Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mad Men Season 7 premiere

If there's anything I've learned to expect about "Mad Men," it's not to expect too much of the season premiere. The show never begins with a bang; invariably, it starts off in a muted register and at a slow, contemplative pace, then gradually ramps up over the course of the season, often hitting its high point in the last few episodes. It's a show that rewards patience as it asks the viewer to settle into the rhythms of the characters' arcs.

That's what I've been telling myself for the last seven years, and I haven't stopped believing it. But dare I admit that in my heart of hearts I'm feeling a little wearied of said arcs, and a little glad that "Mad Men" is drawing to an end? (Even if that end is being nonsensically dragged out into two separate "halves" of an already-short season over two years, for apparently no better reason than that "Breaking Bad" did it?) Because after spending the better part of a decade - both in the show's time and our own - with these characters, I feel I've witnessed enough of their making themselves miserable. For better or for worse, that's been the key note of the series - the malaise of the '60s, as reflected in the malaise of a group of (for the most part) privileged individuals who are (for the most part) only dimly aware of the tension and fragility underlying their existence. And it continues with the Season 7(a) premiere, which despite splitting its time fairly evenly between sunny Los Angeles and wintry NYC, feels mostly mired in that peculiarly "Mad Men"-ish brand of quiet desperation.

Don is still on leave, though working after a fashion by using Freddie Rumsen, of all people, as his mouthpiece, and still going through the motions with Megan even though the distance between them (both literal and figurative) has grown enormous. Peggy, still recovering from her shabby treatment by Ted Chaough, finds herself forced to serve as underling to an unsympathetic new creative director and as equally reluctant landlady to fractious tenants. Roger's regularly drugged out and engaging in orgies but doesn't seem to be enjoying it much. Even Ken Cosgrove, Accounts, is no longer sweetly upbeat Ken of yore but a bitter, choleric manager, still blind in one eye and suffering from something like PTSD from his unfortunate relationship with Chevy. Pretty much a downer all around. But curiously not in a way that I found very affecting; at least not yet.

For me, there were three lone bright spots in this characteristically glum episode:

1. That first, dreamlike, slo-mo shot of Megan emerging from her car at LAX, looking like a movie star in that gorgeous pale blue number.

2. California Pete Campbell in full douchey glory: sunglasses astride his receding hairline, plaid pants that hurt the eyes, sweater tied around his neck and a look of smug self-satisfaction - which is about as close as Pete generally gets to looking happy.

3. Joan schooling that little marketing guy at Butler Footwear (who looked about 15) and doing it beautifully. It is always a pleasure to watch Joan being competent - that is to say, being Joan.

It's telling that of those three moments, at least two of them were fleeting and ultimately false. Megan's not a movie star and most likely never will be; she and Don spend less of the weekend shagging than awkwardly failing to connect; and Pete probably (no, definitely) isn't as happy as he wants Don to think he is. Both Megan and Pete, in their different ways, were selling an image to Don - the image of an idyllic life that could be his in L.A., except Don knows perfectly well it's an illusion. No reason we should fall for it, either: after all, there's a long, fine tradition of noir that links that theme to Los Angeles, from Raymond Chandler to "Sunset Boulevard" to "L.A. Confidential," "Mulholland Drive" and beyond. Whether Don's able to find something resembling true peace behind all the facades and imitations remains to be seen. He does, after all, have a longstanding emotional connection to California via poor, saintly, dead Anna. But via SC&P West, or his increasingly tenuous bond to Megan? I wouldn't bet on it.

Random notes:

-Was the deli where Pete met Don supposed to be Canter's? Didn't look quite right, but then I can't remember the last time I was at Canter's during the day.

-At one point in their awkward weekend together, Megan asks Don "How much time do we have?" Seems like a question for their entire relationship. Answer: not long.

-That blond L.A. realtor lady Pete dangled in front of Don and then childishly snatched back ("no, you CAN'T have her!") bore an uncanny resemblance to Don's ex-wife Betty. Coincidence? Doubtful.

-The woman sitting next to Don on the plane bore an uncanny resemblance to one-time '90s It Girl Neve Campbell. Oh wait, it WAS Neve Campbell. Where you been, Neve?

-Disneyland seems like a peculiar place to scatter ashes, but if ya gonna do it, Tom Sawyer's Island is the place. Though personally I'd have chosen It's a Small World.

-More seriously, I can't help feeling the Disneyland reference was shoehorned in to remind us of Don's own connection to the place where his own marriage (to Megan) began. How full of hope he was back then; he really thought he could make it work this time. He knows better now.

-Line of the week: Tenant kid to Peggy - "Why are you working on a SATURDAY?" Why, indeed, kid.


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