This is the beginning of something – do you have time to improve your life?
Would we ever have expected this kind of speech ad pitch Freddy Rumsen? His brilliant opening monologue (impeccably delivered by Joel Murray, in what was his work of the series thus far) belies every notion we’ve had of his character. Suitably, this is but the first of many twists the premiere episode of the final season of Mad Men offers up.
The majority of the season premieres for Mad Men are rather feel good episodes; kind of “welcome back, we’ve missed you too!” affairs. Think of Megan’s Zou Bisou Bisou performance or Don’s interview with the Wall Street Journal – the premieres seem well suited to bringing everyone back into the fold with a smile and a bit of fun. There was fun in Time Zones to be sure, but this was easily the most depressing season opener Weiner and co has given us yet.
Teasingly, it’s a solid 7 or so minutes before Don is even introduced, and when he is, we’re given the world he presents to his wife and Pete. His The Graduate reminiscent airport travelator introduction (beautifully shot, set to The Spencer Davis Group’s I’m a Man) and slow motion kiss with his wife all ties into his current construction. He’s a man, he’s THE man, and he’s fine. He’s keeping busy, he’s working and it looks like he’ll be back into the fold soon. He buys his wife a new TV impulsively and chats with Pete Campbell casually about work. It’s not until the episode’s end that we see this lie for what it is- a presentation to save face to those he seeks adulation from. Megan, his ever doting wife, and Pete, his fawning jealous-cum-hateful lackey, have always looked up Don. Why would Don go out of his way to meet with Pete? Because he can rely on Pete to remind him what who ‘Don Draper’ was, not who he’s become; a lonely man, lost in alcoholic and person regret, having Freddy Rumsen freelance agencies with his ideas, waiting by the phone.
In a key scene, Don bonds with a widow on the plane ride home to New York. The widow, Neve Campbell, remarks that her husband “died of thirst”, and we see Don welling up with tears. We know that Don could’ve slept with this woman, that it would’ve been the most natural thing in the world for him to have started an affair with her or simple had a momentary fling- yet the ‘emotional mile high club’ he joined with her marks the dirty truth of his real character- he doesn’t have the heart for it any more. His liaisons were just distractions from life, but when life is too heavy, distractions just won’t cut it.
Yet the show has never just been about Don. At its core, Mad Men is about Don and Peggy and their intertwined, often parallel stories. And Peggy is hardly happier than Don in January 1969. Despite being the obvious choice for his replacement, she still reports to a man who doesn’t know what skill he has under his nose. Lou, who obviously couldn’t care less about Peggy, is exemplary of the kind of culture Sterling Cooper & Partners is all about now. They’re not looking for cutting edge or interesting ideas- they’re there to service the client to an appropriate degree and that’s that. Without either Don, despite his condescension, or Ted, in spite of his feelings, there to see Peggy for what she really is- she’s left being a middle of the road copy writer. She needs the pressure at work to deliver the goods. Her final shot, as a depressed, lonely slumlord crying on her floor, is one of the most aching of Mad Men’s entire tenure.
Between Don’s façade to his wife and co-workers, Peggy’s to herself and Freddy Rumsen’s to us, this season premiere recalls the first season’s (cheesy) tagline Where the Truth Lies all too well. We as viewers as all too aware of lies by the episode’s end though- these are not the long standing Dick Whitman-esque lies we can revel in unwrapping. We’re at a head here, this is it; this is the beginning of the end, the conclusion to an existential struggle- for Don, for Peggy, for Megan and others. As Don sees on 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?”
Loose End Observations:
LA Pete Campbell is incredible. Costume designer Janie Bryant is one of the best stylists on TV, so it’s no surprise she nailed Pete’s look as perfectly as she did. But still, oh man he’s amazing.
Roger is an orgy guy now! It makes sense really… he’s diving into his own loose counter cultural vibe as best and awkwardly as he can. And his daughter’s joined a cult??
It’s interesting seeing Joan how she currently is. She has more power in the firm than she’s ever had, yet because of this she has actual business responsibility and it’s clearly rocking her somewhat. Her poise at the bar was classic Joan though; she knows how to play a man like a fiddle.
Really, Don’s introduction sequence was brilliant. Its joyous, groovy and achingly cool tone reflects the precise image Draper himself is trying to convey in spite of his reality. We revel in the beauty of it before realising that it too, is untrue.
LA PETE CAMPBELL!
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Mad Men airs Mondays, 4:35pm (repeated 8:35pm) on showcase