Peggy Olson is trying—and failing—to impress her distant male boss. Pete Campbell is living alone. No one is taking Joan Harris as seriously as they should, until she proves them wrong. Roger Sterling is drinking and sleeping around. Megan Draper is giving it a go as an actress. And Don Draper is picking up the pieces—at work and at home—after his latest transgression.
Even Freddy Rumsen showed up, for old time's sake.
On Sunday night, Mad Men returned to AMC for its seventh and final season. I'm glad it's back. I missed Don's chiseled mug and Roger's blithe wisecracks and Peggy's prickly chutzpah. But as I watched the premiere, I couldn't help but notice that the pleasure of reuniting with some of my favorite TV characters wasn't the only thing I was feeling.
I was experiencing dramatic déjà vu as well. Everything that happened on "Time Zones"—or almost everything that happened—seemed like it could have happened on an earlier episode of Mad Men. In fact, most of the episode felt like it did happen already. Characters stuck in the same ruts. New plots that reiterated old plots. A sense of wheels being spun, of the past being present, of no one ever really getting anywhere.
Could it be that after seven years on the air—and 79 hour-long installments—Mad Men is finally running out of ideas?
Before tackling that question, it's worth pondering what kind of show Mad Men actually is. Critics tend to group the last 15 years of quality dramas together and refer to the whole lot as The Golden Age of Television (TM). But as I've written before, many of the shows that debuted after 2008 or so are different than their Golden Age predecessors. Sure, they share certain characteristics: the adult themes, the infatuation with antiheroes, the cinematic art direction. But the early Golden Age dramas were concerned, above all else, with the intersections of character and society; plot twists always came second. That’s why, in retrospect, it’s very hard to recall what actually “happened” from season to season. Mostly we remember the characters that it all happened to: Deadwood’s swaggering Al Swearengen, The Wire’s charismatic Omar Little, the entire cast of The Sopranos.
The newer dramas are less patient. I call them Hyperserials: shows with a purer, more intense focus on one linear, series-long plotline. The Good Wife. True Blood. House of Cards. The Killing. Scandal. Game of Thrones. Homeland. The Americans. Broadchurch. True Detective. Breaking Bad. These programs tend to minimize exposition. They make even less sense when viewed out of order. And they usually pose a clear question designed to propel the story forward. Who will rule the Seven Kingdoms? Will Walter White live or die? Will Carrie catch Brody? It’s not that Hyperserials don’t delve into the complexities of character. They do. It’s just that, unlike their predecessors, they place equal emphasis on What Happens Next.
In this world, Mad Men has become something of an outlier. Conceived way back in 2000 by Matthew Weiner, a future Sopranos alumnus, it debuted in 2007—right on the cusp of the Hyperserial Era. But from the beginning the series has doggedly adhered to the ethos of an earlier generation; on Mad Men, plot is almost entirely beside the point. As Weiner himself recently put it, "our plots are not told on extremes. They're happening on a very human scale. Don forgetting to pick Sally up from school could be a big plot point." Mad Men, in other words, is a holdover of sorts: the last of the original Golden Age dramas.
That's why it's not really fair to judge Mad Men on its plotting (or lack thereof). It's not trying to be Game of Thrones. But I don't have reservations about "Time Zones" because not enough happened; I have reservations because the stuff that did happen struck me as sort of redundant.
When Don arrives in Los Angeles, he’s clean-shaven and besuited. Megan materializes in a miniskirt, moving in slow motion. Spencer Davis is singing “I’m a Man” on the soundtrack. But despite appearances, they’re no longer on the same wavelength. The sexual estrangement. The forced public facade. The quiet little deceptions. It’s Betty Draper all over again.
Back in Manhattan, Peggy has to contend with a new boss named Lou Avery. When last we saw her at the end of Season 6, Ms. Olson was rocking a plaid pantsuit and standing in Don's office. Now she's begging another haughty alpha male to listen. "I just want to give you my best," she whimpers. "I guess I'm just immune to your charms," Avery replies.
Last year, Joan exceeded expectations and landed Avon. But it seems that she’s still contending with the same old condescension and chauvinism in Season 7. "I don't know if you can answer this, or even understand it," a business professor tells her—forcing her to prove, yet again, that she can.
Then there's Roger. The times may change, but he does not. And so he occupies himself by getting plastered, joking about getting plastered, and sleeping with women half his age—in this case, a gang of free love devotees hellbent on transforming his hotel suite into the set of Hair.
I'm not saying that "Time Zones" didn't advance the plot at all. We learned that Pete loves L.A. ("The city is flat and ugly [and] the air is brown," he tells Don over a Brooklyn Avenue sandwich at Canter's deli. "But I love the vibrations.") We learned that Ted Chaough, Peggy's self-exiled paramour, does not. (He has burrowed so deeply into his work that he hasn't even bothered to get a tan—much to New York's chagrin.) And we learned that Roger's daughter Margaret has done some "searching" and decided to "forgive'' him.
The Season 7 premiere had its fair share of lovely, character-centric moments as well. I'm thinking of Don and Freddy and their "Cyrano act"—Don's desperate, almost boyish attempt to end his suspension and return to SCP by sending Freddy forth to pitch in his stead—and the scene at the end of the episode in which Don encounters a widow who looks a lot like Neve Campbell on his red-eye back to New York. Both foreshadowed Don's potential fate—as "damaged goods," like Freddy, or a victim of his own appetites, like Campbell's husband. "He was thirsty," she said, "and he died of thirst." For a moment, at least, Don seemed to sober up.
"If I was your wife, I wouldn't like this," said Campbell's character, her head resting on Don's shoulder.
"She knows I'm a terrible husband," Don replied. "I really thought I could do it this time...I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?"
"I bet I could make you feel better," Campbell said. She offered to give him a "lift."
"I'm sorry," Don muttered, turning away. "I have to get back to work." It was the same line he used that morning on Megan. He's no good at life—but maybe work can still save him.
Still, I felt disengaged when the episode ended—like I’d just watched a bunch of people treading water. We've already seen Don resist temptation, and succumb to it, and resist it again. We've seen him drunk and sober. We've seen at the center of things—and out in the cold. We've seen Peggy claw her way up the corporate ladder. We've seen Roger indulge. Is Mad Men moving forward? Or is it just biding its time before a final catastrophe? Is there anything left to learn about Don Draper & Co.? Are we progressing or just circling the drain?
Fans will argue that Mad Men's circularity is one of its greatest strengths. That's what life is like, they'll argue. Some things never change. I get it. But drama isn't life, and realism has its limits. A character study is only as compelling as its characters—and those characters are only compelling if we're still discovering who they are. To me, "Time Zones" was less than the sum of its exquisite parts. Weiner's challenge in Season 7 is to prove that his show isn't the same.