By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 13, 2014 at 11:50PM
Spoilers for "Mad Men," Season 7, Episode 1, "Time Zones" ahoy.
"Are you ready? I want you to pay attention, because this is the beginning of something."
Having Freddie Rumsen address the camera is a striking way to open "Time Zones," the first episode of "Mad Men's" seventh and kind-of final season. (In order to avoid renegotiating the standard seven-year contracts, AMC has split the show's "last" season into two seven-episode segments, with the final seven due in 2015.) But his words resonate beyond the startling stylistic choice, or even the fact that it's unsettling to see such an eloquent spiel coming out of the mouth of the show's resident dipsomaniac.
As the audience, we're preparing for the end, but with Nixon about to enter the White House, a new era is indeed dawning, one in which penny-pinching clients like Butler Footwear's Wayne Barnes (Dan Byrd) start to wonder if maybe they shouldn't give this whole advertising thing a whirl themselves. If, as he tells Joan (Christina Hendricks), "There's somebody above you and somebody below you, and everybody's buying each other lunch," there's lots of waste to be cut out, and no room for the art of the pitch. Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) runs her own version of Freddy's Accutron campaign by her new boss, Lou Avery (Allan Havey), but he's set on the dullest, most functional of approaches: "Accutron is accurate."
And where is Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in all this? Missing in action for the first six minutes, which feels like a small eternity, and then entering with a series of quick jump cuts as he hastily shaves in an airplane bathroom, sprucing up for his first rendezvous in some time with his apparently estranged wife, Megan (Jessica Pare). One of the items on the list of things creator Matthew Weiner didn't want critics to reveal in advance reviews was "Don and Megan's marital status," but after watching "Time Zones," I'm not sure I could. It's been a while since they've been intimate, long enough that Megan is palpably uncomfortable when Don suggests they have sex, but she's still game to try, where Don is close to giving up hope. As a veteran of one broken marriage, he sees this one headed down the same road. "I keep wondering," he confides to the widow (Neve Campbell) he meets on his flight back east, "Have I broken the vessel?"
"The vessel": such a strange and open-ended word, suggesting that Don is still actively trying to find himself, poring over the Frank O'Hara or, perhaps now, the Herman Hesse. He's hardly the stereotypical hippie, but then neither is Roger Sterling's daughter, Margaret (Elizabeth Rice), who tells her father she's "been searching, with a little help"; when he asks if she's been going to church, she answers "not in any way you'd understand." The eerie remove with which she insists on "forgiving" her father makes it seem like the gesture is far more about her own sense of enlightenment than any genuine desire to reconnect; the way Rice stumbles over the phrase about Roger's "intermittent interest in Ellery," she sounds like an actor who's a few rehearsals short of being off-book. Roger has never been a great dad, but John Slattery perfectly slides between simple resentment and genuine confusion; for once, he has a chance to set things right with his daughter, and he can't understand a thing she's saying.
The title of "Time Zones" refers to the action being split between East and West Coasts, the three-hour divide that's driving Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) to distraction. (On a pure "How great was that?" note: Him attempting to throw Joan's earring to her and missing by a mile due to his lack of depth perception was pure joy.) Those zones, of course, are a crude, even brutish, way of dividing up time; in reality, sunrise gets a little later every mile you move west, not when you cross a state line. And as the character who moves between those zones -- and who has his strangest, most soul-searching moment while in the effectively timeless space of an airplane in flight -- Don is a man out of time, belonging nowhere.
As we find out in the final scene, Freddy's uncharacteristically on-the-money pitch was all Don's doing. (Watch the first scene again, and you can see him shuffling his notes right before he starts.) Don's campaign hinges on the slogan: "It's not a time piece -- it's conversation piece," which Peggy rewrites, perhaps fatally, as "It's time for a conversation." It's more than just a poetic lilt getting lost in the translation. By insisting, even rhetorically, than an Accutron watch "isn't a time piece," Don is denying its basic function while pointing to something higher (or at least something he sees as higher). And he's also giving us a hint about how Weiner wants us to watch "Mad Men." Weiner's anti-spoiler mania reaches its absurd apogee with his insistence that critics not reveal the year in which an episode is set, but it might also indicate a certain frustration with "Mad Men" being pegged as a time-capsule show, one that's about nostalgically reliving the past rather than exploring characters who live in it. Sub in "period piece" for "time piece," and the meaning's even clearer.
The 1960s are drawing to a close, and so is "Mad Men." But it seems like Weiner's already warning us not to expect too definitive a judgement, either on the decade or on his characters.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
The four characters' similar problems are placed adjacent to each other like time zones on a map. The episode switches from one subplot to another via transitions (dissolves that become wipes, and unnerving cuts-to-black). These certify that we're seeing parallel stories that mirror each other but that don’t overlap or converge.
Willa Paskin, Slate
Don too is dreadfully, dangerously thirsty, not just for alcohol but for something, anything sustaining, even if he's, thankfully, done looking for it in the bottom or a bottle or someone else's bed. (For now.) If this episode was at all predictive, we're not quite done slogging it out with Don and his issues just yet.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
"Mad Men" has spent seven years peeling away the outer shells around Don Draper, and that man on the chilly balcony has no false fronts left. He is what he is, and he's starting to own that, as Oprah would say.
James Wolcott, Vanity Fair
The merger of Sterling Cooper with Cutler Gleason & Chaough has led to a surplus of absentee leadership, Roger Sterling's do-nothing panache complemented by Jim Cutler's toasted superfluousness, the hybrid firm's offices bustling with the beehive overlap of two different regimes that is furthermore split into East and West Coast offices -- not only is the chain of command invisible but there aren’t clear rival factions with distinctly drawn battle lines. It’s as if two magazines merged and the editorial point of view went kaleidoscopic while the top brass was out on permanent lunch.
Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times
What the decade does give Weiner is a way to look at characters under stress, in a time of changing mores, in which what look like new freedoms also create new restrictions. But the show is strong enough to tolerate interpretation. The cool elegance of its production notwithstanding, it has a humanity, a human energy, greater than any single character's assigned back story or "motivation."
Jace Lacob, BuzzFeed
Don has perhaps never been closer to that flailing, falling silhouette in the opening credits of "Mad Men" and, as we approach the very end of the show’s run, there’s something terribly exciting about seeing just where he -- and the characters -- land after the fall.
Todd VanDerWerff & Sonia Saraiya, the A.V. Club
In the words of Tears for Fears, it's both kind of funny and kind of sad watching Megan and Don try to be a happily married couple -- Megan keeps making excuses so that she doesn't have to sleep with Don, and when she can't avoid it any longer, she’s nervous. Not because she’s afraid of Don -- rather because she's afraid that Don will see how little she’s attracted to him. He doesn't excite her anymore.