Set Me Free, Why Dontcha Babe

Time Zones

“Keep Me Hanging On”, Vanilla Fudge

Time Zones, Season 7 Episode 1


            I don’t want to deny that sometimes, Mad Men can be pulpy and succumb to its soap opera roots. But after so many tasteful, ambiguous stories of discontent, it certainly earns the right to occasionally let loose, and does so with unmatched style and vigor. This choice is a prime example. Coming as it does at the beginning of the final season, when everyone is at their lowest before an impending poetic reversal, it paints the misery and confusion in broad strokes.

            The theme of the day is persistence through adversity. Joan seems to have lost her prestige in the new order of things, even after her shocking sacrifice in season five. She’s still somehow the go-fer shooed out the door to fix client problems, which is far beneath her talents. Peggy, loveless and in an unpleasant living environment, cartoonishly collapses to her knees in emotional distress after being shunned as a coworker and as a friend. Ken is beside himself after his accident, with an impossible workload to boot. Meanwhile, in a dark moment, Don seems ready to leap from his high-rise balcony because of the humiliating charade his life has become.

            I really like the easily noticeable but open-ended metaphor of his jammed sliding door. The winter air keeps pouring in, uncomfortable and unavoidable. Much like the way he exorcised his demons at the end of season six, he’s intent on opening up that old infected wound, and to treat it properly this time. His confession and self-destruction in the previous episode is something which cannot be undone, and it helped him as much as it hurt him. He deals with the pain and embarrassment of his undignified past, and begins to grow past it through the season. But for now, he defiantly sits in the freezing cold.

            Indeed, everyone is putting on a happy face while dealing with the unpleasant fallout of 1968’s fireworks. In a meta sense, the last finale would have been an acceptable karmic ending point, and yet the show still had more to say and wrap up. So the question of the closing song’s lyrics is an arch one: what happens when everything’s out in the open and everyone got their just desserts? They keep going on, in a purgatory unto themselves. Everyone is torn between two places, and traveling bicoastally. Pete rides out a divorced midlife crisis in the ill-fitting surroundings of California, Megan seems to have found success and glamour after moving to L.A., Bob and Joan frantically split their time between Detroit and New York, and the rest are back home, listless and aggravated. Because of all this travel, the whole episode seems jet lagged as a result, effectively suggesting that this hasty state of affairs can’t go on much longer. To put a fine point on it, Don has a surreal midnight discussion with a fellow plane passenger that has undercurrents of exhaustion and portents of doom.

            “Keep Me Hanging On” is a cover of the megahit Motown pop track by the Supremes, and it succeeds at illuminating these themes more than the original. As performed by Vanilla Fudge, it’s a trippy blues rock reworking. This rendition shouts out its plea to be free of pain and obligation, something the whole agency can certainly relate to. With several measures of noisy improvised crescendo, there’s plenty of leadup time to crosscut between a few storylines before the lyrics kick in, glibly illustrating this hour’s particular existential conundrum. The fierce guitar and shrill, atonal organ construct a very tense atmosphere which fits perfectly with the histrionic theatrical build of the final sequence. It’s the heaviest song yet on the show, on the dawn of a hard rock revolution, and the circumstances it plays in are indeed pretty weighty. Nixon blusters his way into the Oval Office while Don desperately pitches vicarious ideas to the agency that fired him. Nobody else is doing much better, either. But, as the song suggests, our heroes persevere and tough it out. Its ringing, stomping sound is a call to action as much as anything. So SC&P hangs on, acclimating to the elements rather than being devoured by them.


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