[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the Season 7 premiere of Mad Men. Read at your own risk.]
"Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something."
Yes, Matthew Weiner, you have our attention. The Mad Men creator kicked off the first half of his advertising drama's final season speaking directly to the audience through the mouth of recurring character Freddie Rumsen (Joel Murray). But it was the next line of Freddie's Don Draper-quality pitch for Accutron watches that reveals what seems to truly be on Mad Men's mind for this episode — and perhaps the remainder of the series.
"Do you have time to improve your life?"
That's certainly a question we imagine Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has been asking himself lately. After being caught sleeping with another woman by his daughter, putting his marriage in limbo by reneging on a promise to move to California, and hitting rock bottom (again) with his drinking, Don seemed poised to turn over a new leaf at the end of Season 6. He threw out all his alcohol, he botched a pitch meeting with Hershey's because he couldn't bear lying about his poor upbringing any longer and, similarly, he tried to open up to his kids by showing them the whorehouse he grew up in, the place where so many of Don's problems started.
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But as Season 7 begins , how much Don has tried to change seems basically irrelevant because no one is around to notice. Megan (Jessica Paré) has moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career without Don. And even though the couple can convince Megan's agent they're happily in love when Don comes for a weekend visit, their time apart has created a certain level of awkwardness to their intimacy. (And it's worth noting that Don hasn't yet told Megan that he is on a forced leave of absence from Sterling Cooper & Partners. "I'm sorry, but I have to get back to work," he says when Megan finally warms up to his presence in her bed once again.)
In fact, it's been two months since his partners pushed Don out of the doors at SC&P, and although he's still collecting a paycheck, Don's using Freddie as a covert operative to get his ideas to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) & Co. It's no coincidence that Don is teaming with Freddie, who himself was once such a sloppy drunk that he pissed his pants in the office. Freddie, who has cleaned up his life enough to get back in the game, can perhaps show Don a few things from his recovery playbook. His first try: reminding Don that the longer he stays on his leave of absence, the harder it will be to make a comeback. "You don't want to become damaged goods," Freddie says.
But Don's not completely sure that he isn't damaged goods. During his flight back to New York, Don meets an attractive woman (guest star Neve Campbell) who seems to be exactly Don's taste. In fact, she had a husband who was a lot like Don. "He was thirsty, and he died of thirst," she tells Don of her now-dead alcoholic husband, whose ashes she spread on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland less than a year after he tried to get help with his problem. The story resonates with Don, who knows he needs to do better. And to his credit, he's making the effort. (In addition to drinking less, he turns down his seatmate's offer to "make [Don] feel better" about his struggling marriage.) He knows he's ruined another marriage that he genuinely hoped would be different, and he knows that his wife knows he's a terrible husband. "I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?" Don wonders aloud.
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But as Don/Freddie wondered in the Accutron pitch, the more important question is whether Don has enough time to put those broken pieces back together. Sure, we recognize that time is running out for the series to answer the question, but for Don it's a question of mortality. As he sits alone on that freezing cold balcony in the premiere's haunting final shot (props to the music department for the use of Vanilla Fudge's "Keep Me Hangin' On"), Don seems frail and afraid. Maybe he's changing, but is he doing so too late?
On the other hand, Peggy hasn't changed at all, even though the people around her have. Still reeling from her rejection from Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) last season, Peggy is also dealing with her place at SC&P. Any hope that she might be sitting in Don's chair full-time during his absence is quickly dashed by the appearance of Lou Avery, an old school (and decidedly square) ad man. He's not Don, but for Peggy, that's not necessarily a good thing.
Sure, he still embarrasses her in meetings ("I think you're putting me in a position of saying, 'I don't care what you think,'" Lou says when rejecting Peggy's "improvement" on Freddie's Accutron pitch), but he's also too easily satisfied with ideas that are just OK. "Open the door and walk in," he says. "You don't have to parachute in through the ceiling." That attitude has apparently spread to the rest of the staff, and Peggy's furious about it. "I'm tired of fighting for everything to be better," Peggy yells at Stan. "You're all a bunch of hacks who are perfectly happy with sh--. Nobody cares about anything. No one wants things to be better? ... I'll just stand out here all by myself."
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Of course, that's always been Peggy's fatal flaw. Her commitment to her work has always hampered her personal life. And when she collapses on the floor in her empty apartment, she's not that far removed from Don on his balcony. The only hope might be that Peggy still has more time to course-correct.
Some other thoughts:
• In addition to the great song over the credits, this episode made great use of Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man" as Don arrived in L.A. to be greeted by his gorgeous actor wife. (But perhaps the extended slow-mo was bit much?)
• So Ted and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) are both working out of the new SC&P L.A. office. While Ted seems to miss New York, Pete is thriving: He has landed a new account, has a Betty Draper lookalike real estate agent on his arm and found a pastrami sandwich he loves. Too bad the bagels suck!
• Roger's search for enlightenment has pushed his hedonism toward free love. "You know anyone is welcome in this bed," says his new lover (girlfriend?) at one point. Although Roger's daughter doesn't approve her dad's lifestyle ("I don't even care that you smell like incense," she says), she's found answers — and a willingness to forgive — through some spiritual searching of her own. We guess willingness to change doesn't fix every problem. Roger has been willing to accept whatever comes down the pike from the start, but he's no happier for it.
• Pete Campbell, please never change. The only thing better than his ridiculous California fashion sense is the awkward hug he gives Don.
• Bob Benson is still in Detroit! Although he calls Ken, we don't get to see him delivering anyone coffee. (Here's hoping James Wolk gets free from The Crazy Ones enough to make an appearance or two.)
• Speaking of Ken, we hope the eye patch stays. If for no other reason than to watch him hilariously have trouble throwing things to/at people.
• Joan's taking on more responsibility, but with mixed results. Will see if she can turn the Butler Footwear deal around. (Note: She's still working on Avon, the client she pursued last year without proper "permission.")
• Don's watching Richard Nixon's inauguration. Sterling Cooper worked on his failed 1960 campaign in Season 1. The American voting public has certainly changed in the last decade, even if Don hasn't.
• Finally, what is it with Mad Men and planes? Not only did Pete's dad die in a plane crash early in the show's run, but thanks to this season's bi-coastal setup, all of the season's promotional materials were airplane- and airport-based. Even more intriguing? The film Don was watching on Megan's new TV (which opened with a thematically pertinent rumination on life, death and the Fountain of Youth) is Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, which tells the story of a group of people who are transported to Shangri-La after their hijacked plane crashes. Let the conspiracy theories begin!
Mad Men airs Sundays at 10/9c on AMC. What did you think of the premiere?