After almost a year of waiting, everyone’s favorite Lothario Don Draper is back, and with him comes an hour of near-perfect television writing and the promise of the show’s best season yet.
We open on Freddy pitching an Accutron Watch ad. He speaks directly into the camera, confident, cool and collected. When he is finished, the camera pulls back to reveal a listening Peggy. This opening is a symbolic nod to the changing of the guard, and we know where we are immediately: this is not your first season’s Mad Men; this is the last mile of the marathon. Those expecting to find Peggy in Don’s old position, however, must quickly move on; as alluded to in season six finale, it’s Lou Avery taking the reigns. I find this reveal both satisfying and honest to the times. Though Peggy was Don’s protégé, she’s a woman and relative newcomer to the ad game. The idea that the Sterlings would see her as more without the championing Don would not be completely authentic. Lou is an amalgam of racism, sexism, and Father Knows Best, another roadblock for the ever-suffering Peggy.
Cut to the remnants of an all night bender complete with AMC-S&P approved drug paraphernalia, nude sleeping young people, and Roger in the middle taking a call from his daughter. It’s a fake out for those expecting to see Don at rock bottom – more on that in a moment — but it is equal parts surprising, silly, and exactly where you’d expect Roger to be at the closing of the 1960’s.
The prize for most dramatic change is awarded to Ken Cosgrove; once full of gravitas, electric optimism, and sex appeal, the withering salesman is reduced to chugging Alka-Seltzer as he balances all accounts on the New York side of things whilst Pete basks in the sun in the LA office. Sporting an eyepatch, he barks at Joan to fix an upcoming meeting as if she is still the office manager. Christina Hendricks delivers a dynamite performance with little dialogue, providing viewers with every emotion through her eyes and body language. At the meeting, Joan learns that Mr. Barnes — the new head of marketing for Butler footwear — is intent on firing SCP, preferring to move all advertising in-house. Discovering the young man’s business prowess, Joan visits a business school to brush up on the lingo and strong-arms Mr. Barnes into giving the firm another shot, saving the day from the wings, as always.
And, at long last, nearly seven minutes in to the episode, Don appears as, well, Don. Cocksure as ever, he exits an airport and gives still-currently Mrs. Megan Draper a long kiss on the mouth. They are a magazine cover, a testament to the American Dream. Although, it’s Megan driving the convertible this time, and she is the subject of dinner with her agent. Subtly, we know Don subjugates himself to be a mere passenger to his wife’s success, a position Betty would never have allowed. Even buying a house in the canyon living apart from her Manhattanite husband, Mrs. Draper has broken off a piece of Hollywood – somewhere men like Don are not meant to dwell for long.
Back home, Ted appears from the LA office, and Peggy does her best to steer clear of him. After an awkward scene in the kitchen, Peggy leans on old pal Stan, who proves his friendship by avoiding pity. When the ever-laboring adwoman heads home, she must attend to unruly tenants of her recently purchased apartment. Things back at the office do not get any better as she tries desperately to get Lou to agree to the best idea for Accutron. If there was any doubt that we were supposed to hate Lou, it is spelled right out for us when he tells Peggy, “I guess I’m just immune to your charms.” Oh, you’re going down, Mr. Cleaver!
Don checks in with Pete, who, much like Megan, has blossomed in the California sun. Away from the obligation of family, Mr. Campbell is sleazier than ever, though with more success and a healthier exterior. Don spends precious moments with his wife, who finally chalks up her initial iciness to nerves. They spend the rest of the day together before Don boards the red-eye back to New York.
Roger has lunch with his daughter who has reached some kind of transcendental state of forgiveness, even as she lists all of her father’s past failures. Not completely convinced this is not a ploy for money, Roger wades carefully in the waters of caution. It is one of those typical Roger scenes where he is supposed to learn something but spends the important moments inside a bottle, sarcastically jabbing his current predicament.
On the red-eye, Don – back to his old tricks — meets a widow (Neve Campbell) who regales him with the tale of scattering her late husband’s ashes at Disneyland. Basically revealing everything currently wrong with Don in her tale of woe, it is an unwanted look into what could be Don’s swan song. The woman lays her head on his shoulder, and the two doze off. “If I was your wife, I wouldn’t like this,” she comments on their closeness. “She knows I’m a terrible husband.” Isn’t that the understatement of the century! Consequently, he turns down an offer to join her later in lieu of getting back to the “office.”
The finale offers a sly reveal as it seems nothing has changed, as the opening of the episode would have us believe. Freelancer Freddy’s Accutron idea? Purely Draper. In fact, Freddy has been all over town pitching Don’s ideas as the Wizard of Oz pulls the strings in the background. Freddy urges Don to reveal himself and not risk becoming ”damaged goods.” Don sits on his cold balcony, a shell of what he was, finally shown to the audience. All shown before was a lie. Peggy is not fairing much better, having collapsed on her floor in tears with the weight of the world on her back. Without each other, Peggy and Don are both lost. Best friends, outlets, mentor-mentee…now, so lost.
Mad Men has never been an overtly expository program; the show’s strong writing comes from its complete understanding of the core characters and ability to push their stories forward in authentic and meaningful ways. Preferring subtlety to flash, Men boldly examines Don Draper’s life and those in his orbit asking profound questions without hitting us over the head with plot twists and “shocking” exploitative storylines. True to form and back on top, Mad Men remains as relevant and intriguing as ever.