AMC’s Mad Men is finally back. True, it’s only seven episodes, before the network makes us wait a full year before delivering the second half of the season, but at least we get these characters and this story on our television for some fresh installments.
The season premiere, “Time Zones,” picks up less than two months after the previous season ends, one of the shortest time jumps Mad Men has ever done. In a way, that feels a bit like a cheat, since most of the threads in this hour are direct continuations of those from last season; there is no reset going into the victory lap. On the other, this does provide a through line, and most of the players are at very pivotal points in their lives.
A major theme in the advertising for this season of Mad Men is air travel, and it certainly seems like all of the major players are on lay-over. They’ve made quite a journey from who they were at the start of Mad Men to who they are now, but at this point, they must take stock of the lives they’ve built and decide where to head next. Should they continue on the same path, or maybe change their flight to somewhere else? They have 14 episodes to decide.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is on the verge of losing everything. Suspended from the job he loves, the only constant happiness in his life, and living all the way across the country from his wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), whom he hasn’t seemed to have told about his job troubles, he’s floundering (he’s still getting paid, so I guess it’s not a huge deception). He has a plan to hang onto both, flying out to spend time with Megan and using Freddie (Joel Murray) as a patsy to deliver his ideas to SC&P via freelance, but both are tenuous.
Don’s work is good again. We can tell this by the stellar pitch Freddie gives Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) at the start of “Time Zones,” a mystery presented and not solved until the end. However, Peggy doesn’t know it’s coming from Don; no one does. So does it even count in Don’s favor?
It may be that Don will have to chose between Megan and SC&P. Giving up heading the West Coast branch cost him, and now his grip is slipping. There’s no telling when the firm might welcome him back, and Megan has grown distant, building a life for herself in California that doesn’t include him, annoyed by his intrusions into it. Hopping back and forth is costing Don, his emotional state seeming very precarious in the closing shot, his life as broken as the sliding door, and he just can’t do everything.
Strangely, Betty (January Jones) and Don’s children, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton), and baby Gene, don’t even appear in “Time Zones.” As we see Don trying to define what’s important in his life, these people do not factor in. They absolutely should, though. Whatever Don decides, he’s still a father, and should keep that in mind.
There is one positive sign in Don’s favor, and that’s that he doesn’t sleep with the woman he meets on his airplane ride home (Neve Campbell, Scream, Party of Five). Well, technically, he does sleep with her, but no sexual play is had. In each of the first six seasons, it’s hard to imagine Don passing up nudity with a beautiful girl. Now, he has more important things to worry about, and he’s committed to doing better. Or maybe he’s just too worn out to perform, getting older.
Believe it or not, Don is not the only, or perhaps even the most, messed up person in the cast right now. Peggy is still dealing with her anger and resentment towards Ted (Kevin Rahm), playing the scorned mistress. Roger (John Slattery) is in a total destructive spiral, sleeping with whoever happens to wind up in his bed, multiple people of both genders at once, and doing drugs. Not to mention, his daughter, Margaret (Elizabeth Rice), might just be in a cult. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) is trying desperately to play the consummate Californian, while clinging to any shred of New York he can find. Ken (Aaron Staton) is over-stressed and falling apart in his new position, and Don’s replacement, Lou (Allan Havey, Hancock), is uncaring and strict, and not in a helpful way.
Never in Mad Men‘s run can I think of a time where things are falling apart more. SC&P’s future will surely be effected by the fraying ends on both coasts. Can the firm survive such an upheaval, or has its time passed and it’s doomed to sink into irrelevance as the season unfolds?
The only character who is doing well, besides arguably Megan, in “Time Zones” is Joan (Christina Hendricks). Talking to college professors about graduate-level business and single-handedly working to save important accounts, she even finds time to flirt with Wayne Barnes (Dan Byrd, Cougar Town, Easy A). She’s got a good head on her shoulders, and without serious men to distract her, Roger not being an option and Bob Benson (James Wolk, who’s currently over on The Crazy Ones) ensconced in Detroit, she can be even more fully committed to bettering herself than she has been in the past. No matter who else falls, Joan will be fine.
“Time Zones” is a depressing episode, but it’s also a good one. It serves the characters well and continues the trajectories began in seasons past. It’s the natural evolution of the story and does seem to be inching closer to the end, even if we can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t give us any groundbreaking new developments, but it does show us yet another aspect of the players we’ve come to care about, and a taste of what this year will be like.
Mad Men airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.
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