‘Mad Men’ Final Season Premiere Recap
Matthew Munhall | Monday, April 14, 2014
“We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit,” former President Richard Nixon said in his inaugural address in 1969. “Reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on Earth.”
The seventh and final season of “Mad Men” picks up in January 1969, as Nixon is being inaugurated – a sure sign the optimism of the 1960s is coming to an end. “Time Zones,” Sunday night’s fantastic and foreboding premiere, followed the continuing “raucuous discord” that belies the immaculately-maintained facades of the show’s characters. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, outlined his vision for this season: “What I was interested in this season was the sort of contrast between the material and the immaterial world.” Although Weiner is notoriously ambiguous when it comes to the show’s future, it’s a theme that has encompassed the show’s entire run: Material objects seek to create the illusion of happiness, masking the void inside all of us.
The episode opens with Freddy Rumsen, the copywriter once fired for drunkenly urinating and passing out before a meeting with a client, giving a pitch for Accutron watches. “Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention,” Freddy asks directly into the camera. “This is the beginning of something.” Weiner – who wrote the premiere – is knowingly addressing the audience: It’s the beginning of the end for “Mad Men,” and of course we’re paying attention.
Rumsen’s brilliant monologue feels reminiscent of the advertising genius of a young Don Draper. As he delivers the slogan – “It’s not a time piece, it’s a conversation piece” – the camera reveals Peggy Olson, who is just as stunned as the audience. And as it turns out, Peggy is right to be surprised. The episode’s final moments reveal that Don, who was put on an indefinite leave of absence in the season six finale, has been feeding ideas to Freddy. Don’s sense of fulfillment is so wrapped up in his career that he constructs this ruse to give his life purpose, even lying to his wife Megan that he’s still working.
We get our first glimpse of Don in this episode as he is arriving at LAX to meet Megan, who has moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. In the “Mad Men” universe, California has served as a golden beacon of opportunity, a paradise worlds away from frigid New York. Yet, on this weekend trip, Don remains deeply unhappy lounging around Megan’s new pad in the Hollywood Hills. In contrast, both Megan and Pete have embraced the allure of the year-round sunshine and spacious housing the state offers.
On his flight back to New York, Don opens up to a widowed brunette woman (played by Neve Campbell), whose late husband wanted his ashes spread at Pebble Beach but had to settle for Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. Even Disneyland – where Don first fell in love with Megan – is a fantasy that pales in comparison to the real thing. Don shares a transatlantic flight’s worth of emotional intimacy with the woman, opening up about his marriage to Megan and asking, “I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?” Throughout the show’s run, Don has continually proven an empty vessel inside, which he tries to fill up with women and alcohol. So when the widow offers him a lift home from the airport, it’s surprising that he declines her invitation. Don is, for once, seemingly turning down the fantasy he constantly lusts after.
Roger continues his own hedonistic descent, as his apartment becomes a hippie commune teeming with orgies and psychedelics. This hippie idealism has apparently consumed the entire Sterling family, as his daughter Margaret meets him for brunch to forgive him for all his past transgressions. “Anger can be vanquished by love,” Margaret tells him. He returns home to a woman, in bed with a sleeping man, who tells him, “You know anyone’s welcome in this bed.” Roger moodily replies, “I just want to get some sleep,” as he stares up at the ceiling. Hedonism has its limits, and when that fantasy is finally punctured, you’re still stuck with your own misery.
Meanwhile, Peggy is restless under new SC&P creative director Lou Avery, who lacks Don’s visionary outlook on advertising. When Avery fails to be overly excited about her reworked Accutron pitch, she complains to Stan, “I’m tired of fighting for everything to be better. … Nobody cares about anything.” When she collapses on the floor of her apartment in tears at the end of the episode, it’s a wrenching act of desperation. Like Don, Peggy depends so heavily on her career for fulfillment, that when she is miserable at work her life seems empty.
Joan, too, struggles professionally, as Ken asks her to have dinner with a client who is considering moving advertising in-house. Even though she’s a partner at SC&P, the executive condescendingly sneers, “This conversation is best for Ken,” and brags about his business degree. Joan meets with a business professor for advice, and when he asks for repayment, she immediately recalls when the firm pimped her out to Jaguar. “This is a business school,” she snaps. “Doesn’t money work here?” No matter how successful she is, Joan is constantly reminded of the glass ceiling for women at every turn.
In the episode’s final shot, Don sits on his apartment’s balcony, freezing and alone against the New York skyline, as Vanilla Fudge’s cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” plays. Is Don finally turning over a new leaf? “Why don’t cha get out of my life and let me make a brand new start?” the song asks. But in “Mad Men,” there are no true reinventions, only the cynical truth that humans make the same mistakes time and time again. You can change your name, you can move to California, you can meet your dream woman, but ultimately the bitter January wind hits you with the harsh reality of your own emptiness. As the show enters its final stretch, its characters are very much “ragged in spirit.” Man may land on the moon later in 1969, but for now the characters are firmly stuck on Earth, and that might be the most miserable reality of all.