Not even a Roger Sterling orgy could make the hour fun.
The formula for making prestige television — you know, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards — often takes a middle-aged man who's successful at his job and shows him chipping away at the American Dream, supporting his family, and covering up a big fat dark secret and/or an unmitigated ambition that eventually runs him over. With shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards, the inevitable descent of the middle-aged man, while emotionally taxing, is still filled with biting humor, deliciously entertaining dialogue, and yes, the odd threesome. In last night's Season 7 premiere of Mad Men, not even a patented Roger Sterling orgy made the hour of television the least bit enjoyable.
The episode, at a glance, carried almost no good news: Don's been fired, Peggy and Ted's relationship has dissolved, Roger and his daughter's relationship is as tense as ever, Don and Megan's long distance marriage isn't working, Joan can't win an account, Pete Campbell is trapped in LA without bagels, and Peggy can't deal with her new boss, Lou Avery a dick-about-town of the retrograde variety. The one sliver of light appeared at the beginning of the episode — good old sobered up Freddy Rumsen's career has wildly progressed. Now a freelancer, he's serving up home-runs in the form of Accutron's "It's not a time piece. It's a conversation piece." By the episode's end, we learn even this singular victory is a sham and Don's been feeding the suddenly-enlightened Freddy all his ad ideas while he's cooped up at home five days a week. Don's working while not working, living while lying.
And that's how this prestige drama has turned into an hour-long, no-comfort dose of "descent TV." The opening episode leaves us with a feeling that Don has continued to do so poorly for six seasons, that it almost doesn't matter what he does anymore. He doesn't have a job, but is still being paid. He doesn't love his wife, but he's still in a marriage. There are, essentially, no more consequences for the already miserable. "[My wife] knows I'm a terrible husband," he admits to his seatmate — we've missed you, Neve Campbell! — on the plane as they nestle together, creating what could be Don's next affair. The entire episode seems to say that things are irreversible, regardless of "Times Zones," time can't erase what's gone down.
But I invest in television, I want to see someone riding high. We want our underdog Peter Russos and Jesse Pinkmans. Peggy? She was charmless. Joan? Wasn't getting what she wanted. Megan? Too awkward for sex and too wary of her new career. Don? Left out in the cold. Everyone is utterly alone in the crowds they've built around them, everyone is still betting on the lies they project for the benefit of everyone else since we first met them in 1960. Put plainly: nobody cares and nobody has purpose.
Mad Men has always been an incredible piece of television because it always lived far beyond its high-waisted skirts and bouffants — it's a conversation piece, not a time piece. But, descents are tricky and they aren't particularly fun. Even actors on Mad Men have admitted creator Matthew Weiner is spooning us this last season while we're still wanting more. "I do think it’s the right time. It’s going to be next year that it ends; we still have a little while. But, I do, because I think we all want to go out when everyone still likes it, and not when everyone’s sick of it. They might already be sick of it, I don’t know. I think our story is ready to be done being told in that way, but it will be sad, and I’ll miss everybody, " January Jones told Refinery29.
I will miss everyone too. Which is why I'll still watch it, in its two separate parts. If this is "descent TV," at least we've been prepared, right down to Don paging through The Inferno beach-side. I'm waiting for what's going to come between Don's sliding balcony doors — after all, there are no coyotes in Manhattan — and take hold of him in the night. I'm still waiting for the falling cartoon man to finally collide with the sidewalk. And anticipating the splat isn't that much fun without seeing the heights he's fallen from.
Image via AMC.