May 15th, 2014
One thing that disappointed me about the commentary surrounding Time Zones was a general unwillingness on behalf of most critics to get stuck into not just Freddy’s pitch but the first scene generally. I understood why well enough, it was a depressing episode and seasoned fans have been well trained to mistrust the surface glamour of Mad Men’s premiers, which in the normal course of things turns to crap after the first half hour. But in the end that didn’t cut it for me, for two reasons. Firstly, because the opening pitch so often serves as the key to unlocking a season’s trajectory, and secondly, because Freddy’s first words, a confident and joyous starting gun on a gloomy story, were designed to nag.
“I want you to listen carefully. This is the beginning of something.”
The idea that these words heralded the beginning of the final season and nothing else seemed unlikely. Because, come on everyone, this is the final season. Every detail is important.
Initially the main effect of this nagging, this jarringly incongruous celebratory voice echoing across the ruins cheering the new day, was to force me to re-evaluate many of the scenes and plot beats most reviewers took for granted were evidence that things will never go right for Don. Then it got me thinking about the downward spiral of the season more generally, eventually concluding that this, like Don’s descent in six which led to that beautiful final scene, was probably a good thing too. I was listening, I was paying attention, and it occurred to me that the Something Terrible Don drew down with that first ad pitch in The Doorway probably wasn’t through with him yet. Megan leaving him to pursue her career in California and his getting fired was only the start of it. Things needed to get about as bad as they could before the pendulum would swing the other way.
Quite simply, I realised this season is about nothing less than the destruction of Don Draper.
In the wake of The Runaways some people might be shaking their heads at this, and on the surface of it they’d have a point. Episode five did see Don untangle himself from the ropes and come out swinging. Perhaps this marks the point when our hero makes his comeback! Well, no, it doesn’t. Don sticking it to Lou and Jim and winning over Phillip Morris was just a necessary dramatic beat in the run up to his ultimate defeat in Waterloo (the seventh and final episode this time around and the battle which marked the end of Napoleon’s return from exile). The narrative took the familiar shape – Don powers up after a bout of sex, swerves and wins the day – but it was tainted from the start. I mean, seriously, do we really think Don should be fucking other women with Megan’s permission? Maybe in the future if and when they sort their shit out, but right now? When Megan’s feeling insecure about Stephanie as well as Don’s sex addiction more generally (way to manage your fears, girl!)? This is a step backwards, just like Don winning a tobacco account and returning to the office at all. None of this should be happening. These are the old moves, the old habits, and in fact it’s all rather abject to watch. Like Cooper says in The Monolith, Don, like Lane, is a dead man. He’s a ghost haunting the halls of SC&P. The Don we knew is gone, little more than a memory.
That’s not all he is though. There’s another side to this man which is willing to grow and change, whatever gloomy old fandom says. Just take a trip back to season one if you don’t believe me. The Don of season seven, while still wrestling with similar problems, has moved on. So far this season he’s successfully resisted the urge to leap into bed with a woman whose neurosis was tailor made to slot neatly into his own, he’s performed penitence for his treatment of Peggy and he’s allied himself with Freddy Rumsen, demonstrating a desire to get clean. All of this because he knows it’s over, because someone somewhere inside him wants to move on.
Perhaps the scene I find most interesting this season is the one that closes out Time Zones. Most people read it as a sad rebuttal to the first scene, and given that they share much of the same visual language they’re probably right, as far as it goes. This man, they argue, is the washed up puppet master hiding behind the mask of the confident ad man at the beginning – but if you pay attention there’s more going on than initially meets the eye.
What does it mean for Don to stop trying to force the door shut but instead go out there into the darkness? As Roger explained last time around, doorways in Mad Men equate to our experiences, and the sum of all the doorways we pass through, our lives. To be unable or unwilling to shut a door leaves our present vulnerable to our pasts, all the demons lurking in our prehistories, like Don’s children confronted by Ida in The Crash. This presents us with three options, the first two obvious and on the surface of it easy, the third less so. So far Don has opted for the easy life. He’s either tried to silence his ghosts with booze, sex and business, temporarily jamming the door, or else he’s simply caved in and allowed himself to be overcome by it all. There’s very little difference. Now all that’s left is the third option, to go back through the open doorway, into the cold, into the past – the beginning – where the demons live… and face them. Time Zones’ closing sequence can be understood as yet more proof that everything’s gone to the dogs, but right now I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest what it really signifies is a rehearsal. Don’s actions aren’t the result of resignation, or masochism, but the first stirrings of courage. Whatever made you think this man was weak?
I keep talking about Don, but of course the person who wants to change goes by another name: Dick. The problem at the moment is he doesn’t fully know himself, or what to do with himself, because Don’s dominated things for so long. Mad Men has made much of this conflict between its hero’s two selves, with last season’s poster rendering the psychic divide explicit.
However the show’s seventh season has demonstrated more of an obsession with doubling than ever: the first ad pitch, the creation of two men, labours under the weight of two tag lines, there’s two horses, one black and one blanc; two fast food accounts; a new tobacco account and even three creative directors! Then there’s this.
Which quickly cuts to a slow-mo scene outside the airport, where Don Draper, master of all he surveys, is met by the kind of glamourous movie star woman we characteristically associate with him….. only for the action to then suddenly snap back into reality, a world where he’s not allowed to drive and, oh yeah, do you mind if we put the hot love action thing on hold for a minute? Megan’s got a business meeting. For Don/Dick this divide is a real thing. Don Draper’s world of success and sex just won’t square with Dick’s quotidian day-to-day. Dick inhabits real time, the seconds of Don’s life, however, move to the more graceful beat of the Acutron. Only they don’t. Not any more. The mechanism is broken.
This couldn’t be made any clearer than the scene in Field Trip, a direct callback to Freddy’s pitch, where Don counts down the minutes Don’s till his meeting with Roger. His return to SC&P was never going to unfold as the ‘fluid sweep’ of heroic moments Freddy invokes and the editing confirms it, intercutting between Don at home and his first, anxious foray into an office that was practically his home just a few months previous, but now feels more like an alien planet. In direct opposition to the promise of Acutron, Weiner and co present us with a vision of a fractured time where clocks don’t run in a straight line and nothing happens the way it’s supposed to. A fractured time for a fractured man.
On the face of it conflict has been a big theme this season. It’s all about those pesky time zones and their inability to sync up. Freddy and Don outline a perfect conversation in a perfect world, one which can only lead to the young businessman getting the job, but outside of the pitch everyone’s struggling to communicate, pretty much every meeting and exchange shot through with misunderstandings and hidden agendas. The trick, as Freddy intimates when he tells Don to stop grandstanding and ‘do the work’, and as Peggy explains to Don via Freddy in their meeting, is to lay down your arms. There’s a marked difference between life as a ‘conversation piece’ and life as a ‘conversation’. The former is aggressive and potentially combatative, the latter receptive and co-operative. And, man, could the staff of SC&P do with a weekend away break at a team building workshop right now.
It’s right about this point that I want to properly dig into that first scene. It has so much to say about where we might be headed.
If memory serves, I did read one piece that went into a bit of detail about the pitch. He or she mentioned that the Steve McQueen analogue was intended as a stand in for Don’s mojo and left it there. This is a perfectly valid reading, and probably intended, but it doesn’t go far enough. What I want to suggest here is that when Freddy tells us that this is the beginning of something, even going so far as to intone an Om, the sound which in Hinduism embodies capital C Creation, he really does mean the beginning. The beginning of Mad Men, or at least Mad Men’s central character, Don Draper. In this scenario, then, Steve is Don and the young businessman (Freddy/Don makes that word sound so hopeful!) Dick. Imagine our young hero, all those years ago, sat in his ratty little apartment beneath a flickering rayon planning a perfect life…. then in walks Don Draper, gunning his cuffs – and together they conspire to create it! The grimy apartment transforms into a gleaming office in full colour, the roaches into a silver haired and besuited audience waiting with baited breath…. This pitch, which invokes all advertising by virtue of its formal purity, its simple promise of transformation (no snowballs, pigs or lemons here!), doesn’t just recuperate the history of the art form it represents, but the history of its greatest fictional proponent. It’s not a literal history, of course, like all good advertising it’s a myth – Mad Men’s very own creation myth.
Sadly we know it all went sour in the end. What began as a conversation, a co-operative effort between the young man and the matinee idol (Really guys, Alan Silver practically spells it out for us!), has turned hostile, with Don filibustering on forever and ever and Dick relegated to the sidelines. Until recently.
Given everything that’s occurring right now, in the end Peggy’s tag line is more of a command than a suggestion. As I argue above, all of Don’s tricks are going to fail him this time around because he’s reached a dead end and there is no more ‘moving forward’. What the man has to do is turn inwards again and allow Dick’s voice to be heard, and maybe together, utilising Don’s drive and Dick’s essential goodness (the character’s much discussed soulful side which up until now has been in thrall to Don), they can find a way out of their predicament. Things will get off to a bumpy start though. Their first real conversation in however many years will be difficult. It will be the kind of conversation that actually changes you in real terms. One that’s terrifying. The kind of Conversation you have with your partner when you find out they’re having an affair. With your parents when you hear about their cancer.
With a policeman when you admit to a crime.
Okay, I’ll admit it. After much listening and attention paying I can only see one way forward: Don owns up.
- Because everything is horrible right now and something’s got to give.
- Because we’re all bored of Don-as-he-is.
- Because there’s no place for Don-as-he-is.
- Because this is what it really means for Dick’s voice to be heard. Anything else is just more door jamming.
- Because it will represent a proper merging of time zones into the kind of ideal time sold to us in the pitch. A time where Dick and Don share a birthday. Remember how tense Don gets about birthdays and the attention they provoke? No more of that.
- Because Matt Weiner’s already said there will be a game changer midway through this season and given that he’s also said his writing room will be focusing on the stories they’ve always wanted to tell Don finally spilling the beans seems like a fairly good candidate.
- Because another theme this season, and last season for that matter, is evolution. Right now our attention is on Hal, but soon, with the moon landing, everything will be coming up monoliths. (Incidentally, the implied transcendental star child – the Dick/Don synthesis – serves as a neat continuation of the birth imagery set up in six and plays off with the Rosemary’s Baby stuff really nicely.)
- Because in the end things will work out. Dr Fay herself, ever the voice of clarity and moderation, called it years ago: when it’s over Don will just have to get on with being a person. No melodrama. A sacrifice will have been made, yes, but the man lands on a couch.
- Because that selfsame man on the couch has returned to the poster again, a silent witness to the film of his life – silent for the best part of two decades perhaps? The image teases us with what he will look like when he leaves the cinema and comes out into the light.
- Because the pitch translates into another scenario, where Steve McQueen is a cop, ‘Frank Bullit’ (from Bullit, McQueen’s most beloved film which came out the year before season seven starts) and the businessman is Dick, a man forever stuck in his late twenties until he comes clean.
- Because, in keeping with the theme of co-operation, or synthesis, this would result in both Don and Peggy getting the tag lines they want. Don’s admission would constitute both a conversation and a conversation piece.
The point, though, is that he’s going to choose to do this. Probably when there are no more options left and Cooper whacks him with What He Knows, but still.
Don’s going to go out there are brave the cold.
Luckily he’ll find a friend there waiting.