If there’s anything viewers know after six seasons of “Mad Men,” it’s that the twists, big and small, come when you least suspect them. Not all of the drama is reserved for season premieres or finales, and many important events — the lawnmower incident, everything in “The Suitcase” — occur during episodes airing mid-season, sometimes in moments that could be overlooked. If this sounds like an attempt to defend the lack of shocking elements in the season seven premiere of “Mad Men,” it’s not. Instead, it’s merely a reminder to appreciate what the little moments can mean when provided with appropriate examination in Matthew Weiner’s layered drama about how our past has led to our present.
The episode, appropriately titled “Time Zones,” is a bicoastal exploration of where our characters stand both literally (New York or Los Angeles) and figuratively. While the brunt of the aforementioned minute moments are carried by Don and Megan, our hero/antihero (depending on if you’re Team Don or not) doesn’t show up until about eight minutes into the episode. When he does, it’s in a grand way. Star turns may be a thing of the past, but Don Draper is still treated like a god among men. He floats down his path. to the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” — before that 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. The once strong relationship is in constant flux throughout this 47-minute journey, but not with loud arguments or expository decisions. Don and Megan are feeling each other out, with both of them seemingly in the dark about how they truly feel.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s stuck with Don Draper this long. Don has been on a journey of self-discovery that’s never provided him the answers he craves since we first met him sitting in a bar scribbling ideas on a napkin. At one point in the season premiere, in a conversation between Don and a surprise guest star during the episode’s most telling scene, Don poses the question, “Have I broken the vessel?” After last year’s split between viewers sick of Don’s debasing decisions and those still craving more from the quietest salesman in New York, half the audience is probably rolling their eyes while the other half can’t wait to hear the next line. No matter which camp you fall into, prepare yourself for more of what you saw last season, at least in the season premiere.
Season six saw him fall as far and as flat as he ever had, being thrown in jail for punching a reverend and put on forced leave from the company he put on the map. His wife questioned her status as such for the first time, and his daughter had exiled him as much as an adolescent could. In short, Don was at rock bottom and the basement was deeper than even he anticipated. Some may not have enjoyed his journey into the darkness, but whether or not he can find the light has to be intriguing to audiences who watched him get away with murder (not literally) for most of the series. It would have been easy for Weiner to jump forward to a time when Don had climbed back to a certain status, bypassing any more existential downtime in Don’s headspace. Yet Weiner keeps us right there in the gutter with him, even as Don tries to mask the pain from everyone around him.
That’s not to say the time hasn’t changed. (Weiner asked critics to keep the year the new season takes place out of advanced reviews.) Times change in a variety of ways, and as Rust Cohle taught us on “True Detective,” time is nothing but a flat circle for some. Don may be caught in that circle, but his co-workers aren’t. Peggy is probably the closest to being similarly stuck at the start of season seven, as she’s dealing with the frustrations of a new boss and new responsibilities. We see how it’s taking a toll, even if we’re given no indication how she expects to work her way out (this is still just one episode, mind you). Peggy’s other role model, Joan, progresses nicely even as she deals with one disrespectful man after another. Unlike Don, Joan is hitting her stride. She’s in a position of power and wants everyone else to understand it. While on some level she’s still paying for the circumstances in which she made partner, Joan seems determined to put that behind her through calculated, commanding business moves.
Roger, meanwhile, isn’t even seen in the office. Breaking with Don — perhaps the most unjustifiably heartbreaking aspect of Don’s dismissal — seems to have sent him further into depravity. His jokes are tinged with frustration, and his actions lean more toward inaction and mindless self-discovery. As the series draws to a close, Roger’s fate is as intriguing as all the others’ simply because he’s the only one not actively working toward anything. He wants what he can’t understand, seeking answers in booze, then sex, then drugs, and now all of the above. He seems as lost as ever — without being as upset about it as Don or Peggy.
There will be 13 more episodes of “Mad Men” after the first episode of “the end” airs April 13th, allowing plenty of time for more answers. “Time Zones” sets a welcome pace for the final season, not just because it takes its time establishing everyone’s individual situations, but also because it’s surprisingly familiar. This is the structure of “Mad Men.” Answers will come. Actions will be taken. We just don’t know when, how, or by whom. Embrace the intrigue, the subtle shifts in character, and Weiner’s careful plotting. Otherwise, you could be waiting for a final shocker that’s already happened.