Given that “Mad Men” is one of the most precisely written and shot shows on TV, it’s not surprising there are many ways to look at Sunday’s 7th-season premiere, “Time Zones.” Some are more productive than others, but over the course of two viewings and several days thinking it over, I’ve come to think that one of the most fruitful is by focusing on the musical montages that don’t quite bookend the episode. Not only do they lay out the episode’s concerns without the encumbrance of dialogue, but I also think they provide solid clues about where the shoe is headed in its final season.
It takes Don Draper six minutes to show up onscreen in “Time Zones,” which was written by series creator Matther and directed by Scott Hornbacher, and he’s not quite ready for his closeup. The first thing we see as the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” floods onto the soundtrack is Don hastily shaving in an airplane bathroom, his anxiety enhanced by a rapid series of jump cuts. The curtain is up, the band is on stage, and the frontman is still in his dressing room.
By the time he’s off the plane, Don’s in much better shape, gliding along the concourse on a moving sidewalk that pays homage to Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” a period-appropriate movie that nonetheless might seem a strange fit for Don, who’s hardly an unformed twentysomething. But in a way, he’s less mature, certainly less sure about who he is or who he wants to be, than the much younger Peggy. At this point, even his teenage daughter Sally is creeping up on him.
The moving sidewalk allows Don to strike a charismatic pose, but it also distances him from the earth; he’s just alone for the ride. And it emphasizes the movement from screen left to screen right, which will become the key to both sequences. Here’s Don drifting along smoothly.
And here he is exiting the airport.
The abrupt cut between these two shots make it seem like Don’s about to run into himself. You might not notice the switch — although any first-year film student has been warned about “crossing the line” — but you feel like something’s not right. Where Don was coasting, now he’s cut loose, removed from the climate-controlled airport interior and thrust back into the the real world.
Seeing Megan, offscreen right, pull up to the curb, restores a sense of order. The light in Jon Hamm’s closeup falls just where it should, and he commands the frame rather than seeming lost in it. But this shot also reveals the telltale mottling of a hasty electric shave along the right side of his neck, a subtle clue that his immaculate appearance won’t stand up to careful scrutiny.
As Megan exits the car, the camera shifts into slow motion, out-Scorseseing Scorsese in capturing a moment of frozen desire. Don’s drinking it, and who wouldn’t, with a wife like this?
But we learn later that Don has another reason to fix this moment in his memory: He knows, even better than Megan, that their marriage is failing. How many more airport pickups will there be? How many more fetching baby-doll dresses and come-hither pouts?
Okay, maybe one more.
Don reciprocates, and he’s not too bad-looking himself. But he’s acting, and so is she. Megan may know his real name, but she doesn’t know the real him, and it doesn’t seem like Don, or Dick, does either.
They kiss, and it looks like a nice one, a moment right out of the movie Megan’s moved to Los Angeles to make.
But when it’s time to get in her car, Megan warns Don in advance that his seat won’t move back. It’s her car, set up for her comfort, and he can either make himself comfortable or hail a cab.
Jump forward to the end of the episode, and song number 2: the Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Like “I’m a Man,” it’s a song well-known in more than one version — quite a few of my colleagues heard it the Spencer Davis Group as Chicago Transit Authority, although the show’s publicist’s confirm it was little Stevie Winwood singing lead — and this one’s substantially lesser. (Basically, it kind of sucks.) Where The Supremes’ original embodies the exuberant promise of liberation, the Vanilla Fudge’s plodding, swing-impaired version sounds as if it’s trying to knock down the walls with pure force, and failing.
That brings us to Peggy Olson, who’s been having a rough time of it at SC&P since Don left. Her new boss is a casual sexist, which she’s used to, and disregards her ideas, which she’s not, and after getting shot down at work and pestered at home, she’s just about had it.
Peggy drops to the floor as You Keep Me Hangin’ On” starts up, the lonely peal of its Hammond organ contrastingly pointedly with the joyous playing of “Set Me Free.” If Don’s troubles facing himself were defined along the horizontal axis, Peggy’s problems are vertical, prompted by the rude intersection of the ladder of success and the glass ceiling. As Ken Cosgrove superfluously informed Joan earlier in the episode, “It’s a hierarchy,” or as her even more condescending client put it: “There’s somebody above you and somebody below you.”
Peggy, the lapsed Catholic, looks upward for help, or guidance, or understanding, and finds none.
So she turns her gaze downward, facing the grim reality of the ground beneath her.
And to emphasize her downtrodden feelings, the camera shifts to a high overhead shot, diminishing her stature even further.
Meanwhile, at the Manhattan apartment that’s become his unofficial bachelor pad, Don Draper is watching TV alone in the dark, draining the last drops from a bottle of whiskey. We can barely make out his shadowed frame eclipsed by the bright black-and-white image on the tube. (He bought Megan a fancy new color set in L.A., but ended up watching “Lost Horizon” in black and white anyway.)
His bottle empty, Don feels a cold breeze blowing in off his balcony, and shuts off the TV to close the door, moving from right to left as he rises from his chair.
But as he approaches the balcony doors, he’s moving, once again, in the opposite direction, although it’s hard to make out at first. Because we unconsciously assume Don’s still moving from the right side of the frame to the left, his body coming out of the darkness reads at first like his barely visible reflection in the glass balcony door, and it’s only as he comes close that he emerges in the flesh, like a ghost slowly taking corporeal form.
The reflections take us back to the mirror in which first saw Don at the beginning of the episode, and the deliberate right-left confusion picks up the theme of Don being a man divided against himself. So here he is, trying to bring the two halves of the sliding door together, making one reflection meet another.
But of course, they won’t budge, and so Don chooses to sit out in the cold, his body shivering with the cold, and perhaps with something else.
As the camera pulls back and up, we see Don framed by the halves of the broken sliding door. (As I mentioned in my initial review, one way to read the title of “Time Zones” is as a reference to the arbitrary demarcation of time’s fluid state.) If one side is Don Draper and the other is Dick Whitman, then who, stuck in between them, is he? Weiner is as tight-lipped as ever about the show’s final season, but it almost has to be about Don’s attempt to reconcile his various selves. Until he does — until he can make the two halves meet — he’s literally and figuratively out in the cold, with no place to call home.
Oh, and one more thing. In these two sequences — which, appropriately enough, mirror each other — we never see Don head-on, at least not until the last shot, when he’s facing the camera, not out of confidence but in desperation. It’s a deliberate echo of the very first shot in “Time Zones,” when a different character, pumped up with Don’s ghostwritten script, looks us dead in the eye and welcomes us to the final season of a show whose central character is temporarily MIA. Take it away, Freddie.