Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 1: A Pitch in Time
The season premiere explores the grim inevitability of change, and also features Pete Campbell as a Ken Doll.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle
Mad Men can be a hard show to love.
Well. Not that hard, obviously. It’s beautifully shot; it stars several exceptionally attractive actors; it features lots of smoking, drinking, drug use and illicit sex; it looks and feels self-consciously expensive and intelligent, which makes viewers feel a lot better about their attraction to the whole “sex and drugs” thing. And it attracts a Category 5 hurricane of media coverage every year, mainly because a show about the irresistible sexual charisma of a brilliant-yet-interpersonally-dysfunctional writer is always going to be incredibly appealing to people who write for a living. You could fire Jon Hamm and re-cast Don Draper with a potato wearing a tie, and thousands of TV bloggers would still find the guy fascinating.
But just take a moment, if you will, to compare last night’s episode of Mad Men to its big competitor in the Sunday-night-prestige-TV sweepstakes, HBO’s Game of Thrones. Whereas the Game of Thrones season premiere last week featured swordfights, revenge quests, pansexual orgies, cuss words, plot twists, dragons and boobs, last night’s episode of Mad Men, “Time Zones,” featured … people doing work for an ad agency. For the big season premiere, we shuffled around for an hour, checking in on different characters’ various career advancements and setbacks before getting to the big plot twist, which was that one of the characters has a new advertising job. Then the credits rolled. And that was an episode of Mad Men.
Oh, yeah, and we found out that founding partner Roger Sterling has been having constant pansexual orgies. So I suppose the two shows do have that in common.
But in general, Mad Men isn’t a show that you watch to find out “what happens next.” Despite the aforementioned drugs, drinking and carnal shenaniganery, for the most part, it’s a show about what it’s like to watch people age and change over the course of a decade. Sometimes, it’s incredibly moving. Sometimes, it feels like watching paint dry. So, with the fact that not much happens on Mad Men fully established: Let’s talk about what happened on Mad Men.
“I want you to pay close attention,” the episode begins, “because this is the beginning of something. Do you have time to improve your life?”
The character speaking these lines is former Sterling Cooper & Partners copywriter and recovering alcoholic Freddy Rumsen, in his new role as a freelancer, pitching an ad about watches to hep-cat copywriter Peggy Olson. It’s a dizzying scene: Freddy is staring directly into the camera, so the show is basically speaking to us. And because it’s a watch ad, it’s talking about time, as in, “This is a show about a time known as the 1960s.” The first few minutes of the premiere are, therefore, dedicated to Mad Men pitching you Mad Men—“It’s not a time piece, it’s a conversation piece,” Freddy continues. And Mad Men is a show, in essence, about pitching. Talk about your meta moments.
But the choice to open on Freddy is significant for another reason, too: He’s most notable as “the guy who got fired in Season 2 for being too much of a drunk even for a workplace where every employee is constantly drunk,” which is essentially what happened to Don Draper in last season’s finale. Don wasn’t fired — he can’t be, he’s a partner — but he has been prohibited from doing any more work for the firm. Already, the show is inviting you to think about the possibility that Freddy and/or Don can have a second chance: whether they have time, in other words, to improve their lives.
Peggy, for her part, is absolutely blown away by Freddy’s pitch. Given how mediocre and workmanlike Freddy’s copy has always been in the past, this should clue you in to the big plot twist right away.
First, though, it’s time to check in with the other characters. Ken Cosgrove — the accounts man who used to be the lone pleasant and well-adjusted person on the show — has finally broken down and become just as unpleasant and bitter as everyone else at Sterling Cooper. Now he’s an overworked man with an eye patch (having been shot in the face by a client last season) who calls people into his office to scream at them.
It’s remarkably sad to see Happy Kenny swallowed up by his job until Angry Eye Patch Guy is all that’s left. But it’s also an opportunity to see Joan Holloway Harris, the endlessly competent single mother and managing partner who used to be a decidedly anti-feminist office admin, save Angry Eye Patch Guy’s bacon. She does this by wooing back a client with whom AEPG is having trouble and who’s now thinking of moving all their advertising in-house to save money. Joanie books an interview with a business-school professor to learn the client’s language, calls that client right up, and tells him, using very persuasive business-school terminology, that he will be 100% screwed and 100% responsible for being screwed if he doesn’t leave his advertising to professional advertisers. He listens to her. It’s a lovely scene, and it’s even lovelier coming from a character who used to define “professional excellence” as “telling the new girl that she’d look good in a scarf.”
Speaking of that new girl: It’s time to check back in with Peggy Olson, the formerly frumpy and scarf-averse secretary now turned Queen Copywriter. When we last we saw Peggy, she was chilling in Don Draper’s office, because she assumed that, with Don out of the picture and her boss-slash-ex-lover Ted Chaough moving to the firm’s Los Angeles branch, she’d inherit the Head of Creative throne. Peggy, you see, was assuming that the most qualified person would get the job. Peggy forgot that she was a woman in the 1960s. Rookie mistake, Peggy.
The person who actually got the job was “Lou,” an entirely mediocre and unlikable gentleman who could not identify a good pitch with two hands and a flashlight. He also says things like “I don’t care what you think” and “I’m just immune to your charms” to the woman who should have gotten his office. (I know that Mad Men fans talk about the “falling man” credits and predict a suicide every season, but at this point, I think the “falling man” is actually going to be Lou after Peggy pushes him through a window. At which point, I will applaud.) So instead, Peggy is relegated to pitching with the rest of the copywriters and taking Lou’s casual abuse.
Even when she’s off work, Peggy gets no relief: She’s now landlord of a soon-to-be-stratospherically-valuable Upper West Side building, and her tenants are constantly yelling at her to fix their toilets. This episode ends, not surprisingly, with Peggy collapsing to her knees and sobbing because of how genuinely awful it is to be Peggy Olson. I’m surprised that most episodes don’t end this way. The woman cannot catch a break.
You may have noticed that one particular character is missing from the recap thus far. That’s because it takes at least ten minutes of airtime for Don Draper to appear on his own show. Now, it’s not a bad entrance: Don Draper arriving to the strains of “I’m a Man” by Spencer Davis Group is, quite clearly, something that creator Matthew Weiner has been wanting to do for some time. (Those lyrics! I got no time for loving, ‘cause my time is all used up. Just to sit around, creatin’ all that groovy kind of stuff. See: “What you call love is something guys like me invented to sell nylons,” courtesy Don Draper in Mad Men’s series premiere.) It’s also nice to see Don’s semi-estranged and now Los Angeles-based wife Megan arrive on the scene dressed like an extra from Valley of the Dolls. But we should probably stop having fun, and talk about how their marriage has failed, for truly, this is a highly serious television show about disappointment and aging and time and …
OH MY GOD PETE CAMPBELL IS DRESSED LIKE A KEN DOLL.
That’s right! While he’s in California, Don pays a visit to Pete Campbell — the Los Angeles-based petulant man-baby who used to be a New York-based petulant man-baby — who is alive, well and wearing a blue polo shirt with a white cardigan tied around his shoulders. He has sunglasses perched on the top of his head, which he does not use to shield his eyes from the sun. He has even attempted to grow some long, luscious bangs to hide his receding hairline. Pete Campbell is dressed like an actual Ken doll, and his new girlfriend is a voluptuous blonde with delicate features, and even this couple dressed like Barbie and Ken for Halloween do not look as much like Barbie and Ken as Pete Campbell and his new lady-friend on Mad Men. It’s the most purely joyous, goofy throwaway sight gag I’ve seen all year. So for all that you’ll read — and I’ll write — about what a bleak, slow, serious show is, remember: This is a show that dressed one of its characters up like a children’s toy, just to make you laugh.
And then, there’s the big plot twist. After a disappointing visit with Megan, and a flirty plane-based conversation with Neve Campbell (!) that will no doubt lead to a torrid affair later in the season, Don Draper returns to his apartment, where we learn the secret to Freddy Rumsen’s newfound copywriting genius: His copy is being written by Don Draper. Even though he’s pulling checks from Sterling Cooper & Partners without working, and even though he’s been prohibited by Sterling Cooper & Partners from working, Don can’t resist the lure of writing a great ad. The man loves advertising as much as he loves drinking; he can’t quit either one. So that’s where we end the episode, and begin the season: With Don, alone on his balcony, trying to find one more way to get back in the game. Does Don have time to improve his life? Well, he’s had eight years, and he hasn’t done it yet. This is the last season, and his last shot.
He seems pretty miserable about it, too. Hey, Don! Try thinking about Pete Campbell’s outfit again!
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.