Mad Men season 7 episode 1 review: Time Zones

Mad Men returns for its seventh season an episode that deliberately dissipates the momentum of last year's finale…

This review contains spoilers.

7.1 Time Zones

What does revolution change? Depressingly little, if Time Zones is anything to go by.

1968’s political disquiet simmered underneath Mad Men’s sixth run, erupting at key history book moments to spill into its characters’ lives. It culminated in a finale that severed Don Draper from his job, his wife, and from the fictions he’d woven around himself. “This is where I grew up”, he’d told his children outside that dilapidated bordello, having confessed the same to Hershey mid-pitch. After a season of witnessing tumult and protest on the world stage, Dick Whitman had his own personal revolution. Everything was going to change.

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And then, it didn’t.

Time Zones dissipated the momentum built in the season six finale. Perhaps that was its whole point. As creator Matthew Weiner has said, what happened after the May 68 protests? The kids went back to college and America elected Nixon. So much for revolution.

After that curb-side confession to Sally and Bobby, Don could have been anywhere doing anything with anyone in the season seven opener. Two months on, where do we find him? Still a matinee idol, still writing pitches for Sterling Cooper & Partners (albeit via Freddy Rumsen), still cosying up to beautiful brunette strangers, and still married and lying to a wife he doesn’t love. Any hopes that the final moments of the last season signified a rupture with the Don of old were dashed. The character is drifting between two time zones, stuck in the same repeating cycle.

He’s not the only one. Peggy too, having symbolically taken Don’s chair and adopted his characteristic pose at the end of last season, was back to having her ideas flattened by a retrograde head of creative. She won neither Draper’s office nor his job during his absence; that honour went to Lou Avery, a cardigan-wearing conservative and the first of Peggy’s bosses who doesn’t think she’s something special. “That’s the way we do it”, Lou Avery admonished Peggy in this episode, establishing himself as a guardian of the status quo. Peggy’s frustration climaxed in her weeping, alone in the apartment she hates. Well might she feel thwarted. After having been on the rise professionally for seasons, she’s slid humiliatingly back down the ladder.

That said, Mad Men’s women were still gaining ground in 1969. Scott Hornbacher’s camera pulled back to reveal Freddy pitching Don’s Accutron idea to Peggy in that opening scene, a reversal of their previous roles. Joan, after her stealth Avon victory last season, continued to push for accounts work and made an academic ally. And in her LA airport reunion with Don (never has a scene in Mad Men looked or felt more like a TV ad), Megan literally took control.

That slow-mo reunion played out like an SC&P pitch for the ‘sexist male fantasy of women’s lib’ account. You can hear Don’s voice talking the client through it: “A businessman, handsome, well-dressed – you – is meeting his wife at the airport. She’s younger, beautiful, a Natalie Wood-type in a dangerously short skirt. She pulls up in a hot, convertible sports car and walks towards you, slowly. You go to let her in to the passenger door, but she skips past – the LA sun is glinting off the car’s bonnet, the music, the Spencer Davis Group, is pounding – and takes the wheel… The line appears, ‘You’re not in the driving seat anymore, pal’.

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Don’s powerlessness was perfected in that final scene on the balcony. Unable to close the doors against the January cold, he gave in to it and sat out there, half-dressed, shivering and terrified. His intense encounter with the glamorous widow (Neve Campbell) earlier in the episode had been a memento mori for him and a glimpse of Megan’s future. His co-passenger’s older husband, it’s implied, drank himself to death by the age of fifty. If he can’t change, that’s the fate Don faces.

As has been evident for seasons now, Don’s crisis and discord is of a pair with the nation’s, and nowhere was this more clearly signposted than in the choice of quote from Nixon’s inaugural address. President Nixon described the country as “rich in goods but ragged in spirit”. If there’s a neater way to sum up Don Draper, I haven’t heard it. It’s perhaps an ever better description of Roger Sterling, whose hedonistic experimentation has turned his swanky Manhattan apartment into a doss-house for nubile, free-loving hippies. Roger’s daughter may have discovered that love is all you need (has Margaret joined a cult?), but her father’s ever the dissatisfied child.

More-than satisfied was Pete Campbell, who was brimming about vibrations, the Californian sun (and being two thousand miles away from Bob Benson, no doubt) appearing to have done him a world of good. The same can’t be said for Ken Cosgrove, the only account manager left in New York, and whose lack of depth perception was the butt of the episode’s lone joke.

Overall, Time Zones was a timid but very welcome return that closed on a bleak note. It’s leading us somewhere – Mad Men’s season openers always do – even if it feels as if it’s around in circles.

Read Frances’ review of the season six finale, here.

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