Is he talking to us?
That’s the first of many questions that Mad Men provokes of us with its final season premiere. The episode opens with ol’ Freddy Rumsen delivering a doozy of an ad campaign pitch to the fourth wall — Acutron watches: not timepieces, but conversation pieces! — and laying down some metaphorical lingo in pretty thick globs: “Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.” An interesting, if not cheeky way to kick off the very last season of a show whose M.O. is the waiting game for the other shoe to drop.
The first reveal is that Freddy is pitching to Peggy, making ends meet as a freelance ad man since he can’t land a steady gig. The next reveal about the pitch comes much later on in the episode: it was Don’s, not Freddy’s.
Yes, Don can still write one heck of a sales pitch. He doesn’t have a job, can’t conflate his past and present selves, finds no solace in his decaying marriage, doesn’t seem to fit in well in the backwards world of Los Angeles (nor his own New York), isn’t keeping up with his contemporaries, and might be all but a phantom in the eyes of his daughter. But he can still pitch.
We pick up with Don midway through a flight out to L.A. to meet Megan, taking new steps professionally but still strained to find her own happiness or comfort in her relationship with her husband. The difference: Megan is otherwise flourishing, and seems resentfully anchored down by the marriage whereas Don is desperate to define himself by its success…albeit hardly able to work toward that.
No longer able to identify as an industry fixture, Don courses through L.A. in hopes of discovering new soils to plan himself. He is unnerved by Megan’s silent (save for the coyotes) mountaintop home — he purchases the biggest, most obnoxious TV imaginable to stave off the very idea of idle thought. He meets up with former Big Apple purist Pete Campbell, now a resident of La La Land and in a big way: Pete’s tan and crisp, knots a sweater around his chest, and talks about his new home like it’s some kind of new medical advancement that the Neanderthals back East can’t seem to give way to. But this isn’t where Don belongs. Though nor is New York, not any longer.
The most significant scene in the episode comes during Don’s flight back to the city, when a widowed Neve Campbell offers her own sad stories before suggesting a romantic union back at her Manhattan pad. But Don, perhaps sure (for now, anyway… Neve Campbell can’t possibly be a one-time guest, can she?) that he’ll find no self-worth in this affair and afraid to face that vacant reflection once more, instead heads back to his own place, where he shares a sandwich with Freddy Rumsen and admits (to the audience) to being the true author of Freddy’s pitch to Peggy.
From his throne atop the apex of the Madison Avenue world of the 1960s, Don has fallen to a depth where he might find himself sharing sausage heroes with Freddy Rumsen on a weekday afternoon, delighting in his likewise unemployable company and offering him pitch material because it’s the only way he knows how to keep his pulse running.
In Freddy, he who was once known by his kingdom as the epitome of failure, Don now grasps for equity. Or superiority. He aims to weigh Freddy down to his own level of duplicity by affording him campaigns too good to pass over. But even this poor sap, a nice fellow who has kicked the sauce and is simply doing what he can to bring home the bacon, isn’t anchored to Don’s valleys. Upon a visit to Don’s apartment, Freddy bemoans the cocked balcony door: it’s freezing in here. Even Freddy Rumsen can see that you’re living in a grave, empty, toxic state, Don. And one that, much like his jammed door, doesn’t seem like it can be mended.
Big Question No. 2: Why is Peggy crying?
This one isn’t so much a mystery — Peggy breaks down at the end of the hour following a long line of heavy, heartbreaking frustrations — as much as it is something to reflect on.
We see her at sticky odds with Don’s replacement, the folksy Lou Avery, who deems himself “immune to her charms” when Peggy tries to work him over on Freddy/Don’s magnificent pitch… to no avail. We see her, the super of her own building, dealing with agitated tenants and plumbing faux pas. We see her disgruntled over her at work relationships: with former lover Ted and affectionate buddy Stan. We see her practically begging her brother-in-law to spend the night on her couch so that she won’t have to ‘fess up to her cloying loneliness. And then we see her break down in tears.
So, yeah, somewhat of an easy question, but still one to ponder on: what, really, does Peggy need?
Considering the fact that we thought she might be traveling skyward by now (the last shot of Season 6 was a positive hint), it’s a little flummoxing to see Peggy at such a low. This is Don’s low point, but we expected her to be finding new avenues by now. Will we have to wait until the tail end of the series to see Peggy ascend, or will the weeks to come rip her from this melancholy and pin her with something in the vein of hope?
Next: Is Roger’s daughter in a cult?
Hypothesis: Yes. Roger’s daughter — who shows up unexpectedly to tell him that she “forgives him,” explaining that she has found a spiritual enlightenment that he would never understand — is in a cult. And I hope whatever is going on there comes back into play, because it’s quite chilling.
Finally, we get to Joan, who battles with a Doogie Howser of a shoe company executive (Dan Byrd, from Cougar Town) to fend off his company’s decision to create an in-house ad team, proud to be on the (more or less) successful end of the sort of battle for which she’s been vying for quite a while, but certainly not yet free of the shackles that have plagued her for so long: in one episode, Joan accuses the exec of not taking her seriously and accuses a business professor of insinuating that he wants to sleep with her in exchange for information. Considering her history, both fair. Although both did wind up surprising her, pleasantly. It was only back home, at Sterling Cooper & Partners, that Joan did find herself unsurprisingly disrespected: by Ken Cosgrove, who gave her lip for the whole ordeal even after she had done her part in keeping Cougar Town from abandoning SC&P. The world outside of the company where she has spent (said with a sigh) the past 16 years might be ready for Joan, but that company surely is not.
One final question: which is better, a New York sausage hero or a Los Angeles “Brooklyn Avenue” sandwich?
Episode Grade: A-, with special bonus points for Ken Cosgrove’s diminished hand-eye coordination and Pete’s majestically douchey L.A. attire.