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'Mad Men' recap: 'Rich in goods but ragged in spirit'

April 14, 2014|By Meredith Blake
  • Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in his gray suit and fedora looks like he's traveled to the West Coast via a time machine from 1960, in the season opener of "Mad Men."
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in his gray suit and fedora looks like he's traveled… (Michael Yarish/AMC )

If “Mad Men” is a story of the ‘60s told from the perspective of those who “lost” the decade, then it’s perfectly apt that the key line in the premiere of the show’s final season comes from Richard Nixon, the man who championed the silent majority. In the closing minutes of “Time Zones,” Don shines his shoes as the new president delivers his inaugural address on television. One line from the speech stirs Don to attention: "We have found ourselves rich in goods but ragged in spirit.”

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The president’s biblically inspired words are a perfectly apt way to describe the emotional state of just about everyone who appears in “Time Zones.” Creator Matthew Weiner has said that he wants to explore the interplay between “the material world and the immaterial world” in the series’ final season, and he is clearly laying the groundwork. It’s January 1969, and having weathered the horrors of 1968, Don, Peggy, Roger et al are, materially speaking, just fine. It’s the spiritual side where things are not so much ragged as torn and frayed beyond repair. 

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In fictional time, only two months have passed since we last saw Don standing with his children outside the ramshackle house where he grew up. That cathartic moment, perhaps the most moving this show has yet delivered, was at once a high and a low point for our protagonist: Suspended from his job, he finally decides to come clean to his children. Now that we've had time to dry our tears and listen to "Both Sides, Now" on repeat for weeks on end -- what, was that just me? -- the question looming over this season, as with every season, is just how permanent this change will be. Now that Don has eliminated this final psychological impediment, can he really be happy? And the answer, not surprisingly, is “eh, not really.” 

When we’re finally reunited with our protagonist, about eight long minutes into “Time Zones,” he’s shaving in an airplane toilet en route to L.A. to see Megan, who has made good on her promise to move out west. Once on the ground, Don floats on a moving sidewalk past a colorful mosaic at LAX while Megan, looking like a million bucks in a powder blue minidress, pulls up outside the airport in a snazzy little convertible and plants a slo-mo kiss on her husband.

Between the car, the music ("I'm a Man") and Megan’s fembot hair, the sequence borders on “Austin Powers” territory, but there’s a thick layer of irony undercutting all the grooviness. First, there’s the fact that Don, in his staid gray suit and fedora, looks like he traveled to the West Coast via a time machine from 1960, and that Megan is dolled up not for her hubbie but for dinner with her skeezy agent. Then there’s that moving-sidewalk sequence, clearly borrowed from “The Graduate,” a movie about an alienated and emotionally detached man who stumbles into a destructive sexual affair. Hmmm.....

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California was once a special, almost sacred place to Don, but the luster of the Golden State has gradually worn off since he and Megan fell in love at Disneyland. This disenchantment began last season with a hallucinogenic plunge into a pool at a showbiz party, and now it’s the setting for a nervous reunion with his wife that underscores the emotional gulf between them. She’s living in a modest little bachelorette pad high up in the hills, where the howling coyotes remind Don of Transylvania (I can’t wait to see what the Internet conspiracy theorists do with that ominous detail.) 

It’s quite a contrast to the Drapers’ sprawling Park Avenue apartment: In L.A., Megan has carefully cultivated a fabulously Bohemian lifestyle, and she’s irritated by the gigantic TV set Don buys her as a gift (but really for himself). Why? Because all her friends out there are “starving.” There’s always been a bit of a generation gap between these two, and their geographical separation only seems to have widened the cultural divide. She’s dressed like a pirate, he’s still in his gray flannel. “My next house is going to have a pool -- our next house,” Megan says, underlining the point.

The awkwardness continues all weekend, as the once hot-and-heavy lovers feebly come together after falling asleep in front of the TV. Megan even pauses to brush her teeth before they go to bed, like a self-conscious young woman on a date with a budding new love interest -- not someone who’s been married for years. 

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