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Ending the madness

Mad-Men-Don-Draper-Haircut

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final season for Mad Men is something of an odd conceit. Neatly tying up a narrative arc isn’t called for here–Mad Men has always been about watching characters rise and fall, lead double lives, and interact with each other, drink in hand. In fact, it’s often most rewarding to take a step back from an episode and reflect on how much characters have changed since the series began. A logical series endpoint, then, would similarly call for some distance from the characters. Or perhaps, it might just as appropriately end at any given point, implying the continuation of the diegetic world inside the show

The trajectory of the 60s is very much on showrunner Matthew Weiner’s mind in seventh season premiere “Time Zones.” While season six opened on ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) reading Dante’s Inferno on the beach, season seven finds Don on a moving walkway in LAX. He blankly stares straight ahead, his gray suit appearing colorless as he drifts onward against a backdrop of vibrant pastels. The image elegantly evokes Don’s path as he ages through the increasingly psychedelic decade, inescapably moving forward despite a loss of relevance to the time. One of Draper’s most memorable one-liners from earlier seasons–“move forward”–now takes on eerie and grave significance.

This is the first in a string of seven episodes comprising the first half of Mad Men’s final season. They’re pulling a Breaking Bad, so to speak, since AMC’s other critically acclaimed drama opted for a similar two-part final-season split. So, drawn-out closure is to be expected in this case. That said, “Time Zones” can feel like it is unfolding at a glacial pace, as though gratification is deliberately withheld. We come into the season with certain loose ends from season six fresh in our heads: Don seems ready to open up about his very (very…very…) checkered past while taking an involuntary leave of absence from his ad agency, Sterling Cooper; copy writer Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) seems poised to take over the creative department; everyone’s (least) favorite smarmy accounts man Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is relocating to Sterling Cooper’s new west coast office. I, for one, urgently needed to know what would happen next with Roger Sterling (John Slattery), whose LSD odysseys have a special place in my heart.

“Time Zones” doesn’t open with one of these familiar faces. In fact, it practically ambushes us with the face of fairly unfamiliar freelancer Freddie Rumsen, who stares uncompromisingly into the camera. “Are you ready?” he asks. “Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.” Pay attention we do, as he goes on to…pitch an ad for a watch? That’s a pretty anticlimactic start for an episode in which Don doesn’t seem to appear until the eight-and-a-half minute mark.

Or does he? We learn in the episode’s final minutes that Don has actually been using Freddie as a mouthpiece for ad pitches during his creative exile. In an episode so concerned with time, it’s now quite poignant that it opened with Don’s pitch for a watch commercial. But the initial tone of the season also seems to be that things are far less simple than they seem, and that deep revelations will not be spoon-fed. In keeping with this idea, it remains to be seen what this will mean for upcoming episodes.

A slow-paced, hour-long serial, Mad Men isn’t a show you can just drop in on–if you’re not caught up, prepare to binge watch. The series’ strength hinges on awareness of the characters’ journeys, and it will seem especially slow without all the rich background. And over the past couple seasons, Weiner seems to have further embraced this format: gone are the days of one-off episodes built around an ad pitch, even though those made for some of the show’s best stories. If these types of self-contained narratives are going to exist in this season, it seems like they will usually be grounded in larger emotional arcs (as in season four’s “The Suitcase” for one of my favorite examples of this type of episode, but stock up on Kleenex first). And even the emotional arcs themselves in this season, with the addition of a Los Angeles branch of Sterling Cooper, will seemingly make the show even more complex.

But filming in Los Angeles lends itself to more than just narrative complexity. Scenes in Los Angeles are vividly rendered in vibrant colors. The rejuvenating energy from filming on location is palpable. Pete, with a tan and a sweater knotted around his neck, is loving his chance to start fresh, while Don’s wife Megan (Megan Calvet) has just landed a role on an NBC pilot. She also has the best entrance in the episode, complemented by Vanilla Fudge’s killer cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

If LA is youthful warmth, New York now seems grayscale and old-fashioned. There is a general air of despondency among the characters left here. Peggy seems the most powerless and out of place in this old order, as she has to contend with obtuse new head of the creative department Lou Avery (Allan Havey), who is nothing if not old school. Joan, played sharply as ever by Christina Hendricks, has to jump through misogynistic hoops to prove her intelligence to rotund, middle-aged men. As for Roger, who now seems to live his life from orgy to orgy, “not angry, just disappointed” has never cut quite so deeply when he realizes his daughter is clearly exhausted beyond words with his antics.

“Slow” is one way to think of Mad Men’s pacing. “Real-time” might be closer to the truth, and by that I mean it’s a lot like that jolt of surprise when you see an old photo of yourself eating a popsicle at age five. That sudden reminder of all the time that’s passed coupled with the uncanny feeling that this five-year-old is both you and…not you. A person that once existed but can never exist again. (Ignore the specifics of this example; we all know you can still dribble melty popsicle remnants down your face no matter how old you are.) In this spirit, it probably isn’t possible to evaluate Mad Men’s final season until the finale shows us the characters’ final moments.

It’s January of 1969 at this point in the series–quite literally the beginning of the end for the decade. At one point in the episode, Nixon’s inaugural address plays on television while Don, of course, drinks his night away in a bar. He is light-years away from who he was in the series pilot–the unflappable, undeniably cool head of creative at Sterling Cooper (and thankfully, Hamm in real life is now ages away from an awkward ‘90s dating show appearance that recently went viral). Kennedy’s Camelot has passed; so has the bulk of the late sixties riots and Vietnam protests. Mad Men is moving on. As for where, we’ll have to wait and see.