Mad Men: “Time Zones”
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Mad Men: “Time Zones”

Utopia is so very far away

Todd: If there’s one thing rewatching season one of Mad Men reaffirmed for me, it’s that this isn’t just the story of Don Draper. It’s the story of Don Draper and Peggy Olson (and a whole bunch of other people, but we’ll get to that). And if I was on the fence at all about that fact, then the end of “Time Zones” would only underline the point three or four times. After the sixth season finale seemed to leave Peggy ascendant and Don descendant (but finally capable of connecting with someone—namely his daughter), “Time Zones” ends with both of them in moments of utter despair. Peggy, overwhelmed by having to answer to a man who’s much worse at his job than she would be and by having to be a responsible landlord and by her staggering loneliness, collapses to the floor of her apartment in sobs. Don, meanwhile, is centerless, rudderless, lying to just about everyone about his work status and going out to sit on his balcony alone in the cold, eyes sunken and hollow.

“Time Zones” is very consciously a “beginning of the end” type of story. It brings our two main characters and a handful of others—even Roger—to a place where they’re confronting the darkest sides of themselves. Don, for God’s sake, is secretly pitching to various ad agencies through Freddie Rumsen, waiting for a phone call from the firm he helped build that he knows on some level probably won’t come. That’s the kind of thing he’d only do in moments of extreme desperation, which this most certainly is. And what’s fascinating is that all of the usual Don Draper rhythms just aren’t there anymore. When he hits on the woman he’s seated next to on the plane back to Los Angeles, it’s pretty clear he could get her into bed if he wanted to, but some part of him—either a part that still hopes he can be a good husband or a part that is driven away by the fact that her husband is dead—can’t do it. He has to go to work.

Work is the excuse Don and Peggy use constantly to distract themselves from the other parts of their lives that are in disrepair. It’s been that way since the series began. And on a series about desire and the American dream, being a workaholic is a useful way to avoid admitting that you aren’t very happy, that none of the things you have are filling the void at your center. In this episode, at least, Peggy has the excuse of not getting the head of creative job she would have justifiably assumed was hers at the end of season six. But Don has been stripped of everything. His wife lives a continent away, his job doesn’t want him anymore, and he’s sitting alone in a freezing apartment with a door that won’t close. That wind howling around the inside of his living room might as well be a replica of his soul.

First of all, Sonia, I’d like to welcome you to these reviews. Second of all, what did you think of this premiere outside of Don and Peggy? Certainly Joan’s story was an interesting microcosm of how much that character has changed since the pilot.

Sonia: “Time Zones” surprised me. Maybe I should have figured out that there’s no way Freddie Rumsen pitched those ideas on his own, but I didn’t put two and two together until he walked into Don’s apartment—and the sensation was a thrilling penny drop that reminded me how Mad Men’s charms can creep up on me. I like how “Time Zones” drew out the question of what Don actually does with his workday until the very last moment, giving us instead just what he says about it and what excuses he makes about it. It’s very odd that the episode starts with Freddie Rumsen—but then as the hour goes on, you realize the episode really starts with Don Draper speaking through Freddie Rumsen. And of course, Dick Whitman is really speaking through Don Draper—which makes the head-on, to-the-camera shot of Rumsen pitching to Peggy rather eerie.

In general, I find to-the-camera shots make me highly aware of myself—the actor is speaking directly to me, even making eye contact, but they can’t really see me. And yet their unsettling, level gaze gives the sense that they can see me, and maybe even see right through me. It’s weird to come face-to-face with Freddie Rumsen in the first few minutes of Mad Men’s sixth season—and doubly weird to realize that what you’ve actually done is come face-to-face with Don Draper. Obliquely, of course. But nothing about Don Draper ever feels like it travels in a straight line.

Hence the story arc of the first episode—where Don Draper leaves New York, so as to show us what he’s really up to in New York, which is—nothing, really. When he sits down with Megan and her smarmy handler in California, Don says with a bemused smile on his face: “I feel completely at ease.” What a bald-faced lie. It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote from The Importance Of Being Earnest: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” He’s not at ease, he’s pretending—skillfully, because that’s what he does.

To roundaboutly answer your question, Todd, what struck me about this episode is how low everyone seems to be. There isn’t that early ’60s sense of success and courage—instead there’s a kind of tense laziness in the air. Everyone is technically better off, but no one seems to feel all that great about it. The only person who seems really happy is Pete—and that is weird, because who ever thought Pete Campbell would find a way to be happy? It’s significant that he’s doing so well—especially compared to Peggy’s despair. Pete is Peggy’s dark doppelganger, even though their affair was years and years ago. Peggy is this force of a new world; Pete is the remnant of the old order. So much of their arcs have run counter to each other—as Peggy does better, Pete does worse. But the first season started out with Peggy as a new secretary and Pete as an almost-married account manager. He looked happier and more powerful then, too.

Todd, I didn’t really answer your question. Why don’t you tell me what you thought of Joan’s arc? I found it a little odd that Joan still has to prove herself in matters of business—but at the same time, I was really proud of her for pulling her client through. And as I often compare Pete and Peggy, I also compare Roger and Joan. Is he in some kind of orgy cult now?

Todd: Well, if the title of episode three, “Roger Sterling And The No Good, Very Bad Orgy Cult,” is any indication, I think we’re all in luck. But I really do think you’re on to something by linking Peggy and Pete like that, as well as Roger and Joan. The scene that may be the key to this whole hour is when Roger meets with his daughter over lunch after she calls him away from his stay in that house where the bed is always open to all. She’s only called him to lunch to let him know that she forgives him. She doesn’t want anything from him other than his company. She isn’t angling for money or career advice for her husband. All she wants to say is that she forgives him for everything—for how he treated her mother and for how he’s carried on and right down the line. And, really, there are few sentences as disarming and powerful as “I forgive you.” Because to accept those words (especially from your child!) is to admit that you’re human, too, that you’ve been wrong as much as you’ve been wronged. How hard is that to get through our heads?

One of the most powerful relationships on Mad Men is between fathers and daughters—or father figures and daughter surrogates—and it’s because, in this show’s universe, a man’s daughter is the one who can see right through him, to the core of all the bullshit, to know just what he needs to hear to shock him out of his complacency. We don’t get a Don and Sally scene in this episode (which may contribute to why he seems so adrift); we do get a Roger and Margaret scene, almost as a funhouse mirror version of the glance shared between Don and his daughter at the end of last season. Here is a man who’s being confronted with the wrongs he’s wrought, yet he’s not quite ready to examine them without laughing them off.

Joan, meanwhile, is realizing she has nothing to beg forgiveness for, outside of failing to use her position as partner to do exactly what she wants to do. (I loved, for instance, the way her scene with the professor immediately calls the audience back to “The Other Woman,” until we realize this is just a perfectly nice man who has a study he wants to conduct.) Like Peggy (another duality the show constantly calls upon), she’s gotten ahead, but she has yet to really advance because people view her business acumen as a kind of cool party trick, rather than how formidable it actually is. Joan is a woman who played by the rules, and it got her nowhere. So she tried not playing by the rules, and that got her further, but she still keeps running into a glass ceiling. Meanwhile, Roger is as aimless as anybody on the show and keeps tripping along through a charmed life. These two are linked in more ways than romance.

But let me go back to something you said about how things no longer feel as peppy and zesty as they once did and, instead, have settled into a kind of malaise, a deep foreboding about when this particular roller coaster ride is going to stop. (It’s probably not accidental that the specter of Richard Nixon looms in the final scenes. He was the guy brought in to make sure the coaster came to a halt.) I was struck by the shot in this where Don lies in bed, watching the movie Lost Horizon with Megan at his side. Lost Horizon is about a world that exists somewhere outside of time, almost, a land that people are drawn to when modern life has driven them to dreams of a simpler time. The name of that land is Shangri-La, a place that is synonymous with the word “Utopia.” And that took me back to season one’s “Babylon” and Rachel Menken, who told Don that one of the meanings for Utopia is a place that cannot exist, no matter how much we might wish it did.

So, Sonia, were there any other dualities you saw in this episode that made you perk up in interest?

Sonia: Well, there’s the New York/Los Angeles dynamic, of course. It’s a tired duality, but I imagine it wasn’t so in 1969, when relatively affordable cross-country air travel was still a novelty. (Woody Allen discusses it in Annie Hall in 1977.) I’m not that invested in the difference in cultures between the two coasts—though I get that the show is, in part because Megan and Don are now living a bicoastal marriage—but I do like how the episode’s title, “Time Zones,” calls attention to how Don and Megan aren’t just in different locations, but sort of on different wavelengths, too. She’s younger than him, and her petulance with him over the television speaks more to a father/daughter dynamic than a husband/wife dynamic. “How’s it gonna look, Don?” she asks. It’s such a crucial disconnect. Don is lying about his job to look better than he is; Megan is slumming it in her apartment in Los Angeles, afraid of looking too rich for her artist friends. It’s a shift in values that’s generational. Someone who grew up in the Great Depression would never find pride in looking poorer than they were. But someone who grew up in the rich, decadent ’50s would want to push away from that.

Megan is, unexpectedly, one of my favorite characters on the show; she’ll never replace Rachel Menken in my affections, but like Menken, she’s more grounded than many of the other characters on the show. It’s interesting you brought up Rachel earlier, Todd. None of this would have ever happened to her—she had a better understanding of the differences between the illusions of the ’60s and the reality of the world she lived in. Megan, meanwhile, is kind of on the cusp. She’s a more bitter and cynical version of her former self—less in love, less idealistic, less committed to theatre as a craft. But I don’t really know where the show is going with her now—considering that moment at the end of season five, where she asked Don to use his influence to get her a part, is the defining moment for her character. In the words of Tears For Fears, it’s both kind of funny and kind of sad watching Megan and Don try to be a happily married couple—Megan keeps making excuses so that she doesn’t have to sleep with Don, and when she can’t avoid it any longer, she’s nervous. Not because she’s afraid of Don—rather because she’s afraid that Don will see how little she’s attracted to him. He doesn’t excite her anymore.

Mad Men is a story about a lot of things—but an inescapable theme is aging. We’re looking into the past; Megan Draper will be somewhere in her 70s in 2014, and Don will be dead. He’s feeling his age now—he’s turning down sexy liaisons, and he feels impotent (not literally, but okay, maybe literally) without his work. He’s been left out in the cold—literally. Especially in this final season, there is a sense that Don is getting ready to leave the mortal world behind. How do you age? How do you die? How do you live your life, knowing that it ends?

Todd: Honestly, when Don went out onto his balcony at the end, I thought we were going to see that he was sitting on the edge, looking out over the city, readying himself to jump and having a failure of nerve. (Not even Matthew Weiner would have the courage to kill his star in the final season premiere.) Instead, he can’t even get that far, can’t even stand close enough to suicide that he might contemplate it. The opening credits have always featured that man falling through the air, which has led many to conclude that the final season must somehow feature that image. I don’t think that’s the sort of thing this show would do—and I hope it doesn’t—but I liked the way this sequence played off that tension just a little bit. Instead of killing himself, Don will keep dying in slow motion, sitting in the cold and waiting to freeze to death.

This is all why I think another important scene is the one between Peggy and Stan near the episode’s end. Stan asks her why she’s continuing to drive herself nuts trying to get Ray to pick up one of her ideas (or even one of Freddie’s ideas) when it’s clear he just wants to coast along and do cheap gags that may please clients and may even “work” in ads but won’t be creatively satisfying. Peggy asks if he’s tired of doing terrible work, if he might not want to go back to doing things that are challenging and rewarding. But Sterling Cooper & Partners is no longer at a place where it wants to do that. It’s gotten big, and now it needs to protect the territory it’s acquired. Meaningful work is out of the question.

That’s another death knell for someone like Peggy or Don. Both of them define themselves through their work all too often, and if that work is taken away from them or eroded of meaning, they’re stuck in a world where all they can think about is how little meaning life has outside of the meaning you construct for yourself. But even that meaning collapses in the face of despair or sorrow or death. Without work to give them meaning, without each other to bounce off of, what do Don and Peggy have left? Only the knowledge that they, too, will die, and that much of their lives have been hollow attempts to fill that void. Welcome back, Mad Men, you old day brightener, you.

Todd’s grade: A-
Sonia’s grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Welcome to our season seven reviews of Mad Men! In the spirit of our Americans reviews, Sonia and I will be batting around observations about this season every Sunday night until we run out of stuff to say (which could take some time). As always, we won’t have screeners for episodes beyond this one, so expect to stay up late if you want to read our thoughts Sunday nights. [TV]
  • We won’t? Dammit, Todd, I trusted you! [SS]
  • Our closing music is a cover of “Keep Me Hanging On” by Vanilla Fudge. I loved its dark foreboding. [TV]
  • I would buy an action figure of California Pete. Make it happen, Matt Weiner. [TV]
  • California’s bagels, obviously, are terrible. [SS]
  • They really are! [TV]
  • My favorite quote: “He was a thirsty man who died of thirst.” Please come back, Neve Campbell! Help Don Draper work through my adolescent TV crushes at an alarming rate! [TV]
  • The premiere begins in January of 1969, centered on the inauguration of Richard Nixon. If the midseason finale (in just a few weeks!) doesn’t center on the moon landing, I will eat my shoe. [TV]
  • Megan’s dress at the airport. Megan’s hair at the airport. Megan’s car at the airport. Megan’s shades at the airport. [SS]
  • Next week on Mad Men: Thanks to screeners, I have no idea what happened in the preview. But I’m sure somebody opened a door and said somebody else’s name. [TV]
  • In these days of wars and rumors of wars—haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight? Of course you have. So has every man since Time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia—Sometimes the Fountain of Youth—Sometimes merely “that little chicken farm.” [TV]
Filed Under: TV, Mad Men, AMC

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