Late into “Time Zones,” the first episode of Mad Men’s final season, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is literally stuck in a holding pattern, flying above the East Coast alongside a talkative widow, played by Neve Campbell. She offers him a ride home with a wink and he pointedly responds that he has to get back to work. It’s the same line he lays on Megan (Jessica Paré), his wife, when she insists they have a few more hours of time together in Los Angeles before he has to catch his flight back to New York. It’s a seemingly throwaway line, but it’s the way Hamm delivers it that reveals the sinking desperation and boredom that Don is stewing in. The fact that he’s reintroduced via Spencer Davis Group’s strutting “I’m a Man” is telling: “Well, if I had my choice of matter/I would rather be with cats/All engrossed in mental chatter/Movin’ where our minds are at.”
Advertising has never quite been “work” for Don, but rather a creative platform he utilizes to speak to delicate social, emotional, and existential notions, even if the ultimate goal is commerce. The same could be said of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), his unlikely protégé, and both characters are clearly linked through professional stagnation in the season premiere, which finds them in a crucial moment of rebranding. Don’s new job, writing ideas for Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) to sell under his name to SC&P, lacks the stakes he feeds off of, the thrill of performance that’s crucial to pitching and gaining the client’s confidence. For Peggy, her inability to connect with Don’s replacement, Lou Avery (Allan Havey), has put her in a similar state of anxiousness and frustration. In effect, Don and Peggy are both copywriters now, mid-level cogs in the SC&P machine.
The purgatorial mood that writer and creator Matthew Weiner and his crew conjure here sets the stage for Don and company’s final season-long cocktail hour and it’s going to get weird and sad quick. After all, it’s 1969, and one needs little more than the clip of the first inauguration of Richard Milhouse Nixon playing on the tube to know what the atmosphere is like. Of course, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is on his own strange trip, sharing his bed with a free-love poster girl and whomever she invites into their bed. The desperation that’s crippled Don and has a firm grasp on Peggy by the end of “Time Zones” hasn’t quite struck Sterling yet, but the quietly distressing sequence in which his daughter offers forgiveness for his, um, doings suggests that the sickness will hit him sooner than later.
Meanwhile, Joan (Christina Hendricks) is on the frontlines, convincing a naïve director of marketing for one of SC&P’s major clients, a shoe company, to hold off on crafting their advertising in house. Though the episode rides high on Weiner’s reliably direct, evocative dialogue, the most breathtaking sequence of events revolves around an image, Joan’s earring, which becomes as much a symbol for her empowerment as it is for eye-patched Ken Cosgrove’s (Aaron Staton) continuing emasculation. The initial rough exchanges between Peggy and Ted (Kevin Rahm), back from the West Coast, make it seem that they’re destined for a similarly resentful professional disposition, but then there’s that repeated line about Ted not having a tan, a sly hint that the change of scenery hasn’t affected him, or his desires.
A number of uneasy partnerships are probed in “Time Zones,” a devastating opening movement for a final symphony, many of which seem to be all over but for the crying, which comes, shatteringly, at the end. Peggy and Don’s solitary moments of eruptive loneliness are accompanied by “You Just Keep Me Hanging On,” but it’s important to note that it’s a cover by Vanilla Fudge, who turn the Supremes’ urgent, angry declaration of the title into an aching, hopeless plea. It’s masterful final stroke as we see that Don, both figuratively and literally, can’t keep the cold out anymore.