The final season of Mad Men premiered last night and unlike last season, started off on a high note. Don Draper’s first appearance made him look like an absolute rock star. He gets off the plane, sees his actress wife, all in slow motion to the sounds of The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” and the only thought that comes to mind is: Wow this guy is cool. But then Matthew Weiner, as he so often does, flips things on us by having Don’s wife drive while Don sits in the passenger seat. The times they are a-changin’, you see. Women drive now, no matter how cool you are.
Weiner has been insistent that Don Draper is America. If that’s true, then Don’s excursions to the West Coast are his version of manifest destiny. Don seems to continually believe things will be better if he reaches the shores of California.
On this trip, he goes West to see his wife, Megan, played by the delightful Jessica Paré. The two share several tender moments despite their declining marriage. For those that pay attention to possible foreshadowing (or red herrings depending on Weiner’s coyness), several Sharon Tate references were dropped in relation to Megan. Will she end up murdered? Quite possibly.
But what matters in this episode is Don. On his flight home, he sits next to a beautiful stranger played by Neve Campbell (Weiner has enjoyed employing famed 90s actors and actresses, probably for his own nostalgic purposes). The two share several intimate moments over Campbell’s husband dying of alcoholism. “He was thirsty. He died of thirst,” she says. Don, desperate for real emotional connection, as he has been since the first episode of the first season, shares his worries about his current marriage. Paraphrasing Psalm 31, he wonders if he has broken the vessel. But when this beautiful stranger offers a physical relationship, Don declines. This decision is not the one our Old Don would make. The optimist in me hopes he has turned the corner.
Back in New York, it’s revealed that Freddy Rumsen (recovering alcoholic and relatively untalented creative) has been working with Don to get his pitches in the door of Don’s old firm. The episode began with Freddy delivering a skilled pitch for a watch idea. Don’s still got it, no matter who is speaking the words. Peggy is impressed and runs with Freddy/Don’s (Fron’s?) idea to her new boss, Lou Avery, who doesn’t care and isn’t interested. He is old school, in the worst possible meaning of that phrase.
Don’s last scene is one that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. He restrains himself from taking a drink and walks to his balcony door that he tries to shut, but it remains stubbornly broken. He then walks outside into the cold and sits, looking alone and desperate. Some will say this is the broken Don. The pizazz, the glamorous wife, and the façade of having it together is a lie, and this is the truth. However, I see it as still more reason to hope. Last season, Don made a decision to live honestly and showed his children his broken-down childhood home. Now, he’s being honest with himself. Alcohol won’t help. Neither can he fix what is broken (the sliding glass door or otherwise). All he can do is lean into the cold and endure it as best he can.
Plenty of other things happened in this episode as well. Peggy discovers the mercurial spouse that a job can be as she ends the episode alone and broken on the floor of her apartment. She has followed in Don’s footsteps and that life has abused her just as it abused him. One wonders if Weiner is making a critique of feminism, by saying the desire to have access to workaholic jobs ultimately backfires on the women who pursue them. But that’s a blog for another day.
The biggest question of this final season is: What happens to Don? It’s January of 1969, and perhaps the most telling clue was Don watching Richard Nixon’s inauguration speech:
We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit.
Can Don find a solution to his spiritual crisis? I, for one, am hoping for redemption.