'Mad Men' 7:01—Long distances, short memories

Courtesy of Zennie Abraham.

The seventh and final season of AMC’s Mad Men roused to life Sunday like a grizzly bear waking from hibernation. OK, that’s totally overstating it for a show this heady and atmospheric, but what can I say? The months-long breaks between 13-week seasons leave me jonesing. (Or should I say Joan-sing?)

At any rate, the premiere did what each one before it has done: It subverted audience expectations.

When last we saw the period drama’s lantern-jawed anti-hero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), he was a Mad Mess. Tormented by his love-starved upbringing in a brothel, Don way over-shared during a pitch to Hershey’s, to the extent that his fellow partners banished their star attraction indefinitely, but with full pay. (How does one score something like that?)

Meanwhile, Don was drinking more than even his steel liver could handle and had essentially alienated everyone in his life. Effervescent second wife Megan (Jessica Pare) no longer found his moody alcoholism cute, daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) caught dad with his pants down (literally) and his upstairs mistress dumped him. Hard. Even chilly first wife, Betty Draper Francis, had his number—and finally stopped chasing a man who was never really there to begin with. (Though they did enjoy one last summer camp romp for old time’s sake.)

In a beautifully composed final scene, an unmoored Don showed his kids the dilapidated whorehouse where he grew up, and exchanged a rich look with his adolescent daughter, one that conveyed, “This is who I am.”

The fastidiously begged, borrowed and stolen identity of “Don Draper” never looked so flimsy.

All of which is to say it would be reasonable to expect the first episode of the new season to pick up with the rubbled aftermath. But creator Matthew Weiner knows people’s lives don’t grind to a halt just because no one’s watching. Which is why, three months later in Mad Men world (that would be circa-late-February 1969 for those keeping track), his uprooted characters aren’t where we left them.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is a bit deeper into his hippy-chasing debauchery, complete with free-love-paid-hotel orgy squalor. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is learning that Don’s thankless pushing may have been better than her new boss’ uninspired dismissiveness. “You’re all a bunch of hacks who are perfectly happy with shit!” she vents to a coworker at one point. “Nobody cares about anything!”

And other characters are all adapting to, struggling with or embracing their changing roles.

It takes a while to find out where Don fits into all this, as Weiner teases out his main character’s entrance like a skilled gambler holding onto his trump card.

When we finally do see Don, he’s traded in the shaving set his kids got him for one of those new electric ones and is flying to Cali to visit his recently bi-coastal actress wife. The scene in which Don steps out of the airport to see Megan strutting toward him in glorious soundtracked slo-mo Technicolor is a stylized first for the show, which can only mean it portends something about the rest of the season.

And while husband and wife seem to be on smooching terms, their intimacy has definitely suffered. The distance between them is punctuated by the howling coyotes outside of Megan’s funky new pad. While the two eventually rekindle a physical connection, it doesn’t seem enough to keep the drifting partners together for long. Don knows this. “I’m a terrible husband,” he tells a beguiling widow (played by Neve Campbell) on the plane ride back.

But even during the second wave dawning of feminism, such an admission is lady catnip if you’re Don Draper. The widow invites Don to her place, but he pawns her off with the same line he used on his wife when both women asked for more: “I have to get back to work.”

I admit, I fell for Weiner’s sleight of hand. I thought Don was lying to avoid dealing with messy human entanglements. Sly dog, it turns out Don was going back to work. Kind of. In a nice little reveal, it turns out he’s been feeding fired ad-man Freddy Rumsen ideas to sell to an unwitting Peggy, cleverly telegraphed in the episode’s opening scene: Freddy pretending to be Don, who doesn’t even know who he’s pretending to be anymore.

After Freddy leaves Don’s apartment, probably with more great ideas Peggy won’t be able to pitch, Don squeezes through his broken sliding glass door into the bitter winter chill and shivers. Seemingly unable to maintain lasting bonds, Don is out in the cold. But at least he’s feeling something again.

Grade: B+

Other thoughts

-Megan’s weaselly agent has a knack for meta one-liners: “I’ll say one thing about this girl, she evokes strong feelings.” Audience-baiting much?

-When Don tells Pete Cambell (Vincent Katheiser) he’s acting and dressing like a hippy, I looked at Pete’s pastel polo shirt and plaid pants, and was reminded how quickly the changing era is leaving Don behind. It was like hearing your dad misuse the word “hipster.”

-When Don asks the flirtatious plane widow how her older husband died, she says: “He was thirsty. He died of thirst.” This felt like some weird little dream in which a future version of Megan describes Don’s death.

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