Season 7 premiere. 10 p.m. Sunday, AMC
If “Mad Men” had ever been about the real Don Draper, chances are the AMC series wouldn’t have been as gripping as it has been for six seasons. But, like Jimmy Gatz, who reinvented himself as Jay Gatsby, Don Draper is his own creation, a borrowed name and identity tailored as a way of escaping his own truth: illusion created to disguise elusion.
That’s why he fascinates us so much: We’re desperate to know what haunts and drives him, what makes him run.
Beginning Sunday night, the seventh and final season of “Mad Men” will begin, following the pattern established by “Breaking Bad.” AMC will air seven episodes this year and the final seven in 2015.
Creator Matthew Weiner asks critics not to reveal too much about Sunday’s premiere. It’s not that this is “Game of Thrones” and we shouldn’t tell you that Pete, Peggy and Megan get killed at a wedding reception. But the details about characters and setting in “Mad Men” are still better appreciated if you don’t know about them in advance.
What you should know about the first episode of the final season is everything you already learned in Season 6: that Don (Jon Hamm) is at the edge of an abyss, that he’s been running from something all his life and is now finding he can’t run much longer. He’s at the end of his rope both at home and at the office. His relationship with his daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), is in ruins, and he’s out at Sterling Cooper.
We’re left wondering if Don will continue to elude accountability or face, belatedly, the descent of consequences for his actions, for his sometimes brutal narcissism.
Time and truth are catching up with Don Draper, but they are also catching up with many other major characters on “Mad Men.” These are people whose business is to create false hope, to sell optimism with every product, in effect to create pretty lies in the form of advertising and commercials. For many years, they’ve sold cars, cigarettes and other products as desirable components of the American lifestyle.
But now in the late 1960s, that lifestyle is under siege from the counterculture, and it’s throwing everyone off their game.
Roger (John Slattery) is trying desperately to adapt, to be cool by indulging his hedonistic nature. The more he tries, though, the clearer it becomes that he’s out of step with the new world. Beneath his detached exterior, he’s terrified he’ll lose his grip on his life and career as the decade enters its final year.
Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has cracked the glass ceiling and risen relatively high in the ad world. How has she done it? With her considerable talent, but also by aping what she saw Don Draper do to stay on top at Sterling Cooper. Now her personal life is a shambles because of her ambition.
Sunday’s premiere is titled “Time Zones.” At first glance, you might think that refers only to the fact that Megan is in Los Angeles working on her acting career and Don, now at loose ends, flies out to see her. Of course, there’s a much more significant meaning to the episode’s title.
With the exception of Megan (Jessica Paré), all the major characters are more at home in New York and comfortable in what is now a rapidly disappearing past. As Don flies to Los Angeles, he is entering more than a new time zone: He’s stepping into the epicenter of “now.” Others, like Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), may look, at least, as though they’re adapting to the change, but Don is visibly out of his element.
The writing, by Weiner, direction by Scott Hornbacher and performances are, of course, top notch. Moss is especially good in Sunday’s premiere, revealing even more of Peggy’s challenges and complexities than we’ve ever seen before.
By now, we get that the operative conceit of “Mad Men” has been to probe the mythology of what we think of as the American dream. From the nation’s beginning, mythology has been a driving force in our evolution. In the 19th century, it was evidenced most in the concept of manifest destiny and later in the industrialization of the American economy.
Having proved the indomitability of the American way of life in World War II, the postwar years found the country strutting its stuff, and no one strutted more than Madison Avenue. Consumerism flourished in a revitalized economy, and the ad guys were there to take full advantage of it. Happiness was only a reasonable down payment and 24 payments away.
Hurry on down, before it’s too late. Supplies are limited.