The world has gone and changed on Mad Men. I’m just not referring to the 60s of the show which is creeping towards its end as Tricky Dick is inaugurated midway through the premiere; I’m referring to the television landscape that Mad Men inhabits.
Mad Men was never a show with strong ratings but since winning big at its first Emmys and all the critical applause thereafter, the show has always had a high cultural value. People no long said 60s themed when they invited you to a fancy dress party, they said Mad Men themed (because naturally we define a period of history by contemporary portrayals of said time period – see also ‘Great Gatsby themed’). But time and its relative social ubiquity has not been kind to audience interest in Mad Men. The season 7 premiere drew fairly poor numbers, the lowest for a premiere since season 2. Audience attention has been drawn to the gritty (Breaking Bad) and the epic (Game of Thrones). Compared to such serious, violent and bleak programmes, a 60s throwback about a lecherous ad man seems like a bit of a trifle.
So why should we still watch Mad Men? What’s so relevant about a show set half a century ago, where the main character drinks a lot, smokes a lot and screws a seemingly revolving door of mistresses every year.
Reason 1 – It’s so much bigger than itself
This isn’t to say that Breaking Band and Game of Thrones aren’t thematically rich but their greatest pleasures are gained more from twists in the narrative structure and visceral thrills. Often Mad Men appears to have no real narrative drive or direction and that’s part of its charms rather than a side effect of poor writing or lack of hindsight. The show is not about tracking what the characters do over time but rather how the characters change over time and what that represents.
Sure on an episode by episode basis the show can become heavy handed when dealing with a particular theme, but for the most part it consistently and delicately sieves the lives of these characters through the spectrum of human emotion and experiences. I know that’s a wanky thing to say about privileged white Americans in the 1960s, but the show’s fidelity to its time period doesn’t stop it from being a near universal depiction of relationships, dealing with change, growing up and ageing, as well as an intense study of American history in flux and how that history has tied the American Dream to consumerism and the art of selling.
Reason 2 – The 60s setting isn’t a novelty
Sure there are many reasons to enjoy a period piece like Mad Men or Downton Abbey that have nothing to do with the quality of the output. These types of shows present us with a place that is familiar but has enough novel differences that can be explored and exploited. We can fawn over the things that were ‘better’ about that time (look at those cars, wish I could live in a castle) and either cringe or laugh at the ‘less evolved’ minutiae of period living (rampart racism, class wars, barbaric violence). It’s escapism that doesn’t require the leaps of logic that fantasy or sci-fi demand.
By that’s not why Mad Men is set in the 60s. The 60s wasn’t chosen because it’s a cool, telegenic decade (though this is true), the 60s was chosen because it was so turbulent, because it was the turning point of the century, the birth of the modern era. It was a crossroad for the left and the right, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the east and the west and the conflict that ensued thereafter. This change is used as a back drop and a subtle instigator for its multitude of characters. What does it mean to be young at a time of change? What does it mean for those who represent past generations? What does it mean for those who prefer the status quo? What does it mean for those who crave growth and change, something fresh and new? What does it mean for those who are gaining power? What does it mean for those who are losing power. Mad Men looks into all of these questions and creates a sophisticated tableau of characters and circumstances around them.
Reason 3 – It makes you seem super cultured
Look just watch it alright? ALRIGHT?! DON’T MAKE ME COME IN THERE!!!
Seriously, why did I start this list?
Okay, on to the actual premiere. ‘Time Zones’ has a different feel to the previous 2 season premiere’s which were both feature-length double episodes. It doesn’t have the scope and strong thematic elegance that those episodes embody and it’s not as comfortable to sink into this season 7 world, but that’s due to the structure of the episode. Only by the end of the episode do we know how and where things have settled since the wonderful season 6 finale. This uncertainty keeps the episode engaging and fresh as we are dropped into a world that is at once familiar and slightly askew; slightly…off.
Part of this could be seeing Not-Don in Don’s office (don’t make me learn his name. I just hope the status quo is righted soon enough). Naturally this imbalance completely throws off Peggy. Her passion to push the strongest idea, a trait she learned from Don, is starting to grate on Not-Don who just wants to move forward with new business. He is ‘immune to her charms’, which naturally forces her to push even harder. Sure she doesn’t break down at the end of the episode because of Don’s absence, but it’s part of what brings her to feeling lonely and defeated by episode’s end. She needs a win and most of her greatest wins were in Don’s company (or at least under his reign).
SC&P isn’t completely without Don’s presence. Not only is Don feeding Freddy Rumsen pitches out of sheer boredom, but the picture that Freddy creates in his pitch that opens the episode captures the essence of how Don experiences his life and his job. It’s hard not to picture the Don of season’s past in the image Rumsen paints so eloquently in his watch pitch (through Don). Yes Don’s good at what he does, but what he does is essentially bluff his way through life. All he needs is a spark, a tagline or in this case, a watch. It’s as though Don stepped into the Lucky Strike meeting from the series pilot and instead of pulling ‘It’s toasted’ out of his arse, Lee Garland Jr said ‘nice watch’.
But advertising is a fantasy; Don has no real answers in his personal life. From the moment Don walked away from Megan in the season 5 finale, she had lost him. The honeymoon period was over and Don has fallen back on old habits. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t changed. Once again his flirtation with Neve Campbell’s character is both familiar and slightly off. It’s almost an automatic reaction to flirt with the pretty lady in his midst, but Don pulls away and ends up alone outside, taking his cold shower. He knows he’s a horrible husband, but he’s uncertain as to whether he can change.
Megan also seems to be cooling off. He’s not around enough to create drama, so she sees no reason in a messy divorce, but she also has no desire for intimacy, which is essentially her most valuable asset as far as Don’s concerned. For Don and Betty, sex played a key role in their relationship. Don still hasn’t worked out that Megan has more complicated needs.
But let’s back off the Drapers. Joan is really the MVP of the episode and this saw her greatest showcase in quite some time. This isn’t the first time that Joan has proven up to the task of handling business as well as (or better than) the guys, but it is the most thorough examination of Joan’s techniques. She proves to be far more proactive and creative in combating client displeasure than anyone else in the show. Normally Ken would be sent to buy them some drinks and take them to a show, but Joan actually does some research and tries to find an effective answer to the clients problem, which one would thing is what an Accounts man ought to do.
Having said that, the show manages to have it’s cake and eat it too. It plays up Joan’s smarts and business acumen, while still lingering on her sexuality and ‘Joan-ness’, with the camera introducing the character through her legs just as a sexy David Carbonara 60s musical sting plays. That musical cue is probably named ‘The Joan’.
Lord knows Joan’s boosted role in SC&P is out of necessity what with Pete in L.A. and Roger involved in incensed-infused hippie orgies. I don’t have much to say about these subplots except that they are both somewhat concerning. Roger’s new-ish identity, the one that considers taking LSD to be his enlightenment, continues to slip further into random polyamorous sex. Hopefully being called on his bullshit by his daughter (in a nice, yet passive-aggressive fashion) will be the spark that returns him to his charming glory days. And let’s all admit right now that preppy, smiley Pete is a thing of nightmares. Where’s the bitter and defeated Pete we’ve come to know and love. Obviously I’m joking and it’s good to see his mature separation from Trudy has reaped personal rewards, but we all know that happiness won’t last, his partner is way too confident, driven and attractive to stay with Pete for long.
All told, this was an effectively disconcerting series premiere that keeps us on our toes and doesn’t offer any easy solutions for the situations our protagonists find themselves in.
– It’s a shame Sally Draper isn’t in this episode. The moment she and Don shared at the end of season 6 was so poignant that it almost single-handedly raised season 6 up a notch.
– Cue horror flashback to 1st year uni Marketing Fundamentals every time someone uttered the 4Ps.
– ‘There’s a nice way to say that and there’s the way you just said it’. Peggy is not known for her tact.
– Honourable mentions for episode MVP: Kenny Cosgrove (I’ll always call him Kenny even though he’s rarely referred to that way. He’s just kinda adorable). He’s always been the guy whose quietly gotten things done, but getting shot but your clients tends to make you a little more aggressive. Love the new Kenny.
– I do hope we see Trudy again. Any Alison Brie is good for the soul.
– 2 black secretaries. PROGRESS!!!!
– I hope Neve Campbell’s character is significantly differentiated from last season’s Sylvia, because she looks quite similar to Linda Cardellini, and also because Don’s had so many mistresses that it’s hard to care too much about someone they’ll inevitably send off a few episodes later (I miss midge – the non-addict version).
– Takin’ bets: 3 episodes before Pete is single again.
– Kenny’s lack of depth perception was the strongest laugh of the episode.
– Is the ‘Door That Won’t Close’ the ‘Open Elevator Shaft’ of season 7?
– Okay, Don and Megan’s swinging 60s intro is pretty damn cool.
Overall Grade: 8 jammed door metaphors out of 10.