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.

Chris, Amy, what did you two take away from this season’s premiere? Any absurdly early predictions for Where Don Draper’s Life Is Going, or any guesses as to what “I have to get back to work” is really an excuse for?

Sullivan: Did everyone have the same thought as the first few minutes of the premiere rolled by? “Freddy Rumsen, what the hell? Sobriety definitely agrees with you, man!” And it does—Freddy seems to be doing just fine these days. But he never was and never will be Don Draper, a man whose advertising pitches can still give Peggy Olson a shiver of delight. Even if, as Freddy says, she had to "lift her leg" and futz around with the tagline.

I loved the way that first scene was shot, with Freddy staring straight into the camera, giving us the full Don Draper. Watch it again, now that you know it was all Don’s idea. Of course that’s not Freddy. But that’s why Don is one of the best. His words sell products; it scarcely matters who actually says them.

After a pretty dismal run on the job last year, it’s nice to see Don getting his game back, even if no one knows it’s him. I have a theory, Ashley, that while Don is obviously still lying—at least by omission—about a whole lot of things, he’s no longer lying to himself. That separates him from Pete, whose hug(!) of Don had a whiff of “Oh, thank God, someone familiar!” And from Roger, who is clearly on his 57th midlife crisis. And from Ken, whose attempts to forget that all he ever really wanted was to write short stories have turned him into a miserable, cranky mess. And even from Peggy, who collapses sobbing near the end of this episode once she stops pretending to herself that she doesn’t need a personal life because her professional life is so dandy.

That was heartbreaking. And not just because we’ve all been there, sister-friend. I just want to give Peggy a hug.

Back to Don, my theory is not based on much more than a few threads. He struck me as a man playing around with some ad campaigns as a workout, to prove to himself that he’s still got it. After all, everyone wants credit in that industry, even if Don is always chastising underlings who complain when he fails to credit them for their ideas. It also struck me that Don might have turned down Neve Campbell’s invitation because he was actually self-aware enough to see that she’d been gutted once by a man with an alcohol problem and he’s no longer lying to himself about his potential to spiral the same way.

Or this could just be wishful thinking. Because obviously Neve Campbell is going to come back at some point. If Rory Gilmore shows up in an episode as Pete Campbell’s neighbor, there’s a pretty good chance that Pete will end up sleeping with her. And if Julia Salinger has the seat next to Don on a red-eye, we’re likely to see her again before long.

As for the woman Don is still married to, I’m putting Matthew Weiner on notice here and now. If he’s going to drop all of these Sharon Tate hints—her murder takes place in August 1969, Don expresses concern about the safety of Megan’s new place, she wore that T-shirt last season that Tate famously modeled—Weiner damn well better pay it off. Otherwise these are red herrings on the scale of True Detective and Carcosa, and you know how I felt about that. I obviously don’t really want to see Megan murdered in a Manson family-style attack, but I’m tired of these too-cute writers messing with our heads just because they can.

That’s just a warning. Overall, I’m excited to watch this last season play out. I don’t need any crazy twists to make me happy—the thrill of Mad Men has always been watching these people we’ve come to know so well just live their lives. The look on Joan’s face when she realizes the business professor wasn’t hitting on her—he actually wanted to trade information as two professionals. The awful awkwardness of Ted and Peggy running into each other in the office kitchen on the weekend. (“STAN! Do you want some coffee?”)

So here’s the real burning question I have about this season: Does the California location mean we’ll see the return of Paul “Hare Krishna/Star Trek fan fic writer” Kinsey? We can only hope.

Heller: I'm ashamed to admit it, Amy, but I didn't think Freddy's pitch was all that awesome. It's a good thing I'm not in advertising, I guess. What stuck out to me in that opening scene, though, was the way Matthew Weiner pulled the curtains aside to speak to his audience.

"Are you ready?" Freddy asks. "Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something." That's not just an Accutron pitch. Freddie's lips may be moving, but those are Weiner's words through and through. It's a playful message, a winking code meant for anybody who looks for "clues" or "hints" that could reveal Don Draper's fate. Weiner wants us to pay attention, but he doesn't want us to look for puzzles. This is not that show. Mad Men is not a riddle. It won't be solved by way of coded references or subtle allusions. I'm not even sure it can be solved.

All of which is to say: Don't fall for the Sharon Tate ruse, Amy! Do you remember the fiasco that surrounded that theory last season? Weiner certainly does. All that ominous howling in the distance of the Hollywood Hills? That's Weiner, wagging his finger at the conspiracy junkies who believed Megan would die. The scene when she brings Don back to her house dripped with invisible, over-the-top threat. He made a ridiculous reference to "Dracula's castle," she gazed out at the skyline, and a million pet theories simultaneously burst forth onto the Internet. She isn't Sharon Tate, but in that moment, she was a cruel inside joke.

I'll be honest: I don't have the faintest clue where Mad Men is heading. I agree with Ashley about the similarities between this episode and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and I think Amy's right to believe that we haven't seen the last of Neve Campbell. (Be still, my heart.) So while I won't make predictions, I will ask a few questions.

What does "work" mean for Don? I was struck by how often Don used his (absent) job as an excuse to avoid the difficult aspects of his life. He used it to dodge a tough conversation with Megan about their "bicoastal" relationship, and he used it to avoid a romp with the widow Campbell. And those excuses were word-for-word identical: "I’m sorry, but I have to get back to work." I suspect he's apologizing to himself as much as he's apologizing to these women. If he can't lie to himself anymore, all of his sins must be a lot more difficult to bear. For Don, getting "back to work" isn't just a corner office in a Madison Avenue sky rise. It's a way of life. The only thing is, that way of life won't exist when, or if, he is allowed to return to Sterling Cooper.

2) What has Peggy accomplished? In that great interview that Ashley mentioned, Weiner describes Peggy as a person "living Don's myth." These two are inexorably linked, as if they exert a gravitational pull on each other that nobody else can feel. I'm glad "Time Zones" reaffirmed that relationship. This story isn't as simple as the rise of a woman and the fall of a man, as it sometimes seemed last season. It's about a man who believed lies could build a life, and it's about a woman who believed work could build hers. Peggy and Don are the loneliest characters on Mad Men—even Roger has a bed full of hedonists to keep him company!—but they react to that loneliness in profoundly different ways.

Of all the things I enjoyed about this episode, I don't think anything beat Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man" blaring while Megan shooed Don into the passenger seat of her convertible. I laughed when I watched it, and then I laughed again when I listened to the lyrics: "I'm a man, yes I am, but I can't help but love you so." Don is a man, yes he is, but he's not in the driver's seat anymore. Who knows how he'll react? I certainly don't.