Mad Men 7×01 ‘Time Zones’: Out into the cold

Mad Men 7x01 Cover

“In these days of wars and rumors of wars—haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?  Of course you have.  So has every man since Time began.  Always the same dream.  Sometimes he calls it Utopia—Sometimes the Fountain of Youth—Sometimes merely ‘that little chicken farm.’”

Mad Men is about a lot of things, but more than anything else, it’s about the never-ending search for a “utopia”, as well as the bitter reality that such a utopia doesn’t exist.  We hope for the ability to adapt to whatever change is present, but the issue is that change is omnipresent.  We’ll never be at peace.  We’ll never be secure.  Life will never be a lasting delight.  In reality, life is hanging on for dear life to what you have, hoping that you have the willpower to endure whatever is to come next, praying that you won’t let go.

Mad Men 7x01-4

Source: AMC

As “Time Zones” went on, it became clearer just how this premiere is set apart from the rest.  Here, the characters are smarter, older, and more aware.  They’re trying new things but unable to shake old stupid habits.  It’s no coincidence that the episode is called “Time Zones”, that there’s again a preoccupation with time and transition.  All of these characters are in a transitional phase in their lives, adjusting to new changes in their lives but unable to really deal with the pressure that comes along with change.

Roger has been hunting for contentment for a long time.  He tried LSD back in Season 5.  He tried therapy back in Season 6.  And here we see him sinking lower, swinging with random people, participating in orgies, begging for a connection that just isn’t there.  When he meets with his daughter, he’s baffled by how happy she is.  She’s found a spirituality within her, a delusion that allows her to legitimately forgive Roger for everything he’s done wrong to her and her mother.  And when Roger lays back down, surrounded by naked people, all he can think about is how she’s so content and he’s so alone in his wanting, his sorrow.  She’s found the secret and he just can’t seem to solve the puzzle.

Mad Men 7x01-2

Source: AMC

Even Joan, one of the strongest women on the show, is struggling to find her way.  She’s smart enough to negotiate keeping Butler’s footwear as a client, but she’s under so many pressures every step of the way.  Even as a partner, she’s treated like an underling, like she’s just a woman who doesn’t know anything about marketing.  She constantly has to prove herself, either to Butler’s head of marketing or to the university professor who doesn’t believe she knows the difference between commissions and fees.  And, even after securing Butler’s footwear, there’s no real relief at the end.  Ken harasses her about going into his office and life goes on from there.  Joan may be tough, but she can’t help thinking that this problem is just one of many, just something else to deal with before the next thing comes.

Mad Men 7x01-1

Source: AMC

Peggy is experiencing some of the same pressure.  Even though last season had her situated in the opening credits’ silhouette, in a place of power, we see that she’s under a new boss now, trying to work her way back to a place where she’s remotely appreciated.  Everyone is writing Peggy off in the premiere: Ted comes back for a brief moment and shares an awkward conversation with her, the new boss Lou doesn’t care for her ideas, and even the tenants in her building are yelling at her about pointless garbage.  It’s easy to feel lonely when the pressure comes at you from multiple angles, not only because it’s hard to connect with people when you’re stuck in your own head, but because it’s easier to believe that nobody is on your side than have one person who is.  But that doesn’t mean that loneliness isn’t debilitating.  At the end of the episode, when Peggy breaks down in her apartment, we see her opening the pressure value, letting off a little of the steam, hoping that it’s enough to get her through another day.

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Source: AMC

And then we have Don, who, after making that world-shattering revelation in last season’s “In Care Of”, is barely holding onto the life that he has.  He lives coast-to-coast, trying to salvage his marriage to Megan, trying to come to terms with the fact that his wife is now more professionally successful than he is.  And even though he’s trying, there’s still a disconnect between the two of them.  He’s still lying about something, still hiding a part of himself from her, even though he’s trying to improve.  Improvement comes in almost invisibly small steps, so to think that the Hershey’s pitch was going to solve his problems was foolish.  Of course, there is a sense of improvement, of real change.  When he connects with the woman next to him on his flight, he turns down her propositions because he “has to go to work”.  He’s being honest in not cheating on Megan, but he’s replaced one delusion for another.  He’s barely working, feeding Freddy Rumsen ideas with the hopes that he’ll get his job back.  Without his job, he’s floating in the unknown, trying to figure out just what he’s supposed to do with himself now that he’s lost the things he shed last season.  He may have gained some freedom, but the trick is trying to figure out what to fill the void with.  And it’s tempting to fill it with delusion.

It’s fitting that we end the episode with Don passing through that doorway, the one that’s cracked open, unable to close.  He sees the future ahead of him, feels the cold even without passing through.  But when he does pass through, when he sits in the cold on his balcony, it’s not any easier.  He’s engulfed in the cold, all alone, no turning back.  Because life never eases off.  Life never stops and waits for us to catch up.  And, most of all, life is something we go through alone, no matter who we’re around, no matter who loves us.  Only we know how we feel.  Only we know what is going on in our heads.  It’s just a matter of getting by, taking happiness where we can get it.

It’s just tough when it doesn’t seem like happiness is anywhere, when you’re surrounded by the cold.

“We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment”

So what did you think of the premiere?  Did it live up to your expectations?  Do you think Mad Men can produce a solid 7-episode mini-season?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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  • bluefish

    Hey, thank you for your wonderful essay on the first episode. Thoughtful, well-written, and nicely presented. I especially liked your inclusion of the quote from “Lost Horizon.”

    I think “Mad Men” will be fine. Having lived through those days, I wish sometimes that — beyond the amazing costume and set design — the show was more reflective of a certain mood. The 60s are hard to capture. All the trappings are there, on the screen, but Weiner and Co. have not been as successful in bringing the 60s to life as they were the 50s. The spirit of the age seems to be missing. Still love the show. I appreciate your insights as this particular opening I found a bit trying — took me a couple of viewings to take it in.

    • Michael St. Charles

      Thanks! I agree that this premiere was occasionally a bit difficult to get into at first. Often for me, it takes teasing out the thematic parallels between character threads in order to really become enthralled by the episode. When I first see it as a tangled web, I have a tough time deriving meaning from it all.

      I’d agree that Weiner is only picking up on a certain aspect of the 60s, namely the chaos that comes from the big changes happening during that era. He seems to be throwing other facets of the 60s to the side in order to really emphasize that.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Always great to hear from a fellow “Mad Men” fan. I’m very excited to see how the rest of this season plays out.

  • bluefish

    You keep you the good work and the good writing. I read up on a fair number of reviews, including Sepinwall’s. Yours was the most insightful — and I very much liked your style of writing. Your students must be happy young people to have you at the helm. A bit of joy — even melancholy elation — see Saul Bellow – wouldn’t be a bad thing. A touch of mania might help.

    • Michael St. Charles

      Thanks! I’ll be posting a review for the latest episode later today. You’ll have to let me know what you think of it. There’s a little more joy and hopefulness in this one, haha. Just a little bit.