TV & Film

'Mad Men' Season 7 Premiere Review: Flying Solo

Do NOT read on unless you've seen "Time Zones," the Season 7 premiere of "Mad Men."

"This is a hierarchy." - Ken Cosgrove

Cast your mind back, "Mad Men" fans, to July of 2007. We were so much younger then. So innocent! Those were different times. Sigh.

But let's not get lost in memories; let's think about everything Don Draper had when "Mad Men" began.

He had a senior position at a respected ad agency, and he strutted around the place like he owned it (and later on, he and his colleagues did end up owning it). He had a great deal of status, not just at his workplace but in the industry in general; he was a rising star with limitless prospects. He had a foxy mistress with whom he could while away a Manhattan afternoon. He had a beautiful wife, as well as a large, comfortable home with relatively well-adjusted children in it.

He has none of those things now.

"Time Zones" could well be one of those "Mad Men" episodes that drives people to complain that nothing happens, but I actually think that the viewers who regularly lobbed that complaint at this drama are gone by now.

We're down to the core fans now, those who accept that what "happens" on this show has a particular flavor, mood and style. Those "happenings" can consist of a significant look, a weighted silence or a crushing realization. Things often "happen" when the camera is focused on the back of a character's head. This is a show that loves ambiguities, digressions and oblique angles. Not many shows could pull that off, but "Mad Men" has the kind of cast that makes watching people think and react a real pleasure most of the time.

Of course, big things do happen on "Mad Men," often in sensational scenes and memorable set pieces. Some episodes kick into a higher gear and a lot of dominoes get knocked over, but usually after a lot of patient set-up. That's one reason why I still have some questions about the plan to air seven episodes this year and seven episodes next year; this is a show that likes to marinate a good long while before turning up the heat. Will there be enough time for the smallest an largest events to resonate? In a March interview, creator Matt Weiner said it shouldn't be a problem. We'll see.

In any event, this episode re-introduces us to the characters' current situations and catches us up on what's happened in the two months since we last saw them. It's only January 1969, but there has been progress on a few fronts: Pete is established and happy in Los Angeles (Pete is happy? That may be the weirdest thing that "Mad Men" has ever done). Megan is also on the West Coast, trying to make it as an actress, an unseen Bob Benson is holding down the fort in Detroit, and Ted Chaough is also based in L.A., but nowhere near as happy as Pete. Roger is ... Roger.

Ken Cosgrove is barely keeping it together as the hardest working accounts man in New York, and think for a moment how much he has changed in seven seasons. Not only has his vision been reduced by 50 percent, he's stressed and ready to lose it at the drop of a hat. Season 1 Ken would never have dreamed of barking at Joan and snarling at a secretary. Remember the Ken who had a sideline in writing science-fiction stories? The man who could take or leave the shenanigans of his workplace? Remember how detached he seemed, how wise his life choices seemed -- especially the decision not to get too caught up in his career?

Yeah, that's over. And cleverly hidden in Ken's rant is one of the foundational ideas of the entire show. "Mad Men" has always been interested in the gradations of power and status: How many scenes have been about characters trying to assess who is top dog, attempting to establish dominance, and humiliating those below them on the food chain? A lot of the past six seasons has been about the brutal competition for a perch on the higher rungs of the ladder of success (that sentence could also describe a lot of the antihero-driven top-tier TV of the past decade or so, actually).

At the end of "Mad Men's" pilot episode, we'd been charmed by Don, we'd been taken in by his world and his cynical, smart worldview, but we also knew Don was not a good person. One of the main things we also learned: Don was damned good at playing the game.

In the first four or five seasons, we saw Don do the nearly impossible: He retained huge chunks of his status and hard-fought privilege, even as he dumped on more people, screwed up more and became more destructive. He had a seemingly God-given ability to get others to question their status and feel more insecure and weaker than he did. He was good at putting up a front. Even if he knew deep down that he was a dirtbag, most of the time he could still find a way to emerge nearly unscathed from personal and professional catastrophe. He kept hanging on, longer than anyone would have thought possible, to all the markers of success that he'd accumulated. It's kind of astounding, really, how long he lasted in the various hierarchies -- at his firm, in the monied middle class, in his industry.

But the path of "Mad Men" has been all about stripping those things away from Don.

He's not married -- well, he sort of is, but his second marriage is hanging by a thread. He has no mistress, and in the season premiere, he even turns down a Sylvia look-alike on the plane (well hello, Neve Campbell!).

He has no job. Don is still technically an employee and he's being paid by the firm, but he has no status, he is not in charge and he must resort to using Freddy Rumsen to sneak his pitches into the building.

His children are far away, physically and emotionally. I'd be surprised if he sees them more than once or twice a month, and I doubt that Sally, the child closest to him, has forgiven him for even half of his mistakes. He's been more honest with her, but did that truthfulness come too late?

As the season premiere ends, Don's out in the cold. Literally, as the episode ended, he could not close the patio door and found himself out in the cold, all by himself. (Please watch your immediate airspace for flying anvils. Ah, never change, "Mad Men." Sometimes the symbolism is subtle, sometimes it's as subtle as a two-by-four to the head.)

He's not really alone, in a sense. Don's world has crumbled, but so have many of the hierarchies all over society.

This is a world where Roger Sterling doesn't go home to a Junior League wife; he's having all-night bacchanals with hippies who likely reek of patchouli and self-righteous spirituality. Roger's daughter tries to upend their personal hierarchy by "forgiving" him, and what's great about that scene is that they're both right and they're both wrong. Roger is a selfish ass who never gave his daughter much time or attention, and his daughter is a grasping, spoiled brat who blames her father for all her bad choices. What they have in common is a search for cosmic answers and the inability to see how oblivious and self-absorbed they are.

Hierarchies in flux aren't always a bad or confusing thing, of course. Pete, a prisoner of the East Coast preppie establishment if there ever was one, has the look of a freed man. In New York, he was sour and discontented, and he didn't really know it was possible to cast off the shackles of his WASP heritage. But he has found a new freedom on the Left Coast, and now he has a spring in his step. As far as Pete's concerned, the East Coast was the home of the real tar pits -- the oozy spots that trapped you in one place forever.

For some, the social and professional hierarchies still present major obstacles. Joan and Peggy, for example, still have to work a lot harder to make people realize they deserve a place at the table. From the pilot onward, viewers learned to take them seriously, but people they come across continually underestimate and patronize them, and it takes a toll.

Joan is a partner in the firm, but despite her experience and knowledge, she must humor a junior executive at a shoe company, for God's sake (well, hello, Dan Byrd of "Cougar Town" fame!). Inside and outside the firm, Joan must always prove herself and make others realize that her true value has nothing to do with her looks. This leads to moments like the one in the business professor's office. She was ready, as always, to deflect a cheap come-on, but nothing could have surprised her more than the professor picking her brain about the ad business -- in a respectful way.

It's an uphill battle for Joan, and some progress, albeit glacial, has been made. The more nimble Peggy has progressed more quickly, but right now her battle isn't uphill -- it's practically vertical. Poor Pegs! Her boss, the awful Lou, doesn't see her value at all, and to him, there is no hierarchy -- the creative side of the firm is now an autocracy run by a dolt in a Mr. Rogers sweater. What Lou says goes, and the infinitely persistent Peggy cannot get him to see her point of view. He shoots her down at every turn, and seems to do so gleefully. Of course Don and Peggy fought -- a lot -- but it was often about the work. Don and Peggy are the kind of creative partners who have to needle each other but whose conflicts usually lead to better work.

Lou represents everything Don and Peggy can't stand: He favors middle-of-the-road, boring pablum and can't be bothered to think outside the box. Peggy can't get to him because he has no beating creative heart to reach. I mean, that sweater! Don would not be caught dead wearing those grandpa clothes or speaking in such corny phrases. The pained smiles on the faces of his staff say everything.

But none of those things are what makes Lou the worst. It's his inability to recognize and hone good work. There are only two things to which Don has been kind of faithful over the years: Peggy and the work (which are inextricably bound together in his mind and heart). Lou doesn't care, and that winds Peggy up to the point that she's practically an angry, frustrated Leslie Knope. Peggy can't strategize her way out of having a terrible boss, and that's a rough spot in which to be.

Over the years, a lot of critics have given several of these characters (mainly the older guys) a hard time for being unable to change with the times. But perhaps they just can't change as fast as the times are changing around them (an idea nicely encapsulated by Don's ride on the moving sidewalk at the airport: He stands still as the world moves around him). That said, Don and Peggy are far more clued in to the zeitgeist than Lou, and Peggy knows that Lou's hack work will not cut it in the irreverent, charged, unpredictable culture of 1969. Satire, wit and a certain acerbic knowingness might woo customers; cloddish, square pitches will not.

Peggy's changed a lot, but at work, it doesn't matter. She's out in the cold, figuratively, and reduced to sobbing in her dark, drab apartment.

Don has changed some. He's not hitting the sauce very hard these days (he accepts a drink on the plane, and Megan's agent orders Champagne, but to my recollection, we don't actually see him imbibe either beverage). Don also resists other old comforts: He does not bed yet another sensual brunette. He also resisted the urge to hit on a Betty look-alike in Los Angeles (Pete's Realtor). Don tries to support his wife (even as he knows his marriage is on life support, and even as he makes all the wrong gestures when he visits, like buying her a giant TV).

The guy is trying. The question is, as ever, is he trying hard enough? Is he too damaged? Will a fast-changing society consign Don Draper to the dustbin of history? And never mind his career: What does happiness, or even contentment, look like for Don Draper?

Don and his spiritual twin, Peggy, are so clearly on the outside as the season begins. Is Season 7 about how they get back on the inside? Is it how they accept their limitations and make some kind of peace with themselves? I suspect it'll be about all that, plus deeper explorations of the nature of "broken vessels" and whether or not those vessels still have some uses.

A sidebar of sorts: After an email and podcast friendship of eight years, I finally had the good fortune to meet Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, proprietors of the TV-and-fashion commentary site At a promotional event for their new book, Tom (who writes the site's perceptive "Mad Men" recaps and "Mad Style" columns) summed up the show in a few apt sentences.

I'm paraphrasing, but at the reading, in response to a question from the audience, Tom said something like this: "'Mad Men' is about how you never get over your s***. You just don't. But you may learn how to deal with your s*** and work around it and cope with it better."

"Mad Men" has spent seven years peeling away the outer shells around Don Draper, and that man on the chilly balcony has no false fronts left. He is what he is, and he's starting to own that, as Oprah would say. His kids know the truth. His wives know the truth, or at least important parts of it. Even his business partners know the truth, or parts of it. Peggy knows everything that matters. His s*** is out there, it no longer has as much power to terrorize and control him.

Don really has nothing left to hide -- but this period of honesty, this time of walls falling down, coincides with a distinct lack of people or purpose in his life. Can Don have intimate relationships and be honest with himself and others, at least some of the time? Will he be able to do good work as well? We shall see, "Mad Men" fans. We shall see.

Bullet points driven by final-season nostalgia (it's the pain from an old wound):

  • I don't think I'm the only one who thought Ken's eye wound was temporary. But it looks like he may be this show's Saul Tigh.

  • Internet, have a GIF of Don and Pete eating Brooklyn Avenues on my desk by morning. Thank you.
  • Now that several characters are based in L.A., I am looking forward to seeing even more period-appropriate Los Angeles locations. The show has already used L.A. locations to stand in for a host of places in and around New York (and even Italy and elsewhere), but "Mad Men" always does such a terrific job of finding cool locations that I'm sure that groovy West Coast places will make more appearances this season.
  • This show is obsessed with doorways -- the back-of-the-head shot is a trademark, but so are shots of doors, characters standing outside doors, characters discussing doors (the door in Don's apartment that didn't work, Lou's door comment, etc). No doubt Roger has used various substances to pass through various doors of perception as well.
  • When Dan Byrd of "Cougar Town" showed up on "Mad Men," I really wanted him to order red wine at the bar.
  • When I say that Don has nothing left to hide, I should have added that, being Don, of course he still has something left to hide: Freddy is his false front for pitching work around town. If we are being honest, we have to face the fact that Don will never able to be completely honest (none of us are, right?). If nothing else, using Freddy is better than just sitting around watching TV all day. And far be it from Don to admit that he needs a friend right around now.
  • Isn't it interesting that it's eight minutes into the episode before we see Don? If the final season focuses more on the show's brilliant supporting characters (who are not Betty), I think I'll be very pleased indeed.
  • When we do finally see Don, he's in the very confined quarters of the airplane bathroom. #symbolism
  • Va-va-voom! How about Megan's outfit at the airport? Methinks she still wants Don to want her, what say you?
  • Will Roger be naked more often than clothed this season? Discuss.
  • Another show that is interested in the use and abuse of power and the evolution of hierarchies: "Game of Thrones." A while back I did a whole post comparing the shows and discussing similarities between some of the characters.
  • Megan's agent: "I'll say one thing about this girl -- she evokes strong feelings!" Mwhahaha, meta-shoutout to all the Megan chatter during the last few seasons.
  • I don't think Don will be seeing the Neve Campbell character again. That said, you Neve-r know. (Hahahaha! I am as funny as Lou!)
  • Part of the reason I think Don rejected Neve's character: He knows it's the wrong thing to do and won't help him in the long run. Also: Her husband is dead, ergo she's available. If an affair is not transgressive in some major way, he's not interested.
  • "Peachy! I'll cut up some firewood." Lou = The Worst.
  • Come back next week for more "Mad Men" fun -- I'll be reviewing each episode of this half of the first season. See you next time!

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