By John Andrew Fraser
At this point, I’ve read a couple reviews of Mad Men’s first episode of its final season in which critics have said that ‘Time Zones’ reminded them of the series’ pilot ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ but personally, this episode made me think of the season five finale ‘The Phantom.’ The overarching theme of that episode was that Mad Men’s central characters were pursuing something that they could never achieve—perhaps something that didn’t even exist. Don was chasing happiness, which he hoped to find in his new relationship with Megan. Roger was chasing meaning, which he hoped to find through LSD, and Peggy was chasing a fresh start to her career, which she hoped to find at rival ad agency Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough.
In ‘Time Zones’ we see more clearly than ever that the show’s main characters are still chasing meaning, happiness, professional success, and personal fulfillment in their lives, but are all on the verge of despair because achieving these things proves to be so difficult for them (the exception to this is Pete Campbell who strangely seems at home in laid-back California). Peggy now has to deal with creative director Lou Avery who doesn’t seem to care at all about the quality of the work Sterling Cooper & Partners produces so long as it’s done on time. Joan still has to combat everyone who doesn’t take her seriously, whether it be someone from Butler shoes or a business professor. Roger has turned to having what appear to be recreational orgies in a hotel room, and when his daughter tells him that she forgives him for all his wrongdoings at brunch, he can’t even summon a half-way appropriate response. But the character trying to fill the biggest hole is obviously Don. He has no job, his wife lives across the continent, and Don even admits to a stranger on a plane that Megan knows that he’s a terrible husband at this point. “I really thought I could get it right this time,” he laments.
What about that stranger on a plane (who just happens to be played by Neve Campbell)? For me, this was the episode’s most interesting and odd scene. Did Neve Campbell’s widow character really exist or was she a figment of Don’s imagination? After all, her entire story seemed to be littered with references to Don’s past and present. She cryptically says that her husband died “of thirst,” and that his business sent him to a hospital to try to help him. She thought he was getting better, but the doctors told her that he would be dead in a year “they all would be.” She had just scattered his ashes at Disneyland, the place where Don proposed to Megan.
So what could all this mean? Obviously, I think there’s a lot of room for interpretation. On a very surface level maybe the woman’s husband was an alcoholic. Maybe Don knows that his drinking is slowly killing him, and the widow’s husband is serving as a mirror. I think Matt Weiner was probably going for something a little deeper here, however. As previously discussed, Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, and basically everyone else on this show are driven by their thirsts—their desires to chase toward these phantom ideas like happiness and self-realization that always seem to slip from their grasps. Maybe it’s this thirst that will ultimately do these characters in as the series draws to a close.
Even though nothing totally awful happened to any specific character in this episode there was an underlying feeling of dread throughout the whole hour. While characters rarely die on Mad Men the show creates a feeling of impending doom that is unlike anything else on the air right now, and the final scene where Don and Peggy both have breakdowns that mirror one another scored to Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On,” highlighted the episode’s overall mood of despair. But on the bright side, Don was the voice behind Freddy Rumsen’s awesome Accutron watch pitch—somewhere a creative genius still lives in the shell that is Don Draper. Can he find a way to harvest that spark over the next thirteen episodes? Can he find anything close to fulfillment or peace? That final scene seems to suggest that the answer is “no,” but who can really tell at this point?
It’s 1969, but things are far from groovy. Throughout the 1960s America chased idealistic (some would say phantom) dreams that ultimately gave way to general disappointment in the 70s. Based on what I saw in ‘Time Zones’ many of Mad Men’s characters look like they may be headed toward similar disappointment in their personal lives as the decade (and the show) draws to a close.