Don Draper has flown to California and lies on a couch with his wife, Megan, sprawled next to him. Eyes dazed, he looks toward the television as Frank Capra’s 1937 film Lost Horizon begins. The on-screen script reads, “In these days of wars and rumors of wars – haven’t you ever dreamt of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” Don becomes alert, more so when the page on the television flips to new text. “Of course you have,” it states. “So has every man since Time began.”
To quote a popular rock song of the period, time is not on Don Draper’s side. His descent into oblivion from Mad Men‘s opening credit sequence feels more like a final destination. At his job with Sterling Cooper, Don was at the centre of the clock, the boss waiting for deadlines and with great expectations. However, out of a job, he is aimless. The matinee idol looks are still there, as Megan’s manager affirms, but his grip and power is gone. He is trying his best to spiff up some of Freddy Rumsen’s copy and support his wife as she hops between auditions, but Don also waits by the phone, hoping for an opportunity to go to work.
Don is “bi-coastal,” not tethered to any definite place. Even his lavish New York apartment looks colorless at the end of the episode. As many viewers will pick up, one of the first shots of Don is him gliding, alone, along a moving escalator a la Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, a film about a man full of promise unsure of his destination. Mad Men is back, but like Don’s bi-coastal travels this week, it is a turning into a tale of two cities, and only one of them is a utopia.
In New York, the staff at SC&P huff around on deadlines, but many of the folks are new, such as the aloof creative head Lou Avery (Allan Havey), taking Don’s office but little of his professional esteem. Ken and Peggy are as grouchy as we have ever seen them. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, it is almost the opposite, as Pete Campbell looks like he stepped out of an Elvis Presley beach movie and has turned into a tanned, Pastrami-eating dork. The anxiety that Ken is going through in the office would normally be Pete’s problem to deal with. Now, Pete views all of the shortcomings of his life, such as his apartment – which he refers to as “the chamber of horrors” – with sunny sarcasm. He is still a smug bastard, but not the sullen force he used to be. California will do that to you.
But, this is Mad Men, and even if we spend time in the golden auras of the West Coast, it is winter in New York. Matthew Weiner’s series is also approaching its winter, with 13 episodes left – six more this spring and seven expected in 2015. The characters at SC&P have rarely looked so glum – even Roger Sterling, after a rock star-like sleepover with various women in various states of undress, looks like an exhausted ghost.
For Don, Roger and Joan, time seems to be running out. Weiner is very set on the meaning of time this week, from the title of the episode to the watch that the copywriters are trying to figure out a strategy for. Rumsen pitches Peggy a good slogan: “It’s not a timepiece. It’s a conversation piece.” This week, Mad Men is more the former than the latter, a show reaching its finality that is coming to grips with its characters as they approach the winters of their discontent.
Don is still not satisfied in his marriage. His love-making with Megan is first delayed, then becomes too much of a planned enterprise to offer any kind of emotional release. He feels less needed that he likely ever has in his professional career. He is also startled when Pete shows off an attractive girlfriend, a real estate agent named Bonnie Whiteside (Jessy Schram), who could pass as Betty’s gold-tanned half-sister. He also discusses the potential for an affair with a beautiful widow, Lee Cabot (Neve Campbell), who he sits next to on the flight to New York. She tells Don about how her husband was told he had one year left to live – a diagnosis that the show’s creator must deal with – and Don sits in horror as he ponders his own mortality. How should he spend it? In a dismal marriage or in a dynamic love affair? (One crafty stylistic trick: after this conversation with Kee, Don opens the airplane window shade, only to be blinded by piercing white light. Could it be that heaven approaches?)