When we met Don Draper last season, he was lounging in paradise reading Dante's Inferno: tough beach-reading but appropriate research for our adman antihero's approaching torment. Throughout the sixth season, we watched Draper writhe in whatever circle of hell is reserved for those who mismanage their affairs so badly that their teenage daughter is able to witness them boffing the neighbor lady.
We know that the show's seventh and final season will be about rising up out of the depths. The question before us: Just how painful can purgatory be, especially when there's no booze to numb it?
We've jumped forward a couple months in time, to late January 1969, just in time for Nixon's inauguration. Don is once again in an in-between state -- cast out of Sterling Cooper & Partners but not fired, somewhat skeeved by his wife but not divorced.
The premiere episode, titled "Time Zones," gives us Don fittingly bouncing between Los Angeles, where Megan's acting career seems to be gaining some momentum, and New York, where he is secretly feeding Freddie Rumsen copy approaches that agencies, including SC&P, are actually buying. As Vanilla Fudge will tell us in the closing song, Don is hangin' on -- just barely. And there is a pervading sense that he has limited time to sort things out.
(Random note for TV geeks: That Vanilla Fudge cover, of The Supremes "You Keep Me Hangin' On," also appeared in the finale of "The Sopranos" -- in a crucial moment, when Phil Leotardo gets whacked. "Mad Men" showrunner Matthew Weiner was, of course, a writer on that show, though he didn't get a credit on the finale. We are probably being toyed with.)
We're nearing the end of the show, the end of the decade, and the end of advertising as a loosey-goosey endeavor that seems sort of impossible to not make money in. We are reminded of all this impermanence by the central brand in the episode, Accutron. Made by Bulova, Accutron's chief innovation was using a tuning fork in its watches instead of a mechanical wheel, yielding timepieces with much greater precision. For a few years, it was a revolution, but by late 1969, Seiko would release the Astron, the first mass-market quartz watch that would deliver similar accuracy at less cost, sending the Accutron from conversation piece to museum piece.
One of the strengths of "Mad Men"'s writing is its resistance to nostalgia and its insistence on reminding us how we are hard-wired for tumult and change. Case in point: SC&P, by all appearance, has more clients than it can handle. Yet, in the Butler Shoes subplot, you can see how the agency business will unravel.
Joan holds him off by throwing the old we'll-get-you-better-media-rates-than-you-could-get-on-your-own case at him, the scale argument that many in our business would say has been responsible for a loss of creativity. Visiting a business professor to help bolster her case to keep the account, Joan reveals that SC&P's mix of commission and fee clients is about 50-50, which puts the agency well ahead of the history in that shift to (generally less profitable) fee-based arrangements. As far as I can tell, it wasn't until the mid-1990s that there were as many fee-based compensation agreements as there were commission-based ones.
But I for one am willing to forgive any anachronism if it serves to inject compensation model discussions into prime-time TV, especially when it's so tightly linked to that theme of decline. Joan is only on the Butler business because Ken Cosgrove, head of accounts, is too, um, short-sighted and married to some outmoded idea of status to take the meeting. Cosgrove's descent from earnest fiction author to a paunchy, embittered eyepatch-wearing wretch would be sad if it weren't excellently drawn as a nightmarish incarnation of David Ogilvy's Hathaway Shirt man. In losing his healthy distance from agency life, Cosgrove has essentially traded places with Pete Campbell, who's now settling in California. With his baby-blue golf shirt and plaid pants, Pete is living a sort of California bliss, happy to sit in the sun, sign on a few local clients and flirt with a real-estate agent.
With Pete's change, gone is the tightly-wound up-and-comer who never quite got where he wanted. The same can't be said for Peggy, who's struggling to win the respect of Don's replacement, struggling to leave her affections for Ted behind, struggling to be a landlord. She's just struggling. The only character who's really living the late 60's as we think of the time is Roger Sterling, whose hedonism translates seamlessly from era to era. He's added orgies and incense to a repertoire that already included acid-tripping and, from what little we see of him, he appears rather happy. In a great scene, his (always creepy) daughter has come to brunch to forgive him. She's been doing some searching of her own, it seems. Sterling, however, refuses to ask for or accept her forgiveness.
The brunch is one of those great "Mad Men" scenes whose point is not immediately clear other than to speak volumes to how difficult people and relationships are. It also underscores how important the idea of atonement is sure to be in this season, just as it was in Dante's Purgatorio. The stunning end of the episode features a pull back on Don as he sits shivering on his balcony in January. It's the same camera technique that opens the show, only then it focused on Freddie Rumsen delivering his Accutron pitch.
The closing shot is of a man punishing himself, but it is also a lot more. Don, after all, has been pulled to that freezing balcony, guided by some force through a door that wouldn't close. Given that every episode of "Mad Men" is introduced by the image of a falling man, it's easy to look at this as Don being drawn toward the ledge. Earlier in the episode, Don is presented with a possible version of his own demise when he encounters a haunting woman on the plane (Neve Campbell in a great turn) who tells Don of her alcoholic husband who died before his time.
Is passing up the chance to sleep with her part of his repentance? Or is it simply too late? As he wonders while moving between time zones at 30,000 feet, "Have I broken the vessel?"