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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: Mad Men, "Time Zones"

Season 7, Episode 1
Grade: A- 
Verdict: Mad Men's Seventh Season roars into being with the renewed energy of another decade on the horizon. The end-game may have placed its pieces into being with a sense of despondency throughout, unless you're Pete Campbell and everything is peachy keen. More than any of other episode of the series, this one crackled with kinetic energy, particularly given some wonderful director and soundtrack choices.

We open with a disquieting stare from Freddy Rumsen, making a fairly dramatic and engaging advertising pitch, showing a flare of confidence that we haven't seen from the character since the first season when he was struggling with alcoholism and urinating himself in the Sterling Cooper boardroom. It's an engagingly cinematic scene and contributes to one of the crisper openings in the series' history. Peggy, the person on the receiving end of this pitch, is completely in love with it and immediately promises to take Freddy's effort to Lou Avery, the new creative director of Sterling Cooper and Partners (as they're still known from last season).

This moment produces two key truths, that it's actually Don working behind the scenes with Freddy to produce these ad pitches at various agencies (including SCP), thus it's actually Don speaking to Peggy (and us) and that Peggy's eventual rejection from Lou regarding Freddy's "idea" indicates the overall creative direction of the firm in its new regime. As Mad Men (as always) has been a series, that despite its appearance as a ensemble piece, has been about Don and Peggy all along, it makes sense to zero in on both of these plot strands.

Don is rudderless since being placed on "indefinite leave", he's still being paid by the firm as he's a part-owner but he has literally no office to call his own. He's still living in New York running his current "behind the scenes" scheme, while Megan is in LA on the verge of a major television breakout with NBC. In short, their marriage is falling apart as she's clearly disgusted with him, making every excuse possible to not have sex in the short time in which they're together. Don represents the very style of life Megan no longer wants any part of. Here she is, dressed in a burgeoning 70's fashion; aiming to look poorer than she actually is in order to fit in with her artist friends and she's married to basically the living embodiment of "the man". This is a marriage that is doomed to failure and Don realizes it, thus his confessional to the widower played by Neve Campbell on his plane ride back home. He knows he can occasionally put a band-aid on it, but his marriage is a gaping wound that just needs to bleed out.

The fault in their marriage doesn't lie strictly with Don. Certainly, he is a terrible husband as he admits to his fellow cross-country passenger, and his possessiveness and temperamental nature have never quite jibed as well with Megan's free-spirited being. But Megan has her own part to play in the issues that plague the Drapers, particularly a strain of irresponsibility and a lack of compromise, which is growing ever stronger and contributing to the lack of attraction that she feels for Don. It's hard not to laugh at Megan's attempts to be bohemian but then driving a nice new convertible when she picks Don up from LAX. But this dichotomy is emblematic of the era that the series is veering towards, as between the socially conscious-driven 1960's and the consumer-focused 1980's was the oddly restless 1970's, with social upheaval and distrust in government beginning to show its true face.

Don isn't a man produced for these times, and the final scenes he features in heavily underline just how lost he is. Don is kind of person who is okay with Richard Nixon, and Nixon's ideas of how government should be run, thus the moment of Don and Freddy watching Nixon on the television over lunch with a balcony door that just won't close, leaking in all of the elements (including some very cold air). The idyllic days are over, and Don knows it. He can't make his marriage work, he's damaged goods in the advertising industry, and the best he can do at this point is walk out into the cold and embrace it, no matter how brutal it is. Some have theorized that this is Don considering suicide, thus fulfilling the man falling graphic that we've seen since the series began. I tend to think that isn't the direction we're headed here, as Matthew Weiner is a slightly more subversive writer than that, and is instead a fan of (occasionally heavy-handed) symbolism regarding the changing eras, as we've seen in previous seasons. It's fairly clear with the Scorsese homages that open and close this episode, that the grit and grime are about to truly seep in.

On other side of the coin, what does this mean for Peggy? We don't get as much time with her this week, but we do get an opportunity to see her frustration on all fronts: in the workplace, at the building she still owns, and in her interpersonal affairs when Ted returns to the New York office to spend time overseeing the staff. The most pressing of these is her growing despondency toward the work put out by SCP. Peggy has long been the tutor of Don's and the greatest champion of his ethic towards a strong creative direction, this was particularly apparent when the firm was young and hungry and in its new form, seeking out bolder advertising directions. Now that they've become one of the big players in the industry, they've become lethargic and are willing to accept less than innovative work.

At every turn within "Time Zones" whenever the old creative methods of the firm attempt to make themselves known via Peggy's lobbying for Freddy's (or rather Don's) ideas, they're rejected at every turn with Lou finally stating: "I'm just immune to your charms". Creative innovations are no longer the ideal at SCP, and instead the company has become a chop-shop in how quick an ad pitch can be turned around regardless of quality. Again, the idealism is gone, and it's all about the product and it will only get worse. Peggy likely recognizes this trend, a realization that becomes especially apparent when she snaps at Stan accusing his team of being "a bunch of hacks". This statement, as true as it is, just goes to show how out of character Stan's actions were in the finale of last season, when he was ready to become "one man in one office" in LA. Now, he's returned to tossing off shoddy work because that's become the status quo. And in Peggy's case, it leads her to a place of similar atrophy to Don. Last season, Peggy was on the verge of becoming the new Don, per the unmistakably symbolic silhouette she cast in her final scene, and instead this season she is an underling again. Pile that on top of a non-existent love life and a building that's falling apart around her, with tenants screaming left and right, and it brings her to the point of a breakdown.

Neither will admit it, but Don and Peggy both need each other, and provide that missing piece that both need to function as better people in terms of their pseudo father-daughter relationship. Given that they end up in similar places by episodes end, here's hoping they find a way back to each other and restore that deficit.

The episode did give viewers a few other plot-lines of note, particularly the parallel adventures of Roger "the free-love machine" and Joan. It doesn't take much to point out that Roger has been living a charmed life, and currently he's probably the biggest mess of the entire crew, entered into a poly-amorous relationship where he isn't sure who might be in his bed next when he comes home. Roger just trips through life at this point, even more so than before, though when faced with his daughter telling him that she forgives him over breakfast, it cuts him to the core. At no point do we ever really feel more human than when we're faced with the idea of forgiveness from another. Will this be the event that snaps his life back into a sense of normalcy instead of the mid-life crisis he's wrapped himself into? 

Joan, who has often been Roger's most linked-to romantic partner, on the other hand has worked very hard to obtain the position that she currently holds. Even though she has had to stoop to some low-lows in order to get there, Joan is still a partner, though she's often treated like a glorified secretary by the likes of Ken Cosgrove. No matter what Joan does, she hits a glass ceiling before she can go any higher. Even when attempting to stave off the potential loss of another client, she faces adversity and smirking comments from the opposite gender, even that of the educated elite. She gets her (somewhat bizarrely pat) victory by episode's end, but it took alot of behind the scenes preparation to get there. Despite the advances made by both Peggy and Joan in their individual stations, they don't lived the charmed life of people like Pete and Roger and likely won't ever get that opportunity, regardless of their hard work. Again, that 70's cynicism bares its fangs.

There's alot to be said for this episode and its metaphorical content, but maybe my favorite element relates to just how differently LA and New York treat the staff of SCP. Pete has been there for close to a year and is likely happier than he's ever been, or at least quite close to the level of serenity that we saw in his countenance in the first season. Tanned, wearing awful pants, and in a relationship with a gorgeous blonde real estate agent; things couldn't be better for Mr. Campbell, nor more serene. Contrast that with Ken Cosgrove, consistently Pete's opposite number throughout the series. He now still wears an eye patch from last season's hunting accident and is a cantankerous mess, consistently under deadline and stress and oddly shouting orders at people like Joan and anyone within ear shot. He's a far cry from the Ken Cosgrove that once wrote sci-fi short stories and refused to involve his personal life in the agency business. 

LA and New York have shaped Pete and Ken into the ways of life that are often typified by the city in which they reside. Given that they both started at the same ground floor, it's easy to say that were the roles reversed, the results would have been the same. But this is an episode that is concerned with the differing styles of life afforded by the two keystone cities of the United States. Neither is truly better than the other, but they do begin to affront their personality on those who reside within their boundaries, almost like a living being in of themselves. We see it in both of these case examples, as well as Megan, as well as Peggy, and Don is a man stuck in the middle. He can't quite decide what life he wants to make for himself. He knows he's a bad husband, and he knows his time may be running short in the ad game unless things radically change. So what's next? The closing moments of the episode scored to Vanilla Fudge's "You Just Keep Me Hanging On" couldn't have been more perfect.

Thoughts to ponder:

- Christina Hendricks really deserves that Best Supporting Actress Emmy.

- Don Draper is working his way through all the 90's iconic tv actresses, first Linda Cardelinni, and now Neve Campbell (though that rejection scene was awfully sweet), who is next? You guessed it, Jennifer Love Hewitt! (no that's not really a thing, though I kinda hope it will be).

- No Bob Benson this episode, I'm already feeling the pangs of emptiness as a result.

- I would like more Ken Cosgrove eye-patch jokes and bad throws.

- The "On the Next Mad Men" segment, my god how I've missed you...Someone opens a door! Someone touches someone else's shoulder! Somebody laughs! Utter perfection.

- Oh, end of season prediction (though this won't really be fulfilled until next year given the release schedule) Don and Peggy start a new firm, cause hell, why not? 
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