The reason I love Mad Men has nothing to do with the show’s soap opera aspects, but rather because of the unique way they presented the momentous decade of the 1960s. First they seduced us with vignettes showing what was so cool–and so cruel–about the pre-60s culture. They used a suit and tie formality to glamorize a world of alcoholic licentiousness and rampant workplace sexism, not to mention casual racism.
By starting the show in the year 1960, they reminded us that for a good long time the 60s were still the 50s, right up into 1964 in fact, once Kennedy was shot, the Beatles invaded, and the protest marches started heating up. By resurrecting the largely trivialized world of the Mad Men–guys who wore hats, drank three martini lunches, and shook off ulcers and heart attacks like indigestion and headaches, they were able to present the otherwise well worn saga of the 1960s through the eyes of the people whose culture and mores the Sixties Baby Boomers would soon replace.
By the way, did you even know that Season 7 had started already? Considering Mad Men might be the biggest television event of our time, it seems like they snuck in the debut of its final season very quietly through the back door of television. The only inkling I had that the new season was coming was the six-minute review I heard on NPR the previous week.
I like that there’s some mystery left in this one corner of Hollywood, rather than a pop-up campaign counting down in flashing neon how many days were remaining until the season premiere.
Also, after all the time off since the last season, it’s kind of weird even to say show creator Matthew Weiner’s name out loud since Anthony Wiener’s abortive mayoral run. Former Congressman Weiner’s predilections made an already suggestive surname even harder to ignore.
Now that we’ve got these formalities out of the way, let’s roll the tape.
In the words of Chuck Prophet, “Freddie’s not dead.”
I’m so glad Freddie Rumsen gets the honor of kicking off the first episode of the final season.
With the rampant workplace alcoholism that seduced us back in Season 1, it fell on Freddy Rumsen to show that there were sometimes consequences to be paid for this behavior. I always felt that Freddy got a bum deal from the firm, and I’m glad to see him back in old form. It may be the Broadway Joe Namath era in New York, but other than drying up, Freddy Rummy hasn’t changed a bit since the Eisenhower administration. I watch Mad Men to be reminded that there are still people like Freddy around in 1969.
The scene everybody seems to be talking about is Megan picking up Don at the L.A. airport. This is where I should disclose that I never really warmed to the character of Megan. I don’t care that she’s French Canadian, or that she sang Zou Bisou Bisou, or that she has a promising soap opera career. To me, she’s basically just a Melrose Place character who walked onto the Mad Men set. Similarly, when I see Harry Hamlin, the pretty boy from L.A. Law, suiting up as a Mad Man, I have to close my eyes and think of Freddy Rumsen to remind myself that this show isn’t just another primetime soap.
So, I’m not getting at all emotionally invested in Megan’s career, or the dress she’s wearing or the car she drives when she picks Don up at the airport, and I don’t believe the show’s producers are either. I think the only good explanation for why they’re focusing so much attention on Megan is that they’re getting ready to kill her off soon.
Now, the first Mrs. Draper was a different story. Betty was an archetype, and this show is all about resurrecting archetypes, bringing back the kind of people who reigned supreme before the Sixties took over. People like Betty. And Joan. Even the choice of names tells you something, because although we’re still familiar with these names today, when was the last time you ever came across a contemporary woman actually called Betty or Joan? Or Peggy for that matter? (Hank’s wife on ‘King of the Hill’ would be the exception that proves the rule).
Without being overtly aware of it, our minds subconsciously register that these are anachronistic names. Bombshell names of a bygone era. Megan, on the other hand, is a name you wouldn’t encounter much before 1970, but one that is quite common now. And that’s the beauty of Mad Men.
Speaking of the beauty of Mad Men, Don and Megan have arrived at the house in the hills. It immediately puts me in mind of the iconic Stahl House, located atop one of the canyons and made famous in photographs from the 1960s.
The knotted wood paneling interior of the house is very rural, almost like a summer cabin rental in the woods. It’s surely an exaggeration of what any L.A. house really looked like, but it is an effective exaggeration. These country bungalows with their howling coyotes are how L.A. must have felt to a newly transplanted New Yorker.
The first memorable line of the episode happens when Don is smoking later that night on the balcony, and Megan warms him not to flick any cigarettes over the railing because of the fire danger. “Don’t ask me how, but somehow they can tell where it starts.”
That’s great for two reasons. First, it is one of the episode’s many scenes that contrast living in Los Angeles with New York, where smoldering butts are part of the landscape. Second, it reminds us that society is now entering the post-“smoking is glamorous” era.
When Mad Men started, you could smoke anywhere, anytime, including while breastfeeding your child. The idea of putting limits on where someone like Don Draper could blow a butt was absurd. But here in the show’s final season, attitudes about smoking are beginning to change, and people like Don Draper don’t always get to do what they want.
Don and Pete
Don later meets Pete at a diner that could easily be Pann’s, and great dialogue ensues. Pete informs Don that he’s working on the H. Salt Fish & Chips account.
H. Salt is an otherwise obscure reference that actually brings back authentic memories for me. What’s exciting about Mad Men coming to L.A. in 1969 is that the show is now entering a time and place I can actually remember. Not only was I taken to eat at those kinds of diners as a child, but I had a very strong and positive brand awareness of H. Salt Fish & Chips in particular, even though I only ate there once and found it pretty unpalatable.
As a fast food fish joint, how good could you expect it to be? As a matter of fact, thanks to their persuasive and persistent TV ads, I expected H. Salt to be right up there at the top of the fast food chain with Shakey’s Pizza and Farrell’s Ice Cream. But now that Mad Men opens this window back in time to that diner booth in 1969, I realize that all these grandiose ideas I had about H. Salt were put into my head by hired guns like Pete Campbell and Don Draper who were worried about paying next month’s alimony check, not truth in advertising.
“I live by the tar pits!”
Not since Annie Hall has a line so effectively shown just how insane Los Angeles can seem to a New Yorker.
It may be a different time zone, but it’s the same dynamic as always between Pete and Don. Pete is competitive, insecure, and possessive, while Don is just Don.
Pete’s like Fredo from the Godfather. He’s been sent by the firm to shore up business out west, where his cockiness has flourished under the warm California sun and given him license to dress and behave like even more of a dandy, and further inuring him to the fact that most people think he’s an idiot.
And then there’s that real estate agent, who Pete introduces as his girlfriend. Does she look just like a young Betty Draper or what? What follows is some priceless dialogue from the golden age of double entendre.
Real estate Betty lets Don know right away that if he’s ever in the market (for property) he should give her a call. “Oh, Don’s not interested. He’s bicoastal,” Pete interjects, trying to ice the conversation before it heats up, adding that Don’s married and his wife already has their house picked out. But that doesn’t phase real estate Betty one bit. She lets Don know again that anytime he’s in the market he should give her a call. Anytime.
Hard cut from Pete and Don to Joan. From California sun to New York gloom. The whole décor is different. Joan is wearing the heavy, drab fabrics of yesteryear, covered neck to ankle in an outfit that looks like it was cut from a Let’s Make a Deal curtain.
Joan is out on a business lunch and appears to be having trouble sewing up the account. I’m guessing it’s because the times are a-changing. They don’t seal business deals with a wink, a handshake and three martinis anymore. Today’s account executive has an M.B.A., orders soft drinks with lunch, and keeps the receipt. Joan is lost in this new world. It’s as if we’re watching the sun set in one time zone and the future rise in another.
Now we cut back to L.A. Don and Megan are in their Hollywood Hills bungalow with its knotted pine paneling. Megan looks just like Rhoda in this scene. I actually thought it was Valerie Harper for a minute. A state of the art 1970 Magnavox T.V. console is being delivered to the house. It takes two stout men to lug it into the living room like pallbearers.
Hard cut back to Peggy on the East Coast, where it’s the polar opposite of a sunny California day. Police sirens wail in the background. Megan was wearing a hippie blouse. Peggy is wearing a heavy knit, mustard-brown plaid outfit.
Peggy seems angry. Honestly, I stopped keeping track of all the men who come and go in her life two seasons ago. She’s mad at somebody about something in this episode, that’s all I know for sure.
Everybody seems to be leaving New York or moving up except Peggy. She has a boss at work who doesn’t appreciate her, and when she’s not being underappreciated in the workplace she’s stuck at home as a landlord in this dying city, finding herself in racially overtoned grudge matches with her tenants while everybody else except for resentful one-eyed Ken is fleeing to sunnier climes.
After checking in with Peggy, we go back to another L.A. scene. This time Don and Megan are in bed, too tired to celebrate. We’re treated to more shots of the eeriness of this house. The way they film it, darkening the edges to narrow the field of vision, makes it seem rife for a home invasion of marauding knife-wielding hippies.
Hard cut again to the East Coast. This time it’s Roger and his daughter. She’s all buttoned up neck to toe in another full-sleeved, glove-accessorized pumpkin-colored outfit, with Nixon-daughter hair. Father and daughter are drinking bloody marys at a formal restaurant. In previous seasons, Roger began evolving into Timothy Leary, and now the daughter seems to have embraced one of the new Sixties paradigms herself, some sort of religion/cult that requires her to absolve her father of his numerous faults and digressions.
She affixes Roger with a cold smile and says she forgives him for everything he’s done. Roger says, “What do you mean?” The daughter proceeds to tick off a laundry list of indiscretions, his inattentiveness as a father, his cruelty to their mother, and concludes with a defiant, “I forgive you, and there’s nothing you can do to change any of that.”
It’s good that they don’t dignify this religion by giving it a name or a mantra, instead just showing us how it is wielded as a passive-aggressive cudgel by a damaged person with a deep grudge. That’s really all you need to know.
And now it’s back to the Hollywood bungalow.
What’s the symbolism of Megan handing Don a Playboy?
Well, I think it’s mostly a ‘we’re married, we live separate lives, the honeymoon’s over’ type of thing. ‘I know you’re tired now, you take care of yourself when you feel like it.’
It could also be a tip of the pop cultural hat to Hugh Hefner. Hef after all is the original Mad Man. If anybody made a fortune figuring out how to market a lifestyle to young professionals with disposable incomes in the 1950s and ‘60s, it’s Hefner.
Don Draper is a work of fiction. Hugh Hefner is the real deal. And he’s still with us. We get the feeling that not all of these Mad Men on the screen tonight are going to be alive at the end of Season 7, and certainly not in 2014. But Hef is still around.
In 1969, Hefner was about to become part of the big exodus from back east to L.A., relocating his publishing empire and establishing the Playboy Mansion on a Bel Air property that he bought for the princely sum of one million dollars in 1971.
Now Don’s on the plane flying back to New York. And what a surprise, there’s an attractive brunette in the next seat, getting ready to rest her head on Don’s shoulder for some pillow talk as they start into their drinks and sleeping pills. But this one’s gonna be different, because although the sex is out there on the tray table, Don is more interested in learning about her deceased husband.
Her husband was 50 and he died of thirst, she explains, and Don realizes that this is his future as well. She reiterates that she is available to consummate the relationship once they’re back in New York, but Don says no, he has work to do.
With Don safely back in his New York apartment, we catch a glimpse of Nixon delivering his inaugural address on the television. We know that Nixon’s swearing in happened on Jan. 20, 1969, and to the best of my knowledge this is our first verifiable date of the episode, letting us know exactly where we are in history.
That’s a nice reference. Not only is Nixon’s speech about finding ourselves “rich in goods but ragged in spirit” very appropriate to Don’s condition. It’s also a nice callback to that first season, which was all about Nixon’s failed 1960 presidential campaign. By 1962, everyone thought Nixon was through in politics, but the Tricky One fooled ‘em all.
The next day, Don has lunch with Freddy Rumsen. Watching these two suit-and-tie wearing men biting solemnly into New York-style deli sandwiches, we know that Don’s ‘60s California trip is over.
As the episode ends with Don alone in his apartment, the broken balcony door beckons him forward toward the precipice.
Is Don Draper the falling man in the opening credits? We will soon enough know.
Megan’s L.A. Agent: He seems too over the top to be just some generic character, they must be lampooning somebody in particular. My first thought is David Geffen. When he utters the line, “Oh, you’re my favorite couple,” a lot of people took it to be a comment on how Don and Megan were fooling everybody but themselves. But I took it as an indication of just how insincere this agent was.
By the way, didn’t the last people interested in helping Megan’s career back in New York want to swing with her and Don? And Don was like, “I’d love to, but I’m kinda busy with the downstairs neighbor lady right now.”
Peggy Olson: It really must have been a foundation myth at the time, that California was the answer to all the East Coast problems. The ‘60s California fantasy may have started out as a teeny-bop trend with the Gidget movies, Frankie & Annette, Jan & Dean, and the Beachboys, but it percolated upward into the adult imagination as well, with California Dreamin’ and It Never Rains in Southern California expressing a certain yearning among the 25 and over demographic. Yes, California was the place to be.
But the thing with trends is if you just hold your ground long enough while everybody else jumps ship, eventually the trend-seekers will return to where you’ve been all along, and you’ll be celebrated as an authentic visionary with deep convictions.
The dominant escapist myth in Manhattan today is not “if only I could move to sunny California” but “if only I had been smart enough to buy when the market was cheap and wait it out.”
The value of real estate in Manhattan means that simply owning an apartment makes you independently wealthy. And while everybody claws their way towards the top in Manhattan through various cutthroat enterprises, the idealists dream of having done it the zen way, of having simply bought when the market was good and held on.
That’s what Peggy Olson appears to be doing with her flat in the slums of the Upper Westside. It had been another one of Peggy’s deadbeat men who talked her into buying in such a rough part of town and then stuck her holding the deed. But this deadbeat actually ended up doing her a favor. Having the title to a building in the Upper Westside in 1969 is like having a goose that’s about to start laying golden eggs.
The Working Women: Without being overt about it, the main women characters on the show have moved out of the shadows and into the men’s world. At the beginning of Mad Men the women were frightened and servile. Now, Megan’s out in L.A. on her own. She picks Don up at the airport. He moves to open the door to let her into the passenger seat, and she basically says, “Nah, I’ll drive.” Megan drives her own car, and she’s driving her own career as well. She’s rented the house that she wants, not Don.
You can’t say things are going well for Peggy. She’s having a power struggle at work, she’s having relationship issues at home, and as a landlord she’s having tenant troubles to boot. But these are the problems of a stressed out Madison Avenue executive, not a servile secretary. Peggy has moved on up.
And then there’s Joan. Mrs. Va-Va-Voom is all buttoned up. You don’t even notice her body anymore. She’s an account executive now, one of the guys.
So, the women of Mad Men have quietly entered the workplace. What happens with Betty remains to be seen.
Ken Cosgrove and his eye patch: They don’t address it directly, but that patch goes back to the previous season when Ken took one for the team. It has been mentioned that this season kicks off just two months after the last one ends, which is the shortest time lapse between Mad Men seasons.
Sometimes they skip years into the future, but this time it’s just from Thanksgiving 1968 to January 1969. So we don’t know if Ken’s post-accident eye patch is part of a normal healing regimen or if it’s something more permanent.
We know how they love to stay true to the period’s historical and cultural events, and we are in the months after Israel’s 1967 war, when the visage of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and his iconic eye patch became pretty well known.
Ken Cosgrove is sporting a patch nearly identical to Moshe Dayan’s, whereas eye patches from later decades have a different look. This seems to be another subtle example of the Mad Men producers staying true to the period. But there is one difference. Dayan’s patch covers his left eye, while Cosgrove’s covers the right.
Don’s brunettes. Like Megan, I never thought Neve Campbell was all that great either. That said, she’s a lot more interesting now as a middle-aged widow than a sassy teen in Party of Five.
By the way, during the long stretch between Seasons 6 and 7 one of the things I did was watch the entire run of Freaks and Geeks on Netflix. Now, I totally know who Linda Cardellini is, and that makes me want to go back and watch her again as Sylvia Rosen in Season 6.
It’s interesting that these two teen stars of the 90s could come back so convincingly as middle-aged matrons on Mad Men. It makes you realize that 1999 was a long time ago, in case you needed reminding.
- As far as predictions go, just about anything could happen this final season. That’s the beauty of Mad Men. So many characters, so many story arcs. One who I don’t think will be back is Ginsberg, the Jewish wunderkind who lives with his dad. Ginsberg was an essential part of the early 60s storyline, meant to demonstrate how the world was changing from the WASP old boy network–the Drapers, the Sterlings, the Campbells, the Coopers–into a new cultural landscape, often fronted by names like Dylan, Mailer, Roth, and, well, Ginsberg.
- One way or another Don and Peggy have to hook up, whether it’s romantically or just creatively. The arc of this episode tentatively points that way. Don comes back alone from L.A., not even interested in a freebie with Neve Campbell. Hollywood Schmollywood. All Don cares about is pitching ad campaigns. He and his fedora are coming back home from swinging California and beautiful Megan to drab New York and Freddy Rumsen, even though he could have stayed on in La-La-Land This is his element.
- It’s Peggy’s element, too. Peggy and Don are soul mates in the world of advertising. He’s a free agent after his incident with Sterling, Cooper, Etcetera, Etcetera, and she’s clearly not happy with her current agency. Could we see a romantic interlude between these two? Who the hell knows. There were innuendos once before, and Don seems to be done with his married brunette phase. Also, I don’t know what’s going to disappear first, Megan or her marriage to Don, but one or the other seems destined to happen pretty soon, so there you go.
- One understanding of “Time Zones” is as a form of compartmentalization. In a way, the entire hook of the Mad Men series is Don Draper’s ability to compartmentalize his life. At first it was his work life in New York City and his home life in Ossining. Then it was the compartmentalization of his New York life and his trips to California, usually involving a dalliance with a beautiful woman or two, after which he’d fly home and go right back to his idealized life in the suburbs, seemingly having it all, winning on both ends, both coasts, both time zones, living the dream. But at the end of this episode, for whatever reason, he doesn’t sleep with the available woman seated next to him on the flight home. This time he goes back to a house without a wife or kids. He’s alone. All he has is Freddy Rumsen. This looks like the beginning of the end game for Don Draper.
- Creepy Glen Bishop, the boy who scandalized two generations of Draper women back in Ossining. He’s gotta resurface again somehow, maybe in New York City maybe in California. Maybe as one of the Manson fellas? He might be a little young for that. Altamont? Woodstock? I could see Glen selling acid, especially the brown acid. Or maybe with that military school background he’ll ship out to Nam and get involved in the heroin trade, or remain stateside and join a militant campus leftist group. Will Glen and Sally become Bonnie and Clyde, or Drugstore Cowboys? We can only hope so.
- Betty Draper. East Coast establishment WASP matron is her calling in life, and I think she knows it. She entered that world when it meant being at the top of the food chain, and has the good sense to hold onto the winning hand she’s been dealt. She had her brief walk on the wild side already. She may not stay with that Francis guy forever, but she’s not up and going to California.
- Sally Draper. Right from the beginning she was on my watch list, because every time she’s in a scene, something inappropriate happens, so right away I was doing the math on her–she’s the ideal age to run away to Haight Street or hitchhike to Woodstock and become a Canned Heat groupie, or OD tragically in Washington Square. We’ll definitely be seeing more of Sally this year. I’d almost wager that the relationship between her and Don is the one that’s going to be the most central in the show’s final episodes.
- There’s a lot of talk of Megan and Manson, for all the obvious reasons. Last season she was wearing the Sharon Tate shirt. She’s an up and coming actress like Sharon Tate, with an older husband who is away at work in another time zone. Now she’s living in the Hollywood Hills and her line “it’s just what happens to the sound in the canyons,” is so similar to the opening lines of the book “Helter Skelter,” about the Manson murders. They also did a great job of making that house seem as dark and sinister as possible, framing the shots the same way horror films shoot POV home ambushes. The Manson murders were, of course, home invasion knife attacks.
- How can Manson not play into any story involving the beautiful people of Los Angeles in 1969? The question is how will they do it. The show is way too accurate and well-written to have Megan die at the hand of the Manson Family, for the obvious reason that all of Manson’s victims are known entities. What are they going to do, rewrite history so that Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, AND bucktooth Megan all fall victim to Manson? I don’t think so. That’s not their style at all. But stay tuned to see what they do end up doing.
- Back in his lonely Park Avenue apartment, much is made of the show’s final scene with Don and the patio door that won’t close. Is he going to jump or isn’t he? I’m fairly positive he won’t. It would be way too obvious an ending. Weiner’s just messing with us at this point. Don may very well continue to step out onto the precipice in his underwear and face a few demons, but he won’t jump, not at the high level which this show is written.
- That isn’t to say somebody won’t fall from a balcony. There are plenty of characters to choose from. Roger, for one, seems ripe for a spectacular death. Here’s another thought: What if it’s Sally?