Cyrano de Draper Simulates Work in Mad Men Season Seven, Episode One
He’s Freddie Rumsen as we’ve never seen him- slicked back, focused, aggressive, talking a mile a minute while creating an indelible word picture of an ad campaign for a space-age timepiece that every businessman must have in the pre-moonwalk months of 1969. This Freddie is a far cry from the boozy sad sack that was given his walking papers years ago by Sterling Cooper.
And there’s a good reason for this new souped-up Freddie: he’s not really Freddie at all. Rather, he’s Freddie channeling his erstwhile boss, Don Draper (courtesy of another consistently masterful Joel Murray turn). Don, still in exile from SCP and Partners, is trying to keep his creative muscles flexed while waiting for what he thinks will be the inevitable call for him to come back to the fold. He’s using Freddie to sell his ideas- essentially playing Cyrano, as Freddie admits toward the end of the episode. The “Roxanne” in this case is none other than protégé Peggy Olson, smitten by “Freddie’s” unexpected creative output and in a bit of a bind of her own, working for an insufferable new boss and old fogy who admits to her that he’s “immune” to her charms while rejecting virtually every good idea she pitches.
In between Freddie/Don pitching an Accutron watch to young professionals and Don and Freddie watching Richard Nixon pitching the country on a new presidency at the inauguration of his first term, we see how the months since Don’s departure have treated the main characters- Ted, surly, sad and in denial, coming back to New York and looking like a ghost, despite living in the California sun; Joan taking her client management prowess to the next level, schooling what looks to be a teenager who has taken over as director of marketing for a shoe client; Roger continuing to soak in some kind of New Age marinade, maintaining a 24-hour orgy in his hotel suite with kids half his age and continuing to be the most unreflective of fathers; Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton veering dangerously close to self-parody) acting like he’s about to go over the deep end due to overwork; and Pete finding his inner Angelino, dressing like a Hollywood producer, living near the La Brea tar pits and getting in touch with the late-sixties Zeitgeist (and author of the most awkward moment of the episode, when he hugs Don in an LA restaurant while the astonished Draper stands like a statue in incomprehension and surprise).
The first episode of the final Mad Men season is about work- who’s working too much, not enough or not at all, and how any of these states tend to define a person, for better or worse. Don’s not working but pretending that he is, which gives him the freedom to strut in and out of wife Megan’s life (she tells him not to work all day when he comes out to LA to see her, not realizing that he’s not really working at all). It also gives him an escape route from yet again cheating on his wife, when he tells his seatmate on the plane back to New York (a nearly unrecognizable but quietly affecting Neve Campbell) that rather than accompany her back to her place so that they can console each other (she, about her deceased husband, he, about his inability to be a good husband), he tells her he has to go to work. No work for Don- just handy excuses to leave Megan alone in LA and send a sad, albeit beautiful young widow back to her apartment without a comforter. (the latter being one of the strangest and against-type moves in the history of the Draper persona).
Once again, Matt Weiner does an adroit job of telling multiple stories while getting back at the end to where the show has always been, with Don and Peggy and their struggles to balance work and life and not let one overwhelm the other. Don is trying to reconstruct his life with Megan, continuing to get real about who he is as a husband and father, and while continuing to drink—although doing it in more moderation than his young wife, whose drunkenness, clearly arising from nervousness and exhilaration at seeing her husband for the first time in months, results in the couple sleeping in separate rooms on their first night back together.
Soon enough, Megan and Don do consummate their rocky marriage, with a tenderness we’ve rarely seen from the older man. This is truly a different Don Draper, but played with such nuance and subtlety from perennial Emmy bridesmaid-actor Jon Hamm that we really need to watch closely to see the difference. One clear sign of the difference in Don is his choice of eating partners- Pete in LA and Freddie in New York- and the affection he shows each man, in his own semi-aloof Draper way. Not working has not only forced Don to assess who he is, but also who the others are who have been in his orbit for so many years. The Cyrano act he does for Freddie is therapy for him, but also an act of kindness for the freelancer, who’s looking to camp out at SCP for more than a cup of coffee (the line of the night happens after Freddie announces to Peggy that he’s taking another cup before leaving the office. Peggy tells him that he truly puts the “free” in “freelancer”).
For Peggy, work is just about all that she has in her life, other than demanding renters who insist in the middle of the night that she unclog their toilets. Without Ted, Peggy has predictably thrown herself into her work, the rewards of which become dubious when she runs into a brick wall named Lou, a major agency refugee who regales his staff with what we used to call “grandpa” jokes and is the polar opposite of the dynamic Draper, who was her kindred spirit and protector (and, admittedly, sometime antagonist) for so many years. Stan, her constant admirer and a one-man Greek chorus on all things Peggy, tries to keep her from letting her self-righteousness and sense of pride in her work begins to get the best of her, but to no avail. When she crumbles in a heap inside her apartment in the penultimate scene of the episode after an awkward office encounter with Ted, it’s in recognition that work is not enough and that it threatens to engulf her life.
Meanwhile, life is not enough for the idle Draper, who we last glimpse on his balcony, trapped in a penthouse prison, unable to plot his next move. While the Vanilla Fudge performs its electrifying cover of “Keep Me Hanging On”, Don hangs on by a thread- to his marriage, his sobriety and his tenuous sense of self, badly tarnished by his banishment from SCP. It is a great and satisfying set-up for the final reckoning and a worthy inaugural episode for the season.