The once almighty Mad Men returned this week with a slight time shift from 1969 to 1972, leaving The Sixties at the request of no one. It’s unclear if early 70’s nostalgia will ever really happen (outside of over baked music festival “fashion”) but, style wise, as much as I die for the spider plants and white wicker of The Goodbye Girl’s NYC apartment, it can never hold a candle to the 50’s and 60’s for fashion and design porn.
Fortunately, along with Roger Sterling’s new duster, which may, in fact, be calling the shots now, our rogueish Mad Men are back just where we like them, and right where they belong. Roger’s on one side of a diner booth in a tux with two rapt young women, one the hot blonde type and the other, more plain and real ginger type you know he goes nuts for. Don is on the other side of the booth with a gorgeous model who appears to be something of a steady, but he’s bored, naturally, eyeing an older (age appropriate) waitress who will later become a quickie in the alley which, for him, tends to be a little mixed up with one form of grief or another (nod if you understand this particular form of disordered thinking, or, as I call it, the modern human condition). Roger, in an unusual show of restraint (60’s are over) is taking care of his ticker now: he tells the women he’ll have to drop one of them off. Don also drops his girl off, going home to his sweet Manhattan pad solo only to call up his service, flirt with the voice on the line, and order up one of his other ladies-in-waiting with what I like to think of as the invention of the booty call.
Mad Men is finally, and truly, back.
Let’s not dwell on last year (season 7 part 1 of the two part final season) that picked up this week. Those “The Beginning” 7 episodes went a bit too far afield trying to shoehorn a newer character’s depression (who gives a hoot about Ted Chaough and Harry Hamlin in those damned glasses) when we’ve been here for Don, Peggy, Joan, and Roger, oh and even rotten Pete, since Amy Winehouse was dewy, fresh, and first emerged on the scene. Longer than some marriages. Longer than 90% of Hollywood marriages. 2007 is a long time ago in internet years. Those who’ve been with the show since then have survived the Pryce years, and that horrible end. Ted’s whinging is kid’s stuff! Megan’s quarter-life crisis was dullsville.
A typical between-season wait for Mad Men can be from a year to 18 months, and the separation anxiety means that it can take a while to jump back in, to care, to remember where the chess pieces lay. Especially as there are always time jumps and subtle changes in between seasons, ones that leave the audience with bit of Don’s “Wha? Who am I? Where am I? Who’d I sleep with” that the show loves to open with for this hard drinkin’, hard lovin’ Creative. This was an even bigger risk going in this year, knowing the final 7 are before us, and every minute counts.
But not this time. This time, it was as easy as plunging into a pool for a night swim on an L.A. lost weekend. The first episode (officially season 7, episode 8, of “The End of an Era”) centers on the key Mad Men and Women back in their workplace for the most part, with Don back in his rightful place, Pete’s hairline more delightfully tragic than ever, Roger’s new Yosemite Sam moustache picking up where Sam Elliot’s has, criminally, left his face on Justified, and Kenny Cosgrove getting to talk about accounts once again. Damn, good old Kenny, a guy so boring we forgot how he lost his eye for a minute, even gets some play this week. Get out your martini shaker, it’s going to be a bumpy, delicious 7 weeks.
For bonus points, the audience gets to enjoy Peggy and Joan working a campaign together, pitching changes to Topaz hosiery and deflecting sexist clients with aplomb, in a scene where one of the sexist clients redeems himself by casually calling Harry Crane, the show’s eternal, unchanging asshole, “Mr. Potato Head”.
Mad Men at its very peak, where its remained at more consistently than most other shows (especially over almost a decade of real time) is a perfect bittersweet dessert. There is casual sexism that speaks to the many tragedies for women and children in the pre-birth control era, but we also see key strong female characters who are in control of their own lives and destinies. Old, well worn issues and historical milestones are glanced at in a fresh way or unexpected way. This is a show that even made the Kennedy assassination new and different (season 3 ep 12, “The Grown-Ups“) covering it as a day of suspended events, sea changes that come to us through real tragedy, and unexpected family reconciliations. It was as big a tragedy as America ever had, and it was also felt deeply. Don’s love life and marriages are no different- public failures and private shame and occasional adventures as he goes through many women, but in his own messed up way he loves women and longs for true connection, almost universally courtly and old-fashioned in his interactions with them, even the one nighters.
While the first half of the final season went a little out of control, like Ted’s flying his little plane like a maniac for depressed kicks in front of clients, Mad Men is now back with a return to the brittle, dark and happy-ending proof heart that is its center. Don Draper, the enigma with his dark origin story (which he can now talk about freely, over diner food, oh joy!) is resigned to be Don Draper, lone wolf, brilliant Ad man, liver killer, expert-level napper, and prick. The Mad Men universe is restored. Don’s again a little haunted, which is just the way we like him. Like regret always does, it comes kicking him in the ass when he least expects it: thinking the woman he was once going to run away with, Rachel Menken, is out there somewhere when really she’s lived, loved, and left the buffet forever. There are models in fur coats in his office, and in his dreams, and in his past when he was once just a nobody salesman for a furrier. He still says “What?” like nobody’s business.
And the cherry on top, was that for now both of Don Draper’s ex-wives, who are no longer interesting, were nowhere to be seen this week. “Severance” abounds, and we’re hooked on watching it all fall apart beautifully.
By Step On Magazine Editors