“There’s someone above you, and someone below you, and everyone’s buying everyone dinner.”
It’s a long overdue welcome back for the ladies and gentlemen (mostly gentlemen) of Sterling Cooper & Partners, in the first half of the final season of Mad Men. Yes, while Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed drama may have one more episode than usual for this seventh, conclusive outing, the fourteen episodes are going to be split into two ‘half-seasons’, the first broadcast this April, the last next April. If you thought the ‘mid-season break’ was annoying in shows like Doctor Who or The Walking Dead, at least you don’t usually have to wait an entire year…
Still, the split does raise the question of whether both halves of the season will be set in the same time period. As usual with a season opener of Mad Men, there was fun to be had from working out exactly when the new season is set, using the clues littered throughout the episode. The fashions don’t seem to have changed much; neither do the cars. Remarking on the Californian weather, several characters pointed out that even in LA, “it’s still January”. So that’s the month sorted out, but what’s the year? It wasn’t until near the end of the ep that we got a decisive clue, as Don was watching the first inaugural address of incoming President Richard Nixon – which took place on 20 January 1969.
Since the finale of season six took place around the end of November 1968, that means barely two months have passed since we last saw the SC&P gang. Consequently, most of the characters are pretty much where we last saw them; unlike the larger gaps between previous seasons, which have left the viewer to work out how and why the characters have ended up in new situations when the new season begins.
I actually rather enjoy that; Mad Men is a show that doesn’t give an inch in terms of exposition, treating its viewers’ intelligence with respect. Still, even with barely two months elapsing in the show’s narrative, there have been changes, even though they were changes announced at the end of last season.
In keeping with the ambitious plans thought up by Stan Rizzo, nicked by Don Draper, then thoughtfully gifted to Ted Chaough, Sterling Cooper & Partners now has a permanent office in Los Angeles. And it seems to be headed by none other than Pete Campbell, now in the unprecedented situation of being happy (seemingly). What’s the betting that won’t last?
If Pete is indeed happy, he’s in a minority (probably a minority of one). As ever in this show, nobody else is feeling particularly good, least of all Don Draper. It was actually a fair while into this season opener before the show’s hero/antihero/villain (delete as applicable) put in an appearance – clearly he’s still on that indefinite suspension from SC&P after his typically self-destructive behaviour last season.
In fact, the ep opened with none other than Freddie Rumsen giving a spellbinding – and Draper-like – pitch to Peggy Olson, director Scott Hornbacher conveying his unlikely magnetism with an extreme close up that ever so slowly zoomed out as Freddie went on. Peggy was clearly gobsmacked by how good Freddie’s idea – for Swiss watch Accutron – was. It was so good it could have come from Don Draper himself. And it later became clear that in fact, it had. Don, still persona non grata at SC&P, is getting his ideas in through the back door, via Freddie’s freelance credentials.
It’s not like the Don we’ve come to know to allow others to take credit for his ideas. But then, he seemed to end the last season in a chastened mood, clearly wanting to atone for the wrongs he’d done to those around him – which was pretty much everyone in the show. Perhaps this uncharacteristic altruism is (yet another) New Don? Or does he have some convoluted plan in motion?
Whichever it is, we didn’t catch a glimpse of the man himself until he rolled up at LA airport. Still dapper in his trademark suit and hat, he continues to embody stylish obsolescence in a world that’s changing around him; what looked great in 1960 looks distinctly anachronistic in 1969, particularly in California. While Pete was embracing the local style (with regrettable consequences), Don must have been cooking in the LA sun in that suit.
He was out there primarily to visit Megan, who has indeed moved to Hollywood full time, pursuing her acting dream. She seems to be doing all right at it, too, with a proper agent (who’s clearly flamingly gay, another indication of the changing times), and a house in… the Valley. Or is it the Canyons? Poor old Don, he’s so hopelessly unhip he doesn’t actually know which.
As it turned out, he only spent a couple of days there, acting like a fish out of water throughout. Clearly… ‘admired’ by Megan’s agent, Don had the discomfiture of being constantly described as “bi-coastal”, which was an amusing running gag. And yet it seems that the show itself may be bi-coastal this year, if so many of the regulars stay based in LA. That could make for some interesting plotlines, especially for Don, Pete, and Ted Chaough, who yet again displayed his alpha male similarity to Don by failing to embrace the California weather.
Back in snowy NYC, the script focused primarily on Joan and Peggy, which is always a good thing. They’re two of the show’s strongest characters, despite, or more likely because of, the formidable obstacles they keep having to overcome.
Despite that hard-won partnership, Joan is still having trouble getting anyone to take her seriously as a businesswoman, even though she’s plainly more capable than half the men on the staff. After being taken down a peg for daring to chase an account herself last season, she was playing it more cannily when dealing with Wayne Barnes, the seemingly teenage representative of Butler Footwear, a client wanting to take their advertising inhouse.
Deputising for Ken Cosgrove (still sporting an eyepatch after his unfortunate hunting accident), she found Wayne (Cougar Town’s Dan Byrd) unwilling to take her as seriously as Ken. Not just because she was a woman but because he had (gasp!) a Harvard MBA. Where Joan, of course, only has talent and years of experience.
Naturally enough then, it was off to see a NYU Professor of Business Studies, who immediately patronised her by asking her whether her firm used fee-based or commission-based contracts, then patronised her still further by asking her if she understood the difference. As we know though, Joan has a flair for business and a core of steel. Not only did she put the prof in his place, she then terrified young Wayne into actually asking her advice. Which, it seems, will keep Butler with SC&P. Way to go Joan! Not that Ken appreciated it, of course…
Peggy was also having a hard time, and unlike Joan not really managing to rise above it. Don’s indefinite departure has left her saddled with one Lou Avery in his old role (even though Peggy herself would seem a natural choice to step up while Don’s away). Lou, so old-fashionedly misogynist that Don seems like a feminist by comparison, has pretty much pushed Peggy two steps back in her standing in the office. He was so unwilling to take her input seriously that he pooh-poohed Freddie’s (actually Don’s) genuinely good pitch – purely because it was coming from her.
As if that didn’t make work annoying enough, Peggy is still positively fuming over the betrayal of her former lover (and boss) Ted, whose very presence appears to be enough to send her spiralling into a rage. And there was no respite out of work either. Stuck with the ramshackle house she bought with her ex, Abe, she’s now letting out rooms to some very demanding tenants, who even want her to personally fix the plumbing. No wonder she ended the episode curled up on the floor in tears.
At least Roger seemed to be having a good time. Continuing his dalliance with the counterculture following his infatuation with LSD, he now seems to have turned his house into some sort of hippy commune, at which he indulges in drink and drug fuelled orgies with people young enough to be his children. That might sound enjoyable, but it came across as yet another mid life crisis from which Roger may not emerge unscathed.
John Slattery continues to be my favourite actor in this ensemble, mostly because Roger’s such a peach of a character to play. Apparently now happiest letting it all hang out (and he looks pretty good naked for a man of his age), Roger only grudgingly donned his trademark grey suit this week for a brief trip to the office and a rather strange dinner with his daughter, at which she forgave him. For everything.
Hard to know if she’s become a Moonie or something, but it was at least a relief that for once, dinner in this show didn’t end up in disaster. Roger ended the ep curling up in a darkened room with two young people of both sexes in the bed (“Anyone’s welcome in this bed”). No wonder he seems so exhausted. Given that he’s had at least two heart attacks, he’d best be careful!
Where’s Bob Benson?
Continuing from last year, I’ll be following SC&P’s mystery man each week. Last season, we discovered that he may (or may not) be homosexual, he may (or may not) have fallen in love with Pete Campbell, and that he may (or may not) have been involved in the murder of Pete’s mother.
One thing we do know – he’s not Bob Benson. In fact, there is no Bob Benson; everything about this mystery man is a fabrication, designed to ingratiate him in his career of choice. He is, in point of fact, Don Draper MkII – even down to the alliterative name.
No sign of Bob so far – but he was mentioned in the office. Having shamed and humiliated Pete so badly that he moved 3000 miles away, Bob is still presumably in charge of the prestigious Chevy account. Let’s see if his portentous presence is as dramatic this year.
Only one to speak of this episode – the televised inauguration of one Richard Milhous Nixon as President of the United States, fixing the date (if it was a live transmission) at 20 January 1969. It’s worth remembering that way back in season one of Mad Men, the original Sterling Cooper were involved in Nixon’s election campaign – the election he lost to John F Kennedy.
A difficult man to like, “Tricky Dicky” ended up gaining notoriety as the only sitting President to resign the office in disgrace, rather than face impeachment and imprisonment. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that he (eventually) pulled US troops out of Vietnam, opened diplomatic relations with Communist China, and oversaw the first Moon landing. The name of America’s most disliked President still adorns a plaque strapped to the leg of the Lunar Module in the Sea of Tranquillity.
On a less topical note, Don tried out Megan’s huge new TV – and what should be on but Frank Capra’s 1937 classic Lost Horizon, its prologue summing up the utopia that constantly eludes the show’s characters:
Some gorgeous classic cars this week, all to be seen in the exterior scene when Megan picked up Don at LAX. The lady herself was driving an eyecatching British masterpiece – the Austin Healey 3000. Astonishingly for a British car, it even started when she turned the key.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Given that only a couple of months have passed in the show since last season, not much has changed in the world of sartorial style. Stan’s still surgically attached to that fringed cowboy jacket, Ginsberg continues to sport a moustache that presumably inspired Ron Burgundy, and when Roger can be bothered to get dressed, he still looks fantastic in a well-cut grey suit.
You can usually rely on Harry Crane to provide the most eye-wateringly hideous fashion faux pas; but despite being based in LA, he was nowhere to be seen this week. It was then, up to Pete Campbell to fly the flag for men’s historical fashion disasters, with this… this… I don’t know what it is. But the trousers are truly horrible. Thankfully, his new girlfriend was there to offset it with something equally unrestrained:
As ever, while the men may have looked awful (well, Pete, anyway), most of the women looked pretty good. Though presumably that’s not much compensation for still being second class citizens. Joan was, as ever, resplendent, in a simple purple dress:
Peggy too was looking pretty good, although the blue blouse/red white and blue cravat was oddly reminiscent of an old British Airways uniform. At least she was wearing a tea cosy on her head to dispel that impression:
Megan was as stylish as ever. Showing up at LAX to pick up Don, she seemed to have forgotten to change out of her nightdress. Naturally, on her it looked great:
A low-key start, then, to this most low-key of dramas; Mad Men was never a show to try and grab viewers with a slam bang season opener (though Megan’s rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” at the start of season five came close). This had the feel of an establishing episode, Matthew Weiner setting out his players for the start of a new game.
And is this a new Don Draper we’re seeing? Well, having firmly spurned the advances of Neve Campbell practically throwing herself at him on the plane back to New York, you could be forgiven for thinking so. But as the episode ended, we were back in familiar territory as Don sat shivering on his Manhattan balcony, looking wretched in his bathrobe and staring agonisedly into the middle distance. That’s the Don Draper we know.