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Don Draper Comes Face to Face With Himself in a Breakdown of "Mad Men's" "Time Zones"

by Sam Adams
April 16, 2014 9:32 AM
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Jon Hamm in "Mad Men's" 7th season premiere, "Time Zones"
Jon Hamm in "Mad Men's" 7th season premiere, "Time Zones"

Given that "Mad Men" is one of the most precisely written and shot shows on TV, it's not surprising there are many ways to look at Sunday's 7th-season premiere, "Time Zones." Some are more productive than others, but over the course of two viewings and several days thinking it over, I've come to think that one of the most fruitful is by focusing on the musical montages that don't quite bookend the episode. Not only do they lay out the episode's concerns without the encumbrance of dialogue, but I also think they provide solid clues about where the shoe is headed in its final season.

It takes Don Draper six minutes to show up onscreen in "Time Zones," which was written by series creator Matther and directed by Scott Hornbacher, and he's not quite ready for his closeup. The first thing we see as the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man" floods onto the soundtrack is Don hastily shaving in an airplane bathroom, his anxiety enhanced by a rapid series of jump cuts. The curtain is up, the band is on stage, and the frontman is still in his dressing room.

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By the time he's off the plane, Don's in much better shape, gliding along the concourse on a moving sidewalk that pays homage to Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," a period-appropriate movie that nonetheless might seem a strange fit for Don, who's hardly an unformed twentysomething. But in a way, he's less mature, certainly less sure about who he is or who he wants to be, than the much younger Peggy. At this point, even his teenage daughter Sally is creeping up on him.

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The moving sidewalk allows Don to strike a charismatic pose, but it also distances him from the earth; he's just alone for the ride. And it emphasizes the movement from screen left to screen right, which will become the key to both sequences. Here's Don drifting along smoothly.

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And here he is exiting the airport.

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The abrupt cut between these two shots make it seem like Don's about to run into himself. You might not notice the switch -- although any first-year film student has been warned about "crossing the line" -- but you feel like something's not right. Where Don was coasting, now he's cut loose, removed from the climate-controlled airport interior and thrust back into the the real world. 

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Seeing Megan, offscreen right, pull up to the curb, restores a sense of order. The light in Jon Hamm's closeup falls just where it should, and he commands the frame rather than seeming lost in it. But this shot also reveals the telltale mottling of a hasty electric shave along the right side of his neck, a subtle clue that his immaculate appearance won't stand up to careful scrutiny.

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As Megan exits the car, the camera shifts into slow motion, out-Scorseseing Scorsese in capturing a moment of frozen desire. Don's drinking it, and who wouldn't, with a wife like this?

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But we learn later that Don has another reason to fix this moment in his memory: He knows, even better than Megan, that their marriage is failing. How many more airport pickups will there be? How many more fetching baby-doll dresses and come-hither pouts?

Okay, maybe one more.

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Don reciprocates, and he's not too bad-looking himself. But he's acting, and so is she. Megan may know his real name, but she doesn't know the real him, and it doesn't seem like Don, or Dick, does either.

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They kiss, and it looks like a nice one, a moment right out of the movie Megan's moved to Los Angeles to make.

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But when it's time to get in her car, Megan warns Don in advance that his seat won't move back. It's her car, set up for her comfort, and he can either make himself comfortable or hail a cab.

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Jump forward to the end of the episode, and song number 2: the Vanilla Fudge's "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Like "I'm a Man," it's a song well-known in more than one version -- quite a few of my colleagues heard it the Spencer Davis Group as Chicago Transit Authority, although the show's publicist's confirm it was little Stevie Winwood singing lead -- and this one's substantially lesser. (Basically, it kind of sucks.) Where The Supremes' original embodies the exuberant promise of liberation, the Vanilla Fudge's plodding, swing-impaired version sounds as if it's trying to knock down the walls with pure force, and failing.

That brings us to Peggy Olson, who's been having a rough time of it at SC&P since Don left. Her new boss is a casual sexist, which she's used to, and disregards her ideas, which she's not, and after getting shot down at work and pestered at home, she's just about had it.

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Peggy drops to the floor as You Keep Me Hangin' On" starts up, the lonely peal of its Hammond organ contrastingly pointedly with the joyous playing of "Set Me Free." If Don's troubles facing himself were defined along the horizontal axis, Peggy's problems are vertical, prompted by the rude intersection of the ladder of success and the glass ceiling. As Ken Cosgrove superfluously informed Joan earlier in the episode, "It's a hierarchy," or as her even more condescending client put it: "There's somebody above you and somebody below you."

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Peggy, the lapsed Catholic, looks upward for help, or guidance, or understanding, and finds none.

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So she turns her gaze downward, facing the grim reality of the ground beneath her.

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And to emphasize her downtrodden feelings, the camera shifts to a high overhead shot, diminishing her stature even further.

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Meanwhile, at the Manhattan apartment that's become his unofficial bachelor pad, Don Draper is watching TV alone in the dark, draining the last drops from a bottle of whiskey. We can barely make out his shadowed frame eclipsed by the bright black-and-white image on the tube. (He bought Megan a fancy new color set in L.A., but ended up watching "Lost Horizon" in black and white anyway.)

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His bottle empty, Don feels a cold breeze blowing in off his balcony, and shuts off the TV to close the door, moving from right to left as he rises from his chair.

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But as he approaches the balcony doors, he's moving, once again, in the opposite direction, although it's hard to make out at first. Because we unconsciously assume Don's still moving from the right side of the frame to the left, his body coming out of the darkness reads at first like his barely visible reflection in the glass balcony door, and it's only as he comes close that he emerges in the flesh, like a ghost slowly taking corporeal form.

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The reflections take us back to the mirror in which first saw Don at the beginning of the episode, and the deliberate right-left confusion picks up the theme of Don being a man divided against himself. So here he is, trying to bring the two halves of the sliding door together, making one reflection meet another.

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But of course, they won't budge, and so Don chooses to sit out in the cold, his body shivering with the cold, and perhaps with something else.

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As the camera pulls back and up, we see Don framed by the halves of the broken sliding door. (As I mentioned in my initial review, one way to read the title of "Time Zones" is as a reference to the arbitrary demarcation of time's fluid state.) If one side is Don Draper and the other is Dick Whitman, then who, stuck in between them, is he? Weiner is as tight-lipped as ever about the show's final season, but it almost has to be about Don's attempt to reconcile his various selves. Until he does -- until he can make the two halves meet -- he's literally and figuratively out in the cold, with no place to call home.

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Oh, and one more thing. In these two sequences -- which, appropriately enough, mirror each other -- we never see Don head-on, at least not until the last shot, when he's facing the camera, not out of confidence but in desperation. It's a deliberate echo of the very first shot in "Time Zones," when a different character, pumped up with Don's ghostwritten script, looks us dead in the eye and welcomes us to the final season of a show whose central character is temporarily MIA. Take it away, Freddie.

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More: Mad Men, Close Reads


  • the man you love to hate | April 20, 2014 1:11 PMReply

    Great analysis Sam Adams! I was wondering about the Twilight Zone as well because of the title. Nice pick up on that movie as well. I've never seen it but it sounds crazy. It reminds me of that scene last year when Kenny did that dance. I also like how you said Don is MIA. I have a feeling he may really go MIA at some point this season. I just get the sense he needs to go on a vision quest of some kind, lol

  • Anita | April 19, 2014 4:25 PMReply

    But he doesn't say he's a broken vessel. He says he doesn't want to break the vessel. That's different. At least it sounds different to me

  • David W. | April 19, 2014 7:58 PM

    Yes you are correct Anita; he does not say he is a broken vessel. And I don't know how to explain myself without using words like poetry, metaphor,foreshadowing and allusion which would only make me sound more pretentious, so I'm Not going to try. But thank you for the response

  • David W. | April 19, 2014 11:52 AMReply

    Wow! I love that people appreciate my interpretation. Very cool...I also wanted to mention the fact That Don is NOT rushed forces him into an unusual position, that of someone on the outside looking in. It makes the scene where he wonders if he's "broken the vessel" a little more interesting:
    Psalm 31:12
    I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind: I am like a broken vessel

  • Buzz | April 19, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    I hate to ask a dumb question but what do horses have to do with a dance movie?

  • Quinn | April 18, 2014 6:49 PMReply

    Very similar conversation going on here: lareviewofbooks . org/essay/mad-men-season-7-time-zones

  • Bobbie | April 19, 2014 11:35 AM

    Sorry that response about the title was meant for Buzzy not you.

  • Bobbie | April 19, 2014 11:32 AM

    I'm hoping this is a joke. Since when do we take movie titles, or titles of any kind for that matter, so literally? It comes from the dialogue. One of the characters says it at the end. It's called a metaphor. Look it up. On to other matters,I'm a little obsessive and have been thinking about that movie ever since the op brought it up, that's why I came back here, was hoping someone had added more. But I also went online and looked up a summary for it this morning because I haven't seen it in probably 30 years , and I'll warn the director right now if he's thinking of having the same ending people will hate him more than Sopranos.

  • Bobbie | April 16, 2014 9:22 PMReply

    Very good. Of course it;'s referenicng they don't shoot horses. I think it even came out in 1969. That was a messed up a movie. And you're right, Don and Megan being told that can't be good. I love it. You're my favorite couple. I would have never even noticed it.

  • David W. | April 19, 2014 1:22 PM

    I watched it all the way through last night again as well... And in response to the other poster...I think we all may be a little "obsessive"

  • Jackie Browne | April 18, 2014 6:04 PM

    It's called They Shoot Horses or They Don't Shoot Horses? The writing on that show is so smart. I love that they do things like that.

  • David W. | April 16, 2014 5:03 PMReply

    if we look at the episode through its dialogue, at the heart of it, I believe is the line : you're my favorite couple, a not so thinly veiled allusion to 1969's " they shoot horses don't they?". Like Mad Men, all the characters are playing a losing game of beat the clock, in this instance as competitors in a dance marathon. What a wonderful metaphor for an episode so consumed with its characters' lack of time. What was it Kenny said ? "I don't have time to take a crap". And for anyone who knows the film's story, "you're my favorite couple" takes on an even more ominous tone.

  • Jackie Browne | April 18, 2014 6:11 PM

    Why is that line ominous? I've never seen the film. Do they die at the end of the dance? The writing on this show is the best. Really good analogy of the dancers trying to keep up with the clock and Kenny. I think Megan was also rushed when she met Don. She said something about his plane being late and they were only going to have time to do such and such. And Freddy at the beginning was even pitching an ad for a clock or watch. I also noticed Ginsberg asked Don's old secretary about how long the meeting was going to be and she said that's up to you. I'm getting excited just thinking about it now. Must watch a third time. Thanks for this great article and this great comment.

  • Soapy Sophie | April 16, 2014 5:11 PM

    This has to be David Weisblatt. The way your brain works is a beautiful mystery

  • Anita | April 16, 2014 1:42 PMReply

    Great analysis for the premiere episode. Looking forward to a rewarding final season hopefully. Love that Don and Freddie are working as a team.

  • The Man You Love to hate | April 20, 2014 1:15 PM

    You should know Sam Adams is the author. One of the posters called himself David W though

  • It's me | April 16, 2014 5:12 PM

    What have it away? That I'm the one who sent you the link?

  • Aza Jacobs | April 16, 2014 11:23 AMReply

    Woh this is a great analysis and illuminating for an episode that I couldn't get a grasp on. Thank you.

  • EMT | April 16, 2014 9:52 AMReply

    I love the articles on Indiewire. Great blog breaking down the premiere episode Sam. I can't wait to see how all the characters develop even further in this finale season.

  • The Man You Love To Hate | April 20, 2014 12:51 PM

    @Az Jacobs I'm with you on that. I liked the episode but couldn't really put my finger on what it was I supposed to take away from it , except maybe that Don is still being unfaithful, still drinking and still depressed. But after reading this article I was able to watch it again and it was like watching it for the first time. Like the author said Don is coming face to face with himself and the time may no longer be on his side. I've said it before and I'll say it again, thank God for Indiewire. Where else are reader's comments as good as the articles themselves?

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