“Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.”

The final season of Mad Men starts with these words coming from the unlikely mouth of Freddy Rumsen, staring straight at us. It’s unnerving. It’s never happened before—but we soon realize he’s not talking to us. He’s pitching to Peggy.

Then again, this is a Matt Weiner show. Nothing happens for only one reason.

I’ve always (unoriginally) thought of Mad Men as an essentially existentialist show. It’s a slow-burning story about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, and how those stories are all that keep us afloat, and how when the stories unwind, we start to unwind, too.

Work is all that Don has left to define himself, and that’s been stripped away. He’s lost.It is the existentialist dream: to pick who we want to be (to choose our own essence) and write ourselves into that story. If we do something or experience something that doesn’t fit our narrative, we get rid of it by rewriting the story. After Peggy has Pete’s child in the first season, Don tells her, “Peggy, listen to me, get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” (The show has thus far, with just a couple of brief exceptions, shown how true that statement is. For now, anyhow.)

There is one alternative to this. When things get too bad, you can just end the story altogether, just as Lane Pryce did.

This episode, aptly named “Time Zones,” is obsessed with time. It starts with Freddy’s Accutron pitch (“it’s not a timepiece—it’s a conversation piece”), which we later discover was written by Don, Freddy acting as merely his mouthpiece. But there are clocks ticking everywhere. Everyone’s under the gun, or stalling for more time. Ted’s only got four days in town. Ken storms around yelling about how he hasn’t got time to go to the bathroom. Roger’s getting older and trying to forget with a horde of much younger playmates. Joan asks the Butler head of marketing to hold off for just a few more days before making his recommendation to his boss.

Megan—now living in California—tells Don as soon as he gets off the plane that his plane was late, that they only have one short dinner and then the rest of the weekend to themselves (in that scene, time slows down when he first sees her). She tells him not to work all day. She tells him he’s not there long enough for a fight. On their final morning, she asks him how much time they have (he’s taking the red eye). She’s nervous that the clock is ticking on their relationship.

Don sits on the couch watching television with Megan dozing on his shoulder (echoed later on the plane), watching the beginning of the film Lost Horizon (Frank Capra’s 1937 film about Shangri-La), and frowning while reading the title cards, which seem to speak for themselves: “In these days of wars and rumors of wars — haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight? Of course you have. So has every man since Time began. Always the same dream. Sometimes he calls it Utopia—Sometimes the Fountain of Youth— Sometimes merely ‘that little chicken farm.’”

This comes to a head in the weird scenes on the plane with Don and the woman in the seat next to him (played by Neve Campbell), in which he admits to her that Megan knows he’s a “terrible husband,” and that he’s afraid he’s “broken the vessel.” I had the feeling while watching that this conversation wasn’t happening at all. (Turns out Matt Zoller Seitz did, too.) I don’t know if it was because I did the LA-New York flight myself two days ago, an experience that can feel like some kind of a bizarro time warp.

To me, this felt like a dream conversation, or some mashup of dream and reality, Don’s greatest fears—death, failure, losing Megan and with her his last chance at happiness—rising to the surface. Seitz points out some reasons, but the most notable was the woman’s odd answer to how her husband died: “He was thirsty. He died of thirst. His company sent him to a hospital. I went with him. I was supposed to be part of the cure somehow. And all I did was observe. I thought he was really getting better. Then a doctor told me he’d be dead in a year. All of them would be.”

Thirsty is a euphemism for alcoholic, I suppose, which Don is. But this is a strange statement nonetheless, and I’m not sure how to parse it (who are “them”?). I have more faith in Weiner than to imagine he’s straightforwardly indicating to us that he’s just gonna kill off all these characters “within the year.” But the clock is certainly ticking. And Don is dying of thirst. He’s just not sure what he’s thirsty for anymore.

Don also spends the episode telling people that he has to get to work, though he doesn’t. When he arrives in Los Angeles to see Megan, she thinks he’s going to spend the day working at the office, but Don hasn’t been to SC&P since he was forced into leave two months earlier. And after the mysterious woman on the plane suggests they go “make him feel better,” Don tells her that he has to get back to work when he lands in New York. But he doesn’t. He’s going home.

Having (presumably) stayed away from Sylvia after last season, and without Megan around, work is all that Don has left to define himself, and that’s been stripped away. He’s lost. That loneliness and lostness is echoed in Peggy, who has been his double all along in this show. Lou doesn’t care about her existence, her work is being disregarded, Ted is a thorn in her side, and she’s left alone on her knees crying at home.

Near the end of the episode, Freddy comes to visit Don at home to do more work on pitches. Just before he arrives, Don is shining his shoes and watching Nixon’s first inaugural address with some interest—enough to stop his activity briefly and listen more closely. This is what we hear and, in classic Weiner fashion, every bit of it is meant to tell us something about what’s going on in Don’s mind:

We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit. Reaching with magnificent precision for the moon; falling into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace; we’re 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.

To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. When we listen to “the better angels of our nature,” we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things — such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.

Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us. To lower our voices would be a simple thing . . .

The better angels of our nature? The simple things? I’m not sure Don even has those anymore.

The episode ends with Don freezing out on his porch, looking consciously miserable—conscious enough that it almost seems as if he sees us watching him. The camera pulls back in a slow motion, reverse mimicking the first shot of Freddy. The bars on his sliding glass doors seem to stand in for prison bars. Whatever this is the “start” of, we’d better be paying attention.


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