Two months ago Don Draper lost his job. Of all the people and possessions in his life, very little has ever meant as much to Don Draper as his position as Head of Creative at the Sterling Cooper & Partner’s Advertising Agency. He has cheated on both his wives but to advertising he has always been true. It even seemed like he fell in love with Megan because of her interest in his creative work. Her ability to keep calm and being good with children no doubt played a part but the first time he slept with her was in his office one night after she expressed a desire to be a copywriter.
When things at work don’t interest him or go his way, Don often indulges in his other passions. Don is at his absolute best when he is being challenged. In season four, he is at his most driven because he has to produce great work or else the new company that they worked so hard to build will crumble. This is also when Don Draper is at his happiest. He swam and kept a journal. He casually dated but was largely faithful. That was a Don as we had never seen him before and have never seen since.
In light of this, the final image of Mad Men’s seventh season premiere is rather accurate. Don sits in his New York apartment balcony, cold and alone. While he is still married, Megan is on the other side of the country and when they are together their interactions are awkward. Credit has to be given to both the actors and the writers for painting a realistic portrait of the couple as strangers. Everything is just a little too forced. And Don apparently can’t just live in California because he has to ‘work’.
And here is the big surprise of ‘Time Zones’; Don is still secretly working in advertising. Yeah, I seen it coming too. Via the proxy of Freddy Rumsen, who viewers may remember was also told to take some personal time back in season two. The episode and his hiatus were billed as six months leave but Freddy didn’t reappear until season four. The pairing of Freddy and Don is likely a conscious decision by the Matthew Weiner so that the audience will make the same connection. However, there is one key difference. Freddy came back sober, having dealt with his problems (of which Freddy reminds Don) but Don doesn’t seem interested in dealing with his personal issues. He just wants to work.
Maybe he just doesn’t know where to start. Don is the most dysfunctional character in the entire show, although Roger Sterling is coming up fast behind him. Don drinks too much, smokes too much and sleeps with far too many women. The latter seems like his biggest issue and he admits as much to a woman on a plane. When he states ‘I thought it would be different this time’ in regards to his marriage to Megan it is easy to believe him and feel some sympathy for him too. This is a man who is lost and clueless as to what to do about it. There is a sense that he has to do something or else Megan may be lost to him forever.
Other than give up on advertising and just move out to California to be with Megan, there doesn’t seem to be many options for Don. He isn’t a quitter, even when he should, which is why I doubt this final season will end with Don committing suicide. That theory has been around for years due to the falling man in the intro but I think the falling man more simply just represents corruption and debauchery. Don has struggled to be a better man and ultimately the viewer will want to see him succeed.
It probably doesn’t help that everywhere one looks in the show characters are miserable. Roger Sterling has done a Jesse Pinkman and become part of a continuous party/orgy. If there is a betting rig on who will die this season my bet is on Roger and probably by AIDS. Ken is overworked. Ted is avoiding Peggy. Peggy is ashamed and alone and ends her days crying on the floor in her horrible apartment with annoying tenants. Betty once again doesn’t make an appearance in a Mad Men premiere. Of all the cast, the only two characters who stand out as being happy are Joan and Pete. Joan is elated at being given more accounts and works hard to keep her newest from leaving but even then there are cracks. It is momentary flicker, but her standoffish reaction when a business professor asks for something in exchange for helping shows that Joan has not yet forgotten Herb.
Pete Campbell, on the other hand, is happier in California than he ever was with Trudy. He even goes so far as to hug Don. Wow, that’s confident. That estate agent played by Jessy Schram will certainly pop up again, though whether it is in Pete’s bed or Don’s is a harder question to answer. Another questions that the show needs to clarify is whether Megan knows that Don has been given time off. All he tells her is that he has to work, which is ambiguous. Megan will be less than enthused if she finds out Don has just been giving ideas to Freddy for months rather than moving to California with her.
Or maybe not. It is hard to say whether Megan cares what Don does at this point. But Don cares and he will spend this season has he has done many others; in an existential no-man’s land. The true ending to the series will be when Don Draper accepts that he is Dick Whitman. Don’s biggest talent has always been advertising. He sells ideas. Facts rarely matter because Don has always sold things based on the emotions they evoke. That is how he has lived his own life too; selling himself to people through love and passion. But that isn’t enough anymore. People don’t want the idea, they want the man. Megan already knows so I doubt much will change for her. His new, bestest bud Pete knows too and looks past it. But they don’t really matter. It matters that Don still doesn’t know who he is.