My favorite moment at the “Mad Men” Season Seven premiere: when AMC president Charles Collier asked the sprawling ensemble to rise from their seats in the Arclight Theatre, Jon Hamm (Don Draper) and Kevin Rahm (Ted Chaough) caught sight of each other standing in the same row and waved. The Emmy-winning series is being celebrated by Time and Variety cover stories, Diane Sawyer’s World News Tonight and Good Morning America before “Mad Men” returns on April 13. (Trailer, poster and review round-up are below.)
These days big cable premieres are as starry as any Hollywood event, complete with red carpet media, photographers and in this case, a Lionsgate/AMC Chateau Marmont afterparty. As show creator Matt Weiner (who wrote the Season Seven first episode “Time Zones” with executive producer Scott Hornbacher, who directed) said in his introduction, this last season of “the rocket ship we’ve all been on for the last few years” is “bittersweet.” Hornbacher wasn’t at the screening because he was still shooting one of the “Man Men” final season episodes.
Much of this post-1968 season will be spent in Los Angeles, where ad exec Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Don’s actress wife Megan (Jessica Pare) are adapting to a new freewheeling environment. It was fun seeing the film on the big screen, where it held up. The episode, which takes full advantage of the music of the period, throws out a number of character strands to unspool over the season.
Don is dealing with the results of having revealed himself both to his family and his ad agency colleagues–which cost him his job. He visits Megan, who’s enjoying her independence and living in a funky remote Hollywood Hills bungalow alongside howling coyotes. In one particularly strong scene on an airplane, Don in his new honest guise flirts with the gorgeous widow next to him as cigarette smoke swirls in the cabin. Is he capable of being a good husband? Meanwhile back in New York, Don’s old office mates Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) are trying to flourish without him at the agency.
When I spoke to Weiner at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where he premiered his feature film directing debut, the Owen Wilson comedy “You Are Here,” he told me that they had just started writing Season Seven three weeks before:
“We’ve mapped out the season and written Episode One. We had our ‘last first day,’ as we said. It’s not that emotional yet but I’m getting ready to go through an experience that I’ve never had before. I don’t want to leave anything on the table, I don’t want to pander. The characters are living breathing organisms on some level. I’ve always had things in mind of where they go. David Chase told me if you have something good, and you know it’s good, you can take your time getting there.”
In January, Elisabeth Moss took a break from the mid-season filming of “Mad Men” to go to the Sundance Film Festival, where we did an interview about “Mad Men” and her two indie films debuting there. She was 23 when they shot the “Mad Men” pilot, and is 31 now. With various uneven hiatuses, she’s been on that show for nine years. She told me that “a lot of women connect with Peggy, who represents all women. I always wanted her to be the representative of a woman at any age and any time period.”
Because Peggy is so different from her, says Moss, that has “given me leeway. She’s a very specific character and that has enabled me as an actress to be challenged and be able to hopefully show other sorts of women in other things I want to do.”
At the Marmont after-party, after Hamm posed for a photo at the bar with Pare, he told me that it is a tad unnerving to face a world without “Mad Men.” Along with his hilarious turn in Larry David’s “Clear History,” Hamm has been amping up his film career as well, from “Bridesmaids” and his wife Jennifer Westfeldt’s “Friends with Kids” to Ben Affleck’s “The Town.” Hamm went to CinemaCon in Las Vegas last month to introduce his latest, a Disney sports film written by Thomas McCarthy (“Win Win”) and directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”). In “Million Dollar Arm” Hamm plays a sports agent who travels to India in search of cricket players who can play baseball. It played well for exhibitors and is building Oscar buzz. When Hamm first screened it, he said, “I knew it was a good film.”
John Slattery (Roger Sterling), who has always acted in films (“The Adjustment Bureau,” “Iron Man 2”), also debuted a film at Sundance that he directed, “God’s Pocket,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and stars in the upcoming indie drama “Bluebird,” which will screen in competition this weekend at the Ashland Film Festival.
Review roundup, poster and trailer are below:
Weiner has come up with some impressive scenes beyond the fantastic, previously mentioned reintroduction. There are two that Weiner didn’t flag to critics as spoilers, but I won’t reveal them anyway because they certainly come across that way — one as a distinct behavioral reveal and the other a haunting and intriguing hint about the struggle for change. (I won’t even talk about the second kick-ass song Weiner uses in this episode, since that, playing over the lusciously shot and meticulously framed final scene, seems laden with meaning.)
One of the most artful aspects of the premiere is how it gives meaningful moments to so many supporting characters…while remaining largely about Don. He continues to sweat his significance, but he’s trying to figure out how to make real change out of last season’s sobering, liberating meltdown. He sees with clear eyes and accepts that he’s broken, yet he’s still at a loss as to how to fix himself. Like his late friend Lane, he’s stuck in the in-between of here and there, yesterday and tomorrow, lost and found. You wonder if the answer he seeks is to abandon such binary thinking and cultivate grace for his present-tense self. Wherever Don’s headed on this final flight of “Mad Men,” the ride promises to be exhilarating.
“Mad Men” remains a landmark series, and unlike something like “Breaking Bad” needn’t be heavily defined or judged by how well the program wraps up its run — although Weiner’s comments about his vision for the ending have done little to temper expectations. Nevertheless, this is one of those shows really more about the journey than the destination, despite the emphasis we’ve come to place on such things.
The episode, appropriately titled “Time Zones,” is a bi-coastal exploration of where our characters stand both literally (New York or Los Angeles) and figuratively, Weiner’s preferred method of study. While the brunt of the aforementioned minute moments are carried by Don and Megan, our hero/anti-hero…doesn’t show up until about eight minutes into the episode. When he does, it’s in a fittingly grand way…Don Draper is still treated like a god among men. He floats down his path instead of walking. Loud music blares “I’m a Man” by the Spencer Davis Group, before the declarative statement is upended by the nonchalant, emasculating act of Megan choosing to drive rather than ride next to her husband. Was it on purpose? It’s hard to tell.