In the premiere episode of the seventh and final season of AMC’s “Mad Men” called “Time Zones” the advertising world is still coming to grips with the shaggy 1960s.
Most of the characters have only embraced the drugs and sex of the generation and little else, especially Roger (John Slattery), whom we first see this season in the aftermath of an orgy.
Others don’t get it. “What do we have here, Gladys Knight and the Pips?” jokes an exec crassly when his African-American secretary ushers the staff into his office.
It’s January 1969; President Richard Nixon is being inaugurated. The show’s focal point, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), is on his way to California, but not in the way he has expected. Rival Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) got the post in Los Angeles instead of Don, who is now on the outs at Sterling.
He’s flying to L.A. to see his second wife, Megan (Jessica Pare), who is out there to pursue an acting career. Their meet-up is groovy, set to the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man.”
Though Megan’s agent thinks he looks like a matinee idol, Don is more in a hangover state. His affairs and drinking from last season has left him more fragile than he would admit. He is still worried and feeling guilty about his daughter Sally, who caught him sleeping with his mistress.
Pete Campbell is also in Los Angeles, and the New Yorker has curiously embraced the town.
“The city is flat and ugly and the air is brown, but I love the vibrations,” Pete tells Don over lunch.
“You don’t dress like a hippie, but you talk like one,” Don responds, truly puzzled.
One of the first things Don does when he visits Megan is to buy her a large TV. The coyotes that howl in the canyon where she lives bother him.
“It’s like living in Dracula’s castle,” he says.
Back in New York, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) — left by Ted at the end of season six — struggles with the old-school Lou Avery (Allan Havey), who was brought in after Don at Sterling. He doesn’t take her seriously. Ambitious Joan (Christina Hendricks) also has trouble getting taken seriously as her challenges at work grow.
Series creator Matthew Weiner always has deftly interwoven social issues with emotional ones, and in this first episode (the only one provided to critics), he keeps them in the air. But, as is his fashion, Weiner doesn’t rush the storytelling. AMC begged critics to keep certain things under wraps, but it would be hard to spill too much.
Hamm is as good as ever. He was born for the role of a super-suave, angst-ridden adman. One thing we can say about the first episode is that Don’s good looks still draw the interest of women, including a real-estate agent whom he tells has some “nice-looking properties.”
He also meets an attractive widow on a plane back from California who has an amusing story about her late husband and his ashes.
Where any of this will go, only Weiner knows. This seven-part arc is only part one of the final season.
But getting there is most of the fun for “Mad Men.” It is like a slightly sad song we can’t get out of our heads.