When series come to a close, especially long-running and critically-hailed television series, knowing that the ending is right around the corner can be so daunting it becomes a distraction. Some shows completely change their rhythms, as “Parks and Recreation” certainly did thanks to a three-year time jump in Season 7. Others are almost too lackadaisical with their sameness, allowing the finale to feel like a monotonous slog (think “Californication” or the overly-long “Lost”). But the greats — we’re talking about “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights” and even “Friends” — find a way to be both surprising and the same, because that’s exactly how it should be remembered: As it always was.
Though it’s impossible to tell if “Mad Men” will join the ranks of those elite endings based on just one episode (even in an abbreviated half-season), the final season premiere of Matthew Weiner’s game-changing cable drama sets a tone both unique and familiar to the franchise. Don Draper is again on a journey of self-fulfillment in Episode 8, “Severance,” but the players, setting and his mentality have again shifted with time.
Without giving away anything too too specific — Weiner always writes courteous notes to the press asking critics not spoil certain elements of the premiere — “Mad Men” is taking square aim at what’s been its central question throughout: What is it that makes us happy? Don has been the central embodiment of that quandary, as he’s been tasked with severe misfortune (son of a dead prostitute) and incredible good graces (money, women and power), but even more fascinating at this stage, in both the series and in popular culture, are the women he’s surrounded by.
Peggy ended the first half of the final season on a high note, coming to terms with Don’s role in her life and crossing a barrier in her professional career. She was on point with her pitch, bringing home the big deal with a personal flourish reminiscent of when Don is truly in the zone. She’s more than imitated her idol. She’s become him, for better and for worse. Now, in the season’s final episodes, Peggy is turning to her personal life, an area she’s yearned to perfect and admirably struggled with throughout “Mad Men.” Can she find what Don’s failed to in this more complex and challenging social space? For Peggy, it may take a drastic change for the answer to be “yes.”
Joan, meanwhile, has essentially reached her professional limits. As a partner in the firm, the culture of the business world is all that’s left for her to conquer, but whether or not success in this realm could lead to happiness has yet to be seen. “Severance” sets up a dynamic where Joan and Peggy have come to represent the dichotomy of women in the work force, and how they choose to work together — or are torn apart — may be the trickiest resolution to pull off since women aren’t faring that much better today (and we all want a happy ending for these two, don’t we?).
As has come to be custom for the new seasons of “Mad Men,” Don is also introduced to a new vixen — or, more accurately, he’s paid a visit by the ghost of girlfriends’ past and present. Similar to (though not as drastic as) when he choked one of his casual lovers to death in a fever dream, Don remains haunted by the belief he cannot change. And, for the most part, he hasn’t. After separating from Megan and remaining in New York, Don Draper is still galavanting around town with a pretty girl on his arm and a load of cash in his pocket, ready to buy drinks for whoever is willing to join him. In a particularly jarring scene from the new season, he proves himself willing to still say “yes” to almost anything offered him by an attractive woman.
So what’s changed? Don remains a fascinating figure not merely because of his mysterious backstory or enviable talents. It’s how identifiable his plight becomes as he goes through the motions of day-to-day life. We know he wants to become a better man, in the hope that being an improved version of Don Draper (or Dick Whitman) would make him truly happy. But he’s just as easily trapped by his primal and superficial desires — as we all are on various extremes. His battle is an eternal one, and the final season premiere grips and fascinates with equal measure because we’re so eager to see what becomes of our hero. Don’s ending is like glimpsing our own fate, if not personally than as a society, and Weiner is aptly unwilling to provide easy answers (now, if ever).
This far into Season 7 — including the stellar first seven episodes of last year — Matthew Weiner has created the perfect cocktail for fans. Familiar yet exciting, progressive but repetitious, “Mad Men” still tastes like an Old Fashioned, but with a twist that makes you eager to get to the bottom.
Catch up on what’s come before with Indiewire’s episode reviews for every hour of Season 7.