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Mad Men Season 7 Episode 1, “The Beginning”: Damaged Goods

April 14, 2014

Draper and company are back, and it hasn’t been long. Unlike in previous seasons, the time jump is tiny — it’s only been about 8 weeks since we last saw Don and the whole SC&P gang. Don is still on indefinite leave from the company, and 3 main characters — Megan, Pete, and Ted — have moved to LA.

This episode, “Time Zones” is all about well, time, and distance. We start with Freddy Rumson’s shockingly elegant pitch to Peggy, for Accutron watches: “It’s not a timepiece, it’s a conversation piece.” Peggy knows this is great copy, but she wants to put her own stamp on it, and so it becomes “It’s time for conversation.”

Conversation, though, is in short supply. Here’s a short list of people who aren’t communicating effectively in this episode: Don and Megan, Peggy and Ted, Peggy and her new boss Lou, Roger and his daughter. Plus everyone in New York and everyone in LA — as Ken says angrily, between waiting for calls from Ted and Pete he doesn’t even have time to shit.

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When we first see Don, 8 minutes into the episode, he’s shaving on a plane, and then he’s in LA to see Megan, who is still his wife (I was pretty certain they’d be done by the time we came back this season, but I was wrong). She steps out of a car and is someone entirely different from the sad, broken girl we last saw in New York. She’s got her own agenda, and clearly expects Don to fit himself in to that while he visits. He’s late so they go straight to dinner with her flamboyant agent; when they get home, Megan refers to her next apartment before quickly correcting herself — OUR next apartment. Then she passes out and Don is left to fall asleep in front of the TV. It’s a familiar picture.

The next morning Megan leaves for class, and when she asks Don if he’d like a ride to the office it becomes clear that Don has not told her about his forced leave of absence. So she heads off, pointedly leaving Don with a playboy magazine. He’s alone with his lie.

In New York, Peggy is having a really rough time. Last season, we saw her struggle between choosing Don or Ted. This season, she has no choices: she’s stuck with Lou, who really doesn’t care how the ads end up as long as they get done. Even worse is her deep sadness about Ted and her awkwardness around him when he shows up at the New York office for some meetings. On top of that, she’s still stuck in the apartment she shared with Abe, and she’s the goddamn super for the building, with its many faults. Her Christmas tree is still up and fully decorated in January, and she’s alone.

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Joan is also having a shitty go of it. With Ken way overworked, she steps up, taking a meeting for him. But the meeting doesn’t go well — she finds out that the client is planning to move advertising in-house — so she steps up again, finding a way to fix it. She’s a real bad-ass and a hard worker and she seems to still really really care about this company, despite all that it has put her through. But it’s a thankless job: she’s rewarded with sexism from all sides (the professor she goes to visit assumes that she won’t know what he’s talking about; the client’s marketing manager tells her not to get emotional), and finally with a scolding from Kenny for using his office. Joan is a partner without benefits, it seems.

Meanwhile, Joan’s baby daddy, Roger, is living in what appears to be a hotel room, maybe, with a bunch of naked ladies. He’s wasted and naked when his daughter calls to invite him to Sunday brunch, and his first thought is that she’s calling him there for an ambush. Roger really has nothing left.

Finally we come back to Don, and in a pretty great twist (that we actually should have seen coming), it’s revealed that Don is working with Freddy Rumson, and it was Don who wrote that great copy for Accutron. They eat sandwiches together in Don’s freezing apartment (his sliding door is stuck open), and Freddy advises Don not to become damaged goods.

I was struck by that phrase, damaged goods. Don has, in so many instances, referred to women in his life as damaged goods — or, in other words, as whores. He called Betty a whore and Megan a whore (“you kiss people for money. You know who else does that?”), and of course, his relationship with whores is quite complex. Now that he too is damaged goods, he’s trying to find a way to make it lucrative by working with Freddy, but he may lose his window to find a new job or to find anything good in life if he doesn’t move quickly.

For her part, Joan is aware of her damaged goods status and on the defensive about it — when the professor suggests a trade, she becomes chilly. Does everyone know how she became partner? We don’t see her son in this episode, but he must be at home, and she must be exhausted. She’s getting older and she has no partner, has not won any respect at work, and is trudging through the same muck she’s been in since we met her.

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Everything about Roger’s life seems destroyed, too. We can’t really tell where he lives now, or what he’s up to exactly, but we do know that he doesn’t set foot in the office once during this episode. He has no contact with his colleagues or former colleagues (Don), and while he seems to have a girlfriend of sorts, she also seems to have a boyfriend. The only connection he has is with his daughter, who wants to forgive him — but he doesn’t want to take that in. (Speaking of which, what kind of ’70s hoo-ha has she gotten into? The forgiveness is a nice message and all, but it seems like maybe she’s in a weird cult or something.)

Finally, Peggy is seriously damaged. Last year she pinned all of her hopes on Ted. When he chose his stable life over a new one with her, she was left entirely alone, and worse for it — Ted slept with her before he made his decision, of course, so she’s really ravaged. With Ted gone, I would hope she’d find solace in her friendship with Don (he’s been there for her in times of sadness before, be it her pregnancy or her lonely 26th birthday), but Don is gone, too. The only place in her life where she feels in control is work, and she presides over Freddy with great authority — but her need to feel important there leads her to mess up Freddy’s (i.e., Don’s) perfect pitch, and then she’s got nothing.

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And what about SC&P? With a creative director who doesn’t really care which tag line they use, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll win a lot of new business. Pete, for his part, doesn’t seem to care much either; he just loves his new pants and his hot real estate agent. He’s left behind a thoroughly damaged family — will he ever even know his daughter? — but for now, he’s focusing on the sunshine.

On Don’s red-eye back to New York, he sits next to a mysterious and yet familiar woman (who is, mysteriously and familiarly, actually NEVE CAMPBELL). She’s a widow. Her husband, she said, died of thirst. She sleeps on Don’s shoulder, and wakes up not unlike the way Megan woke up on his chest just that morning. Don chooses to open the window and let in the sunlight instead of accepting her offer of a ride home.

“I really thought I could do it this time,” Don says to her, about his marriage. But as we start this final season, everything is damaged, and everyone feels far away. The most intimate moment in the episode is between Don and a stranger.

Other thoughts: 

— We don’t see any member of the Francis family this week. I look forward to finding out what’s up with them soon.

— I still love how Stan and Peggy are friends. “None of this seems related to coffee.”

— Don asks, “Have I broken the vessel?”

— Bob Benson is on the line for Kenny at one point, so he’s still a thing.

— The mirror ending of Don crying on his porch and Peggy crying in her living room is another indication of what Matt Weiner has always said: this show is about Don AND about Peggy. They are meant to be counterparts.

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