Mad Men, Season 7 Premiere: Is This Where the Fire Starts?
by Jen Doll
Mad Men is back! I’ll be writing about the show all season. Though we don’t get a glimpse of Sally or Betty in the last night’s season premiere — an episode called “Time Zones” set in January, 1969, in which Don travels to L.A. to see Megan and back — there is plenty to talk about with regard to Megan, Peggy, Margaret, and Joan. Oh, and then there’s the appearance of a woman played by Neve Campbell — where has she been lately?
Also back in the rotation is Freddie Rumsen, the guy who was forced to take a leave of absence from an earlier iteration of Sterling Cooper due to drinking too much. He’s freelancing for Peggy, while Don is now the guy on leave from the ad agency (for two months, at this point) for essentially the same reason Freddie was let go. By the end of the episode we’ll learn that Freddie is actually delivering Don’s work to the agency — Peggy always was a sucker for Don’s messaging, though she doesn’t appear to know it’s his work — but in the beginning we see just the broad face of Rumsen, eyes big and earnest to the camera, pitching Accutron watches. Peggy loves the final line, rejiggers it a bit as her own, and pitches it to her new boss for a slam-dunk. But he doesn’t bite.
And so it becomes clear: Though the end of last season brought Peggy into the spotlight as Don’s heir apparent, it just as quickly pushed her back down again, forcing her to contend with a male boss who doesn’t seem to care about the work. He tells her he guesses he’s just “immune to her charms.” This is new territory for Peggy: Don may not have been in love with her, but he certainly felt a strong creative and also paternal connection to her, and her former boss, Ted Chaough, fell head over heels for his mentee. Peggy’s feeling like just about everyone is immune to her charms these days; when her relationship with Abe ended she was left alone in their apartment, having to deal with tenant issues that he used to handle. In the workplace, even her friendship with Stan seems strained. At the end of the episode, she enters her apartment, falls to the floor, and starts to cry. We’ve all been there. But in Peggy’s lowest moments, she has seemed to possess a kind of dignity and power over her situation, an ability to get through it. Now, it seems like she’s perilously close to breakdown.
With every success there are downward steps for others, too. Megan, who’s in L.A. with a burgeoning acting career, is talked down to by her producer, an unctuous fellow who calls her “girl,” swoons over Don’s “matinee idol” looks, and tells him “it’s important to me that you know the man your wife is spending so much time with” (hint, hint?). Joan is partner at the agency but still haunted by the incident in which she was pimped out by her cohorts. She’s never really going to get over it, even as she tries valiantly, because of the expectations of the men around her — whether it’s Ken Cosgrove, who sends her to deal with his Butler Footwear client, that client, who belittles Joan and wants to deal with a man, or the professor Joan goes to for help convincing the shoe guy he’s wrong, who tells Joan he doesn’t know if she’ll even understand what he’s talking about. For the record, she does.
Don arrives in L.A., land of dreams and aesthetic perfection, and Megan picks him up, the camera cutting to slow-motion as she gets out of the car. But their relationship is clearly no longer a dream and hasn’t been for a while. She takes him back to her new house, which offers views of the canyon, the sound of coyotes howling in the night, and the threat of impending forest fires. He doesn’t understand why she’d choose to live in such wilderness. Megan tells Don not to throw his cigarette butts off the deck, because “they can tell where the fire starts” — he’s a fire-starter, a trouble-maker, a man who must be watched because he is inherently untrustworthy. (She even doesn’t know he’s been suspended by the agency.) Later, when he orders a TV to her house, she asks him, “Why did you do that?… You’re not here long enough for a fight.” They sleep together, but like their relationship, it seems rote and without pleasure. Megan is somewhere in limbo, not quite done with Don, but not sure she wants him (or can afford to deal with him) anymore, either. And Don… he’s just going through the motions.
In our first scene with Roger, meanwhile, he’s surrounded by nude women and men in a dark hotel room, woken up after an apparent orgy by his daughter Margaret calling to tell him she wants to meet him and talk to him. He demands alcohol at their meeting, where she tells him, over and over again, that she forgives him. Margaret is suddenly in a kind of power here, but it’s unclear why, or how, or what exactly she’s got up her sleeve. Later, Roger returns to his hotel room to crawl in bed with a woman and a man (she tells him, “you know anyone is welcome in this bed”) and he stares at the ceiling, because nothing is really OK.
The only person who seems blissful and tan and worry-free in this episode is the new California Pete, who’s bouncing around wearing a sweater over his shoulders and introducing Don to delicious lunches and blonde real estate agents. (I don’t think Pete is exactly OK, but for the moment, he’s at least enjoying his new West Coast vibe.)
In the end, Don flies back to New York, a woman played by Neve Campbell seated next to him, a brunette much like the woman he last fell for. Her husband has “died of thirst” before the age of 50, and this sounds like a warning to Don, also thirsty — though not, at the moment, drinking — and also in his 40s, whether he chooses to acknowledge it or not. There’s a moment in which you think Don will return to his old ways, that he and this woman are going to join the mile-high club or at the very least go home together when they get off the plane, but he merely admits he’s been a terrible husband; she falls asleep with her head on his shoulder, and it’s time for him to get back to work, or reality, or the new reality.
In New York, all there is is reality, reality and compromise, reality even when it’s being hidden as something else. Ken yells at Joan for using his office (accidentally leaving an earring as a trace of her feminine presence). Freddie visits Don back in his apartment in New York, and tells him, “you don’t want to be damaged goods,” as if he could stop that from happening. Peggy weeps on her floor. Margaret tries to forgive her father for things she doesn’t even know he’s doing. Words are only words. And Don goes outside in the cold, on his porch, and sits, tragedy all over his face. This is bicoastal living.