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'Mad Men' recap: 'Rich in goods but ragged in spirit'

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If “Mad Men” is a story of the ‘60s told from the perspective of those who “lost” the decade, then it’s perfectly apt that the key line in the premiere of the show’s final season comes from Richard Nixon, the man who championed the silent majority. In the closing minutes of “Time Zones,” Don shines his shoes as the new president delivers his inaugural address on television. One line from the speech stirs Don to attention: "We have found ourselves rich in goods but ragged in spirit.”

Sound like anyone you know?

The president’s biblically inspired words are a perfectly apt way to describe the emotional state of just about everyone who appears in “Time Zones.” Creator Matthew Weiner has said that he wants to explore the interplay between “the material world and the immaterial world” in the series’ final season, and he is clearly laying the groundwork. It’s January 1969, and having weathered the horrors of 1968, Don, Peggy, Roger et al are, materially speaking, just fine. It’s the spiritual side where things are not so much ragged as torn and frayed beyond repair. 

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In fictional time, only two months have passed since we last saw Don standing with his children outside the ramshackle house where he grew up. That cathartic moment, perhaps the most moving this show has yet delivered, was at once a high and a low point for our protagonist: Suspended from his job, he finally decides to come clean to his children. Now that we've had time to dry our tears and listen to "Both Sides, Now" on repeat for weeks on end -- what, was that just me? -- the question looming over this season, as with every season, is just how permanent this change will be. Now that Don has eliminated this final psychological impediment, can he really be happy? And the answer, not surprisingly, is “eh, not really.” 

When we’re finally reunited with our protagonist, about eight long minutes into “Time Zones,” he’s shaving in an airplane toilet en route to L.A. to see Megan, who has made good on her promise to move out west. Once on the ground, Don floats on a moving sidewalk past a colorful mosaic at LAX while Megan, looking like a million bucks in a powder blue minidress, pulls up outside the airport in a snazzy little convertible and plants a slo-mo kiss on her husband.

Between the car, the music ("I'm a Man") and Megan’s fembot hair, the sequence borders on “Austin Powers” territory, but there’s a thick layer of irony undercutting all the grooviness. First, there’s the fact that Don, in his staid gray suit and fedora, looks like he traveled to the West Coast via a time machine from 1960, and that Megan is dolled up not for her hubbie but for dinner with her skeezy agent. Then there’s that moving-sidewalk sequence, clearly borrowed from “The Graduate,” a movie about an alienated and emotionally detached man who stumbles into a destructive sexual affair. Hmmm.....

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California was once a special, almost sacred place to Don, but the luster of the Golden State has gradually worn off since he and Megan fell in love at Disneyland. This disenchantment began last season with a hallucinogenic plunge into a pool at a showbiz party, and now it’s the setting for a nervous reunion with his wife that underscores the emotional gulf between them. She’s living in a modest little bachelorette pad high up in the hills, where the howling coyotes remind Don of Transylvania (I can’t wait to see what the Internet conspiracy theorists do with that ominous detail.) 

It’s quite a contrast to the Drapers’ sprawling Park Avenue apartment: In L.A., Megan has carefully cultivated a fabulously Bohemian lifestyle, and she’s irritated by the gigantic TV set Don buys her as a gift (but really for himself). Why? Because all her friends out there are “starving.” There’s always been a bit of a generation gap between these two, and their geographical separation only seems to have widened the cultural divide. She’s dressed like a pirate, he’s still in his gray flannel. “My next house is going to have a pool -- our next house,” Megan says, underlining the point.

The awkwardness continues all weekend, as the once hot-and-heavy lovers feebly come together after falling asleep in front of the TV. Megan even pauses to brush her teeth before they go to bed, like a self-conscious young woman on a date with a budding new love interest -- not someone who’s been married for years. 

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It doesn’t help that Don is lying to Megan the entire time, maintaining the illusion that he’s in town for work when, in fact, he is still on indefinite leave from Sterling, Cooper & Partners. As far as lies Don has told to his wives, this one isn’t quite as bad as living under as assumed identity for a decade, but it’s up there. Fibbing about getting canned at work to preserve your ego is one thing; pretending you have a job that’s keeping you back in New York after your wife relocates to the West Coast is something else entirely.

 Don’s professional prospects don’t exactly look bright, either. Sure, Freddy dazzles Peggy with his Accutron pitch -- actually written by Don -- but when you’re reliant on poor ol’ Freddy Rumsen to keep you afloat, you know you’re in deep trouble.  Freddy says so himself. “They had Christmas without you, the Super Bowl… you don’t want to be damaged goods.”

Curiously, his appetite for extramarital sex seems to have waned, while his desire for emotional intimacy only seems to have heightened. On his way back from California, he’s seated next to a comely widow played by Neve Campbell (first Linda Cardellini and now Neve Campbell; Matthew Weiner really likes to sully our images of late '90s TV sweethearts, doesn’t he?). She opens up about her husband’s death -- “He was thirsty and he died of thirst,” she explains, a poetic way of saying he died of alcoholism -- while he confesses being a “terrible” spouse. By the time they descend into New York, Don and his seat partner have accelerated past flirting and sex right into cuddling.  When she finally makes a pass at him, Don claims he has to go to work -- so now he's lying to her too. it’s like his own marriage on fast-forward, minus the actual physical intimacy. 

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So what’s the point of Don joining a very unsexy version of the Mile High Club? There’s an obvious parallel between Campbell’s character and his own wife -- a stylish, attractive brunette married to an older guy who drank too much.  Just to ensure that you don’t miss the implied comparison, it’s revealed that Campbell’s character has just spread her husband’s ashes at Disneyland. The encounter, as dream-like and surreal as it is, provides a very clear cautionary tale for Don: If you’re not careful, you might end up sprinkled on Tom Sawyer Island too. He narrowly avoids getting sucked once again into the cheating-drinking vortex, but even if he’s not sleeping around or boozing (that much), Don’s still lying to Megan, and dishonesty is his gateway drug. 

Less spiritually ragged than Don is Pete, who seems invigorated (mostly) by his new home out west. Tan and clad in madras and a pastel Lacoste, he embraces Don with a bear hug and, most curious of all, a smile. (Pete rarely does anything but sneer or smirk.) He waxes rhapsodic about California’s “vibrations” and wonders why Ted can’t do the same. Yet Pete’s embrace of West Coast living is undercut by their meeting place -- a New York-style deli -- and by his gripes about L.A. bagels and the city’s ever-present smog. What I can’t quite determine is if Pete is trying to convince himself that he loves California, or that there are still things he prefers about New York. It’s interesting, though, how Pete continues to follow in Don’s footsteps. Don once loved California too. 

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Peggy is in a more clearly miserable emotional place. When we left her last season, she sat in Don’s seat, quite literally wearing the pants, but that appears to have been a major fake-out. She’s now subject to the whims of Don’s replacement, Lou Avery, who is as demanding and dismissive as his predecessor but lack’s Don’s ability to inspire, innovate or in any way be good at his job. His Accutron pitch is possibly the laziest idea I’ve ever heard on this show -- “Accutron. It’s accurate.” -- and Peggy is rightfully irritated that he’d rather go with the lame-but-safe option than try something high-concept and ambitious. Because she’s a woman, Peggy is considered pushy and overbearing -- someone who’d nowadays get called “Tracy Flick” -- because she simply wants to try harder. Even her presumptive ally, Stan, finds it hard to tolerate Peggy’s perfectionism, but it’s hard to imagine Don prompting so many exasperated eye rolls in the same situation. 

Personally, things are looking pretty grim for our heroine. Ted, who is just as miserable, is back in town for a few days, and they share a supremely awkward, if incredibly amusing, encounter in the break room. (Stan, who is somehow becoming this show’s most gallant character, kindly urges Peggy to “buck up.”) At the same time, she has precious little patience for her tenants and their pesky non-functioning toilets. (Peggy a slumlord? Say it ain’t so!) She’s so overwhelmed and lonely that she practically begs her brother-in-law to stay the night, but he can’t: He doesn’t want to leave Anita at home alone. The irony is not lost on Peggy, who collapses into a puddle of tears. I’d say it gets better but, well, this is “Mad Men.”

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 Then there’s SCP’s other working girl, Joan, who finds herself lingering in a strange professional limbo, between partner and a high-ranking secretary. She takes a meeting with an adolescent-looking, Coke-drinking Butler executive and persuades him not to move his advertising in-house until he’s met with Ken. All Joan wants is to be appreciated and respected for her considerable professional expertise, not her physical appearance. (Seriously, did you see the look on her face when she started explaining commissions versus fees to that Columbia professor when she thought he'd been hitting on her. Triumph!) Notice, too, how she calls Wayne from Ken’s office, after helping herself to a glass of his booze -- she longs to be a "real" partner with a corner office. Instead, she gets an earring angrily flung in her face. 

Last but not least is Roger, who’s on what can only be described as a licentious binge masquerading as a spiritual journey. He’s sharing his bed with a nameless hippie and any number of other hairy strangers, but there’s no sense that this free-love lifestyle has helped Roger attain any greater self-awareness; quite the opposite. In reality, it’s his daughter Margaret who appears to be doing the earnest soul-searching. Over Bloody Marys, she tells her father that she forgives him for his many indiscretions. Skeptical of the self-help tone in her voice, not to mention the very idea that he’s done something that needs to be forgiven, Roger wonders if she’s been going to church. “Not in any way you’d understand,” she replies. 

Stray observations:

--Ken is still wearing an eye patch. Can’t he afford a glass eye at his salary?

--Episode’s most GIF-able moment: Roger naked except for a rotary phone on his crotch.

 

ALSO: 

Matthew Weiner talks 'ambitious' final season

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Human InterestRecreational and Sporting Goods IndustryAmusement and Theme ParksLacosteExercise PhysiologyLinda Cardellini
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