I don't think there's enough sunshine in all of California to brighten up the dark state of affairs everyone is in as Mad Men begins the first half of its last lap. Where does one begin in this cold January of 1969? Peggy crumpled on the floor in sobs of her great-big-investment Upper West Side apartment? Roger passed out naked on the floor of his filthy, garbage-littered hotel-room-cum-counterculture-commune? Ken – still sporting an eye patch from his little shotgun mishap with the Chevy execs – completely overwhelmed and overworked? A happy, suntanned Pete – seriously, how creepy is that? And, of course, there's Don, pathetically trying to keep up appearances during his L.A. visits with Megan. By the end credits of this season premiere episode — "Time Zones" — the Man Who Once Had It All is teasing us with that title-sequence building jump, shaking and miserable at what a hellhole his life has become as Vanilla Fudge's psychedelic-rock cover of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" plays out the credits.
Season Seven picks up with the shortest time jump in the series' history, a mere two months after Don's involuntary leave of absence from Sterling Cooper & Partners. Given the theory that the series will wrap up around 1970, it makes sense that the final 14 episodes will cover the last year of the Sixties. So here we have it: Inauguration weekend 1969. Richard Nixon is in office and everyone seems to be on a downward spiral. "Time Zones" is a perfect title to the season premiere, what with the constant shifting back and forth between New York and L.A. – and the fact that it took place within the span of one weekend.
Here's where we are: Megan, as planned, has moved to Los Angeles and is enduring a bicoastal marriage with Don. We feel the rushed reunion along with the both of them, despite the slow-mo airport kiss to the strains of "I'm a Man" by the Spencer Davis Group, a.k.a. Don Draper's theme song for 1969. While Megan appears happy, Don speaks the depressing truth to a beautiful stranger he meets on the red eye back to New York. (Hello, Neve Campbell, continuing Mad Men's pattern of zesting up the cast with lovely Nineties/early Aughts throwback actresses like Linda Cardellini and Alexis Bledel.) "She knows I'm a terrible husband," he admits. Good thing Don is aware of that fact, because it becomes clear soon after he touches down in L.A. (with a nice moving-sidewalk homage from The Graduate thrown in) that Megan has no clue Don has been out of work for two months. It's a suspension with pay, so he can keep up the ruse, but what for? Even his money pisses his proto-Rhoda Morgenstern-styled wife off: When he buys her a ginormous TV, she throws a tantrum over how it's going to look bad to her struggling-actor friends (“Everyone I know here is starving!”).
It goes to show that Don's work is his life, because he's been spending the past two months feeding campaigns to SC&P (and other agencies) via someone who's been in his shoes before: Freddy Rumsen. Kudos to Joel Murray who, in the episode's opening scene, presents an eerily-familiar-sounding pitch to a stupefied Peggy. Don's life may be in the toilet, but he can still write killer copy. Yet he refuses to see the writing on the wall and move on to another agency – "I have a job," he snaps at Freddy. Who would have thought that pants-pisser Freddy Rumsen would serve as the voice of wisdom to the man who got rid of him? "You don't want to be damaged goods," he advises Don. There's the understatement of the year.
With all due respect to the colorful array of characters that populate the Mad Men universe, let's hope that creator Matthew Weiner's intention to turn the focus back on the core personalities of the show means, as the end of the premiere suggested, that this is now the story of Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Yes, Don is the last person we see, staring into oblivion, but "You Keep Me Hangin' On" begins with Peggy's breakdown on her floor. Her life is just as much of a mess: Still brokenhearted over Ted Chaough's betrayal – their brief run-in at the SC&P offices when he visits from L.A. for the weekend was colder than a polar vortex – and saddled in a workplace where the spark has been sucked out of every creative-department staff member, including poor Dawn, who thankfully hasn't been punished for her former boss' bad behavior. The latter appears to be the fault of Don's replacement, a milquetoast adman named Lou Avery whom Duck Phillips installed at the agency before Don had even stepped onto the elevator that fateful Thanksgiving Day. Stan and Ginsberg are still around, but as always, Peggy is the only one struggling for perfection: "I'm tired of fighting for everything to be better," she yells at Stan (nice beads, BTW). "You're all a bunch of hacks who are perfectly happy with shit. Nobody cares about anything."
Peggy, like Don, has always been married to her career first, so it's not too far of a stretch to say that the end of the episode suggests that these two need each other. The only thing that can probably save either of their careers at this point is, to quote Don, "getting them in a room" together to come up with some advertising genius. And even the newly installed president knows the world has gone to shit: His inauguration speech contains the line "We see around us empty lives seeking fulfillment." That about sums up every person we witness in this episode – Joan, especially, who is single-handedly running the New York office while one-eyed Ken shuttles back and forth between Detroit (no sight of Bob Benson, but he's mentioned as working out of the Motor City) and Manhattan. This one-time secretary and Sterling Cooper Girl Friday is now paying Saturday-afternoon visits to business-school professors to get a better handle on clients that are falling through the cracks, like Butler Footwear. We already know Peggy knows how to direct a creative department, so it was so thrilling to watch Joan do something productive with her partnership.
Wrap-Up: If Messrs. Sterling, Cooper, Cutler and Chaough were smart (but, as we've known for six seasons, they're not), they would simply step aside, call the firm Harris-Olson Advertising and call it a day. Peggy and Joan are the only ones left with any drive, and while it's depressing to watch everyone else fall apart, it's sweet revenge to witness these two perpetually mistreated women take the reins from their idiotic bosses and plunge this ad agency into the modern era.
Previously: The Long Goodbye