Accutron: It’s not a time piece. It’s a conversation piece.
The first Accutron hit the markets long before Freddy Rumsen was pitching it in such surprisingly elegant language. Actually, it had been selling for about ten years, debuting in October of 1960 (just around the time Mad Men’s first season was drawing to a close). Watches of the time, and for several centuries previously, were built around a “balance wheel,” a little pendulum that shifts back and forth and keeps the watch’s hands moving. Watchmaking company Bulova did away with the balance wheel for their Accutron watch, inserting a fancy electric tuning fork and cementing Accutron as the first electronic watch in history.
Those tiny metal forks also made the Accutron the most accurate wristwatch ever made, and a “horological revolution” (thanks, Wikipedia!). At least until 1969, when Astron debuted the quartz-powered Astron and Joel Murray, as Rumsen, sat down to do his best Don Draper impression in the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners (technically, this episode was set in January of ’69 and the Astron didn’t come out until December, but who’s to say Bulova didn’t have a little insider knowledge about the competition?).
But at the time of Rumsen’s pitch, the Accutron was the cutting edge, and hearing such a sharp pitch about such a sharp watch sounds so very peculiar from a character best known for peeing his pants and collapsing into a sad, drunken heap. Scott Hornbacher, the director of last night’s episode, knows this. And so he frames this season’s opening scene as a POV presentation to us, the audience, forcing us head-on into Rumsen’s uncharacteristically perfect pitch. It all feels so very strange.
It’s a recurring motif in “Time Zones,” the premiere episode of Mad Men’s seventh and final season. Characters, settings, and levels of cool are all swapped out indiscriminately, leaving us to piece together the real situation only as fast as Hornbacher and Matthew Weiner (on script duty) allow it. Our first look at a bicoastal Mad Men sees Eastern Don visiting West and Western Ted visiting East, with the real situation not entirely apparent.
One thing is, though – California is the land of the plenty. Unlike dreary NYC, it’s bright and sunny and Sunkist lets you pick oranges right off the tree. Clearly, Mad Men’s new California residents are doing quite well for themselves. Pete Campell has combed the baldness out of his hair and is finally in a chipper mood. And he should be. He’s got everything a man could ask for. Deluxe condo. Fulfilling work environment. Coleslaw scooped right onto his sandwiches (an invention so profound that it wows even Don). Sure, a brief confusion about a new account sends Pete right back into “I am the undervalued martyr of this company and YOU WILL APPRECIATE ME” mode, but it smooths overly quickly once Pete realizes it’s Don being shit on, not himself.
Pete’s sunny demeanor and horrible plaid pants are what everyone was fighting for last season – the perfect, stress-free California lifestyle. Something Megan’s also attained, being preened for a big slot on NBC (even if the show in question, Bracken’s World, only ran for two seasons) and living the sweet life in a little apartment that’s all her own.
L.A. Don, however, is completely impotent. He strolls out of the airport, his beautiful wife pulls up in a new sports car and they immediately start making out in slow motion. The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man” might as well be playing only for him. But a sequence that ends with slow-mo mouth-kissing ultracool begins with a still Don on a moving walkway, framed just like Dustin Hoffman in the opening of The Graduate.
The comparison is clear. Don, like Benjamin Braddock, is out of place and directionless in this new world (even if it’s also proof that Mad Men is the unquestioned king of making Jon Hamm look really cool and manly). In one of the episode’s many switcheroos, Don and Megan sit down for a business dinner with Megan’s agent, and Don’s the one reduced to arm candy. The agent cooingly calls him a “matinee idol” and everyone has a great laugh over it. Then Don stays quiet and looks pretty so the other two can talk business.
Don, wooer extraordinaire, can’t even get his wife into bed until the night before he leaves. Even then, she stops him, citing her own nervousness about everything – new job, new move, new distance between her and her husband. All Don has to offer is a single word: “don’t.” Hamm musters a lot of emotion with that single word, and in the end they share a genuine moment, but it’s not a great sign of things to come.
Made all the worse when Don spends his Eastbound plane ride getting all warm and snuggly with a total stranger (mind you, a stranger played by Neve Campbell, which almost guarantees we’ll see her again). That plane ride might be the strongest scene in the entire hour, solely for the intimacy Don grants to this random stranger, intimacy on a level rarely seen from such a hard drinking, life-ruining playboy. That, and his brutally honest “She knows I’m a terrible husband,” which sounds a lot like the “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive,” from the end of Breaking Bad last year. And of course, another little switcheroo – while Don sleeps next to a woman, all emotions and no sex, Roger sleeps next to a woman who’s all sex and no emotions. And we absolutely need to see more of the strange sex cauldron of a relationship Roger’s found for himself.
Last season ended with Peggy taking up residence in Don’s chair. And this season, her life is a mirror for Don’s: sad and mostly ineffectual. Through Peggy, we meet SC&P’s new creative director, Lou Avery, a man who’s made it almost impossible for Peggy to do her job. Lou Avery is Don Draper after you subtract everything that makes Don Draper interesting. Instead of a perfectly fitted suit, he wears a baby blue sweater one could only find when rooting through Mr. Rogers’ garbage. Instead of tossing out Peggy’s ideas because of tough love and an unflinching desire to be the best, Lou ignores her (and Freddy’s) (and Don’s) Accutron copy because he can barely be asked to care in the first place. Seriously, one of his first lines to Peggy in the premiere is, “I don’t care what you think.”
So Peggy follows her former mentor to a T when they suffer simultaneous emotional breakdowns in simultaneously crummy apartments. A man’s home is his castle, as the old saying goes, yet Don and Peggy neglected those castles for so long because work always came first. Now they’re trapped and alone. Peggy plays landlord for the Rodriguez family, and breaks down in tears when she’s finally on her own. Don does his Cyrano de Bergerac bit with Freddy Rumsen, then punishes himself out in the cold once Freddy leaves (a neat plot twist from a series not prone to surprise reveals, but also a very sad statement – the name “Don Draper” is such poison on Madison Ave. that Freddy Rumsen’s befouled pants hold higher regard). Hamm’s a master at making himself seem pathetic via big sad doe eyes (look back to his breakdown in season four’s “The Suitcase”) but his forlorn look at the end of “Time Zones” still makes a bad man seem vulnerable.
In all this New York melancholy, there’s but one character who ends the premiere on a high note, and that would be Joan. She takes hits from all sides while working the Avon account. She’s woefully underestimated by a baby-faced, soda drinking MBA newbie of a marketing head, and she flashes back to her brief sex-for-money traumas when her secret business consigliere wants a little something in return for his advice. Thankfully, he’s just looking for data on commissions vs. fees, which causes a palpable look of relief from Joan (also everyone watching at home, most likely). With Don and Peggy sagging, Pete happy where he is, and Ken Cosgrove reduced to a series of always hilarious depth perception jokes, it looks like Joan may be our most upwardly mobile Mad Man for the last fourteen episodes. It’s a good thing, too, partly because Christina Hendricks hasn’t had as much room to stretch her acting abilities when compared to other cast members (aside from the Jaguar fiasco, it’s mostly been baby drama and on/off flings with Roger). And partly because, after so many years at the company and not a lot to show for it, it’s satisfying to see another original cast member start to climb the ladder. Joan knocked Butler Footwear’s marketing greenhorn into place with a little tough talk. I’m eager to see what she’ll do with a bigger challenge.
Because “Time Zones” was a single episode and not a two-hour two-parter (as has been the norm for the past two seasons), we still haven’t seen what Betty or the kids or Harry Crane are doing in January of 1969 (the elusive setting finally revealed when Cutler name-drops the Nixon inauguration ten minutes in). I’m guessing we’ll get to that in another episode, maybe two. For now, “Time Zones” gives us plenty to mull over until next week.