‘Mad Men’ Season 7 Review: Slouching Towards California

When we last left Mad Men in the heady days of Season 6’s finale, “In Care Of,” things were in flux in the lives of Don Draper and Sterling Cooper & Partners. Peggy lost Ted Chaough to his family and possible redemption in California, gaining power in the process, a victory that came with restrictions. Pete lost his mother and his wife and gained the opportunity of freedom in California. And Don lost SC&P in a flameout for the ages, telling the Hershey account about how he used to buy a Hershey’s bar with the money he got from one of the prostitutes in the whorehouse that he grew up in; and in that loss, he found a freedom, finally taking his children to that house and showing them the truth about his past. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” played them out, as Sally gave her father a look that said, yes, I understand some things now.

Well something’s lost, but something’s gained in Season 7’s excellent opener, “Time Zones.” Mad Men comes back strongly, wrestling with some of its favorite topics: travel, California, what it means to be powerful, and eternal question of whether you can ever outrun your problems — or whether you can outrun your nature.

Yet for a show that so resolutely uses location and travel as a potential key to a new American life, this opener finds most characters static, even if the situations are new. They are tightly shot in the lavishly designed interiors and offices, no matter the location, no matter what coast, although you can feel the ’60s bleeding out into the mustardy yellows of the next generation. Everyone is pinned in by the David Lynch interiors, and the overall feeling is one of collective dread. Repeatedly, people ask whether “you got any sun.” The answer is no.

The sun, in this episode, may seem like happiness. Most of Mad Men‘s characters are hemmed in by their interiors, their jobs, their location. Joan is on a mission that involves her high heels clacking through a snowy and icy college campus. The only real glimpse of the sun we get is in the gorgeous reunion between Don and Megan, looking like a million bucks with a Bardot bouffant and a baby-blue mini dress that’s all leg, as English-beat Hammond organ surges on the soundtrack. It’s an iconic moment, maybe too iconic…

Don’s handsomeness is at par or even at a particular high point, which, of course, reflects his general temperament. He is trying. After being put on leave by Sterling Cooper & Partners last season, he is in a position where he needs to fight. Fighting suits Don as well as his nicely cut suits. He is flirting with the West Coast, the lure of California as a place to start over, to begin again, to see himself in the sun and the sand, living a beautiful American life in a car. Whether California is a reality — or just Disneyland — remains a mystery.

It would be better if every encounter wasn’t so creepy and ominous. There are ladies of the canyon, alone in the hills, men in pastels, talking in dream language like they’re giving a monologue at Winkie’s, á la Muholland Drive. There are echoes of Sharon Tate if you care to look — she wore a bouffant as well. There are echoes of Betty, too. And the characters are wearing more masks in California. It’s the land of dreams and dreamers, a sweet promise that you can reinvent yourself again, but it doesn’t make you whole.

Back in New York, there’s no sun to be found, and these characters are penned in their offices. Peggy’s power pantsuit is nowhere to be found. Her office is feeling tiny, her head hits the ceiling. She’s flailing, trying to get the world to bend to her desires, when everyone’s telling her to let it go, like she’s in Frozen; which, of course, is a fairly applicable song for Peggy, only realized last season when she turned vixen and embarked on the ill-fated affair with Ted. Her home life is something out of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, filled with distressing omens. She should avoid black cats.

We get glimpses of the other characters that make up Sterling Cooper & Partners, and they’re in different places than we’ve seen; of particular interest is Joan, angling for something important. We see the gears of her brain working, and it’s a lovely thing. Ken, on the other hand, has his eyepatch and a great deal of stress.

But this episode is Don’s journey. Don is traveling, Don is escaping something and trying to find something else to believe in and coming to grips with where he is in life. He starts out very handsome, and by the end he’s looking out over a city, a complete mess. The shot is simple, but it played a trick on my brain for a second. I could’ve sworn there was a woman’s legs behind Don, like a bad version of the A Christmas Story lamp. I was wrong, but something about the disassociation felt right for the character. He’s alone, and are these well-drawn women real people to him? We’re never sure.

We look at Don Draper. We wonder where he could go. The lights stretch out behind him. He’s very high up. It’s going to be a ride to see where Matt Weiner takes the season, what decisions are made.

Maybe he has to come down.