Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Set Me Free"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode One: "Time Zones"

"It's not a time piece; it's a conversation piece," the all-of-a-sudden brilliant--as in Don Draper brilliant--Freddy Rumsfeld pushes on Peggy at the beginning of this episode, which travels through the four time zones of the title and occurrences that are all over the place too; many seem pointless at this juncture, but might be laying groundwork that will make sense later on as the season progresses. What the episode didn't do for me is offer a lot in the way of "conversation pieces," save a few intriguing bits that struck me as more mythic and symbolic. At the end of last season, it seemed that Don Draper might have emerged from the depths of the "Inferno," ready for his journey through Purgatory--a holding pen for waiting, and for working off one's sins. An in-between place, neither there--the final punishment of Hell--nor the there of Heaven. In Dante's poem, Purgatorio is a mountain to be climbed. Less than two months since we last saw him--standing with his children outside the hell of the whorehouse where he spent his youth--Don is in this state of limbo: being paid by SC&P, but not REALLY working for them, yet working off his sins of failed ad campaigns of the year before by plying the "free lancing" Freddy Rumsfeld with his ideas to sell to Peggy Olsen and people at other ad firms.

He is tempted, as others attempt to lure him back to the Inferno: there is the mysterious woman on the plane, who--like Lethe, one of the goddesses of the Underworld, the representation of the River Lethe, river of forgetfulness--offers him a sleeping pill. In myth, Lethe lures souls to drink of her water to forget their earthly lives and selves and hence be forever residents of the Underworld. Don declines her offer of the pill. She tells him of her dead husband, whose remains she has been spreading at Disney Land, and offers to "make [him] feel better." Though tempted; though acknowledging to her that he is a "terrible husband," he declines her offer, saying that he has to get back to work.

There is also L.A., the land of sunshine, of slow motion wives in mini-skirts and sports cars, of new chances, of renewed youth (Pete Campbell with a rakish lock of hair hanging over his forehead has shed his stuffy suits and ties!) It is like the fabled Shangri-La of Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon," the 1937 movie that Don was starting to watch on the new TV that Megan didn't want: "In these days of wars, of rumors of wars, haven't you dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?" Yet, Shangri-La proved too good to be true, a place that kept people artificially and superficially young, but once they left, death came to claim them. Even though Don doesn't really have a job to get back to in New York, he declines to stay in California with Megan and her ridiculous, superficial agent, but goes back east to 'work.'

A further punishment for Don is his separation from his only soul-mate on the show, fellow sufferer Peggy. She is--or at least feels herself to be--the only defender of, and striver after, quality left at SC&P. Lou--Don's replacement--doesn't appreciate her; after she tells him, "I want to give you my best," he merely sneers, "I don't know, Peggy. I guess I'm just immune to your charms." Stan doesn't think it's worth the trouble to make Lou appreciate good campaign ideas; Peggy yells at him that "you're all a bunch of hacks," willing to go with 'shit.' Meanwhile on the home front, she repeatedly must contend with the literal shit clogging her tenant's toilet. She then must hear her brother-in-law say that he'll make the long trip back to Brooklyn late at night even though he must be back at Peggy's the next morning because "I don't like Anita there alone at the house," when she has no man to care if she is alone in her house (hear that Ted, who dares return from California without a tan!). All this drives her to sink to the floor of her apartment in anguished tears, while a few miles or so away, Don decides not to open a late night bottle of liquor; instead he goes to the broken sliding glass door of his apartment (things don't work in the apartments of purgatory apparently--toilet for Peggy, door for Don), and sits out in the cold January air of the patio in his underwear, shivering, looking like hell, but managing--for this episode at least--to avoid going back there. While some man sings Diana Ross' "set me free, why dontcha babe..."

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