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“Mad Men” Returns With An Intoxicating Beginning Of The End

Creator Matthew Weiner prepares for the endgame with the first of 14 episodes that start to tie up the AMC period drama. Warning: Minor spoilers ahead!

Frank Ockenfels / AMC

The first episode of Mad Men’s final season is an outstanding installment, offering up new beginnings for several of Sterling Cooper & Partners’ employees while pushing the series inexorably towards its ultimate end. And given the list of potential plot points that critics were forbidden to share with readers about the first episode of the final season of Mad Men, it even feels like a bit of a spoiler to say that much about the Season 7 premiere, which airs on April 13 on AMC.

Much discussion has already been made about creator Matthew Weiner’s stern warnings about disclosing information about the plot, characters, setting, and even year in which the new season is set. It’s challenging, therefore, to discuss the actual content of the show itself, but not impossible: There are simply more fiery hoops for critics to squeeze through ahead of broadcast.

It is, of course, Weiner’s prerogative as a show creator, to set these guidelines and boundaries. As the visionary behind Mad Men, he is looking to create an atmosphere in which the viewer comes to each episode without preconceptions formed on dreaded spoilers. Each episode — and season — is therefore a blank slate; episode previews are long on atmosphere and decidedly short on hooks. A phone rings, someone downs a drink, a glance is delivered across a smoke-filled room.

In the age of Spoiler Culture, it’s refreshing for the viewer experience, allowing for the audience to be unencumbered by information that could either derail one’s enjoyment or curtail the pleasure of the unknown. In a more philosophical sense, pre-knowledge of something forces you into a set of circumstance in which your opinion is altered by dint of expectations. And without those, anything and everything is possible: A plot twist can surprise or shock, elicit glee or panic. The universe of the show is closed off and therefore unknowable.

For a show — and a showrunner — that is determined to capture the ebb and flow of life itself, that’s something to be cherished and, well, treasured. And Mad Men prides itself both on the details and on the bigger, sweeping themes of its narrative, serving up a world of flawed individuals from whom it’s impossible to turn away. They make mistakes, fall, and get up again. They’re trapped in amber, existing in a different time period that feels in ways eons from the present day, but Mad Men captures what it means to be alive and how that feels. And it does so with a slick style and pulsing sensitivity that sets the show apart from the slew of copycats that followed in its wake. Weiner has created a modern bildungsroman in the narrative art style of the today; it’s tethered both to the past and the present and to the future. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, it whispers. (Thank you, George Santayana.)

Michael Yarish / AMC

 

Jon Hamm as Don Draper (left) and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson. Michael Yarish / AMC

The April 13 episode, “Time Zones” — written by Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher — is, in many ways, the beginning of the end for Mad Men. Unlike the past few seasons (which kicked off with double-sized entries), Season 7 of Mad Men begins with a one-hour episode that sets the stage for the final act of a narrative that has unspooled over the last six seasons. Without treading into spoiler territory, I will say that it’s an episode of transformation and confrontation — or, as one character says in the opening scene:

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

It is indeed the beginning, but also the end. There’s a reason that January is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman god: Every ending is the beginning of something else, and every beginning is the ending of yet another something. Janus was the god of beginnings and of transitions, meaning that he held sway over the duality of life itself: war and peace, openings and closings, the past and the future, the beginning and the end. (It’s worth noting here that these first seven episodes of Mad Men’s seventh season is subtitled “The Beginning,” while the second seven will debut in spring 2015.) In walking through a door, you’ve both entered and exited. And sometimes, those doors just break, as they do here. Once you’ve let in an icy despair, they may prove impossible to close once more.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) once again anchor the show in remarkable, profound ways. Their trajectories, which dovetailed for a while, provide the show with its narrative spine — their decisions and missteps informing both the intellectual and emotional journeys of Mad Men at large. For characters who have had to reinvent themselves — often refusing to deal with their psychic scars in the process — Season 7 represents possibly their last chance at reinvention.

It’s no mistake that the end of Season 6 offered up the motif of the “homesteader,” or explorer, presenting an opportunity to strike out in a new direction, and a means of creating a potential new identity. The season opener’s not-too-subtle title reflects the method by which this could occur; Los Angeles, after all, beckoned to quite a few characters at the end of last year…though the City of Angels may not be as heavenly as the name implies. There is a patina of dread to some of these scenes; wolves howl at night outside Megan Draper’s Hollywood Hills home. There are threats both seen and unseen, as well as a sense of impermeable isolation. (Devotees of the fan theory that emerged last season — namely that Jessica Paré’s Megan will be murdered by followers of Charles Manson — will likely have a field day with this development. Sigh.)

There’s a scene in which Hamm’s Don slouches on the couch in front of a glowing television screen, enjoying the fiction of what the film offers: a false lure toward an idyllic past that never existed, a fable about our past experiences, no more real than a myth about Janus himself. There’s surely a meta statement in there as well about looking through the prism of Mad Men in order to find a time that appears better, more stylish, more idealized than our own.

That air of deception permeates “Time Zones,” in which characters lie to others and to themselves, concealing the truth about their situations, their feelings, their angst, and their heartbreak. Confidence can be the best illusion; when alone, however, there is a sadness welling up within several of these characters that is truly gut-wrenching. And, as the show has previously posed, the question of “Are you alone?” is one that hovers uneasily over the action, taunting us with the eternal, unspoken answer.

 

Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell and Kevin Rahm as Ted Chaough (left) and Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, with Hamm. Frank Ockenfels / AMC

With only 14 episodes to wrap up this story, there is a lot of ground to be covered, though “Time Zones” focuses largely on its major cast members (both professional and personal), i.e., Don, Peggy, Roger (John Slattery), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and Joan (Christina Hendricks). Roger has a provocative storyline that is at turns surprising and telltale, dealing with forgiveness and oblivion. More than anyone, it’s Roger who seems to be most embracing the brave new world of this era. Peggy has sacrificed her personal life on the altar of professional success, and I’m curious to see just how this plays out for her this season, particularly as she faces new obstacles at work.

I refuse to reveal just what Pete is up to, but Kartheiser once again infuses his role with humor and pathos. Joan is once more delicately walking a tightrope at the office, but she throws herself into a task with poise and caution, breaking a gender barrier that seemed impenetrable earlier. The ghost of Herb Rennet is nowhere to be seen. Don and Megan have new challenges to tackle as well, existing as they seemingly do living two separate lives, on two separate coasts. (Their reunion scene is a masterstroke of beautiful framing, buoyed by a killer soundtrack and some slick props, the slickest of which is a strutting Megan herself.)

Don’s insistence to Megan that their happiness could be reclaimed by turning to the past looks to be particularly untenable. California, which represented a smoggy Paradise for Don, is not someplace you can return to, it seems. (He appears to be conflating, at the end of Season 6, California with Disneyland.) It’s something intangible and now out of reach. It’s the whiff of lost youth that can’t be rebottled. Your problems, Weiner’s Mad Men would argue, always have a way of catching up to you, no matter how fast or how far you run.

And there’s Don, raging against the city he loves, unable to shut the door, powerless to keep the past or the present at bay. A sojourn to California is a vacation from the quotidian reality of life itself, but the mess that you leave behind is right there where you left it upon your return. Don has perhaps never been closer to that flailing, falling silhouette in the opening credits of Mad Men and, as we approach the very end of the show’s run, there’s something terribly exciting about seeing just where he — and the characters — land after the fall.

Season 7 of Mad Men begins Sunday, April 13, at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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