has found himself like Don once did in the sunny state. Pete has his own office, a new girl, and a new outlook on life. I started this blog by stating that Mad Men is essentially about the fact that people don't change; Peter looks to be the exception to this rule. Except nothing is so clear cut in Mad Men. I think we should keep our eye on Peter Campbell for the rest of the season. Don Draper once thought he had it all too when he married Meghan--this was his second chance. Didn't end well for Don, can't see it ending well for Peter.

And finally, Don achieves intimacy with a nameless stranger on an airplane. She is a total Sylvia stand in. Remember Sylvia? She of the Italian Catholic stand in for mother and whore to Don last season? Well this stranger was dressed and styled just like Sylvia. Don's relationship with Sylvia last season was interesting; on some level, I think Don really loved her because she was the representation of what Don wants: a mother (who can also be a whore--he's a complicated guy, okay?) So here is a woman, who after some brief getting to know you philosophy conversation, offers him sex and Don declines. Why? Because Don is just empty. Almost nothing is going to help him at this point. Drink, sex, Meghan. Nothing fills that void in his soul. Now, work does marginally, as it always has. Don has been feeding Freddy pitches, working even when he's not supposed to. Work still drives Don but eventually it will be as empty for him as the other factors unless Don can move forward and thus far this episode has done nothing to show me that Don is capable of that. And by the end of the episode, Don sits on his penthouse balcony, in the freezing cold, as the song "You just keep me hanging on..." plays over the credits.

Having checked in with Don, how about the rest of our shinning cast? When we last left Peggy, she was in Don's office, finally (literally) wearing the pants. Sadly, that was not to last. Peggy is back in skirts, playing second fiddle to Lou Avery the new creative director. Her ideas are tossed aside; she is barely allowed to present pitches; her hard work goes unnoticed. She is alone--not even her friend Stan is much help. Couple this with a broken heart over Ted, who inexplicably shows up at the office seemingly to torment her and remind her of what once was, and Peggy is still Peggy. Having spent 10 years pushing for her career, thinking she was getting somewhere, she is still on the outside, looking in. She's lost Don and Ted and Abe, and it's too much. Poor sad Peggy on the floor of her apartment, crying. Even if Don treated her like crap and was a monster half the time, he acknowledged her brilliance and she felt like she had someone in her corner.

And then there is Joan, who has been apart of this business for sixteen years and is still treated like a secretary who is only good for two things: fixing other people's mistakes quietly and being an object of desire. So when she is given a bigger task (meeting with a client one on one for drinks) it seems like a promotion. Or at least a step in the right direction for Joan; but the client, some uppity young guy with a head full of new and exciting ideas that won't pan out, won't see her as special. She's just Joan, the busty woman who should be getting him a drink and smiling prettily. She might have saved the day in the end, but even Ken tells her, "don't go in my office again." She's never going to get the respect she deserves. She'll always be below the male partners and even below Peggy, despite having just as much skill in the boardroom as the others.

And Roger Sterling continues his descent into counterculture: drugs, orgies, drinking, late nights. It's no longer about enlightenment for him. I think it's about self-loathing at this point. Even when Margaret is giving a pretty speech about forgiveness and love over hate, Roger is thinking about his next drink. Will Roger make it to 1970? After this little talk, I don't think so. No one seems to care about him anymore. He is even more in the past than Don, despite his attempts to remain abreast of it all. His daughter has granted forgiveness, his partners don't care where he is, his former best friend Don hasn't been around for him and even the hippie sharing his bed brings another man into it, not caring if Roger was with someone else or not.

Do you have time to change your life? A resounding NO to everyone here. Even the smaller players like Ken, who has suddenly become very Peter like in his tirades and exhaustion whereas before he let the job just roll off of him, can't hope to change, except for the worse. How does this play out? Don goes back to work eventually, where he'll fall into the same habits of drink, depending on Peggy, narcissism, self-loathing, and his emotional mountain of crap. And nothing changes. As we get closer and closer to 1970, slouching ever closer to Bethlehem or so sayeth the poets, Don will get closer and closer to the edge. Why don't you set him free? You're just keeping him hanging on.

Miscellaneous Notes on Time Zones

--All in all, I thought this was a great start to the final season.

--I wonder what Betty and co. have been up to, especially little Sally. Sally's relationship with Don is one of the cornerstones of this show. What happened after Don took his children to see where he grew up?

--"She knows, I'm not a good husband."
"If she doesn't know you, keep it that way. It's what people do."

--Peter hugged Don. I don't know if I'm freaked out by this or not.

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