The Mad Men Season 7 Premiere: The Same Old Don Draper?

Our roundtable discusses the first episode of the seventh season.

Every week for the seventh season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper & Partners. This week's panelists: Ashley Fetters (associate editor, Entertainment Channel), Chris Heller (senior associate editor), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent). 

Fetters: In the world of Mad Men, it’s January of 1969 now—but in some ways, we’re still exactly where we were when the show began in 1960.

In an interview with The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin, published last month, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner pointed out that last season, Season Six, found Don Draper exactly where he started in the pilot: “He is in a marriage with someone who loves him, it is one-sided, and he is seeking comfort from this other woman.” The “other woman” from last season has faded out of Don’s life, ostensibly—but in many other ways, “Time Zones,” the premiere of the first half of the show’s seventh season, reminded me a lot of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the first episode of the series.

“Time Zones” reinforced all the things the series premiere taught us about Don. He’s married, but not in a mutually satisfying marriage; he has a knack for sharing tender moments with women he meets in random circumstances; he takes pride and finds purpose in being the best in the advertising business.

Don’s marriage to Megan is an increasingly uneasy one—and it’s now bicoastal. She’s living in Los Angeles full-time, finding work as an actress. He’s in New York five days a week, even though, unbeknownst to his wife, it’s been two months since he had a real job there. Essentially, then, Don has built a whole way of life on a lie, and he’s married to a woman who (as he implies later in the episode) knows not to ask too many questions. Sound familiar? And just like he shared some surprisingly honest exchanges with Rachel Menken in the series premiere, this episode found Don in another rare moment of revealing honesty with a woman seated next to him (Neve Campbell!) on his flight home to New York.

Toward the end of the episode, it’s revealed that Don’s been helping Freddy Rumsen with freelance work, and that Don was the real mastermind behind the “home-run” Accutron pitch. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” famously introduced Don as the top creative thinker in the ad industry; “he’s still got it,” “Time Zones” seems to be saying.

When Weiner told Rosin about Don full-circling back to his life as it was back in 1960, he continued, “Why is he doing this? Because he is in a state of chaos.” That’s just vague enough to be open to interpretation, but I take that to mean that Don’s overwhelmed—by the rapidly changing world around him, probably. So he’s reverting back to his old ways, because that’s what’s familiar. I think this also rings true in the case of his partnership with Freddy: Don points out that the agency’s still paying him, and Freddy makes an aside about how he should be paying Don for his help. Don, then, isn’t getting paid for the work he’s doing, and doesn’t necessarily have to even be doing work to be getting paid. But he’s latched onto this project with Freddy because it’s something he’s good at and takes comfort in doing.

The most striking difference, however, between the Season One premiere and the Season Seven premiere is in their revelatory final scenes. The last shot of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is of Don’s home life, complete with a pretty young wife and children—which reveals that Don spends his days lying to and fooling other people. “Time Zones,” however, finds Don lying to everyone about how he “has to get back to work” and remaining somewhat deludedly optimistic about returning to SC&P, then ends with a closing shot of Don’s home life. This time, he’s sickly-looking and miserable, out alone in the cold with just his muddled thoughts. This time, it looks more like he spends most of the day consciously fooling himself.

Meanwhile, in another moment reminiscent of early Mad Men, Peggy got talked down to about her charms not working on her boss. Years ago, it was Don telling Peggy that her advances were both misguided and ineffective (“I’m not your boyfriend,” he reminds her); now, it’s a fuddy-duddy interim boss named Lou Avery, who shoots down Peggy’s earnest desire to present the best pitch possible for Accutron by saying her charms don’t work on him. Only this time, her supervisor truly doesn’t seem to recognize her talent or her devotion to her work. With both of her mentors now gone (Ted’s working in SC&P’s California office, while Don’s on a forced hiatus), Peggy’s new clout and confidence in the workplace are being, to her frustration, largely invalidated.

This premiere, of course, did reveal a few other things that would have seemed wildly improbable back when the show premiered in 2007: Joan’s handling her own accounts at the agency; Roger’s living in some sort of communal free-love arrangement with a bunch of unwashed-looking people; Pete’s in Los Angeles, wearing plaid pants and talking groovy about the vibrations of the city. (And Ken Cosgrove, Pete’s smooth-talking onetime nemesis, is now reduced to bumbling around the New York office in a near-constant state of frazzlement and suffering the embarrassing effects of having zero depth perception.) But “Time Zones” was, like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” an installment all about Don Draper and Peggy Olson and their lives at and after work.

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

Chris Heller is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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