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Review: A new 'Mad Men' season dawns in rich and ragged spirit

We have come at last to 1969, the numerical if not the cultural end of the 1960s, the series' nominal subject.
The decade gives Matthew Weiner a way to look at characters under stress in a time of changing mores.
Farewell to the likes of Gregory Peck, Grace Kelly and classic-cuts, hello Nixon, fringe and sideburns.

This is not a review, exactly, of the new season of "Mad Men," its seventh and, depending on how you slice it, its last.

In order to hang on to this jewel as long as is seemly, AMC will divide its 14 episodes into two parts, to conclude in 2015. It could dollop it out over 14 years, I suppose, each year bringing a single new hour, as precious as that new Wu-Tang album. But there is only so much the people will stand.

This is also not a review partly because Matthew Weiner, whose creation this is, is finicky about spoilers — "finicky" doesn't really do it justice. He asks writers and reviewers not to reveal such and such and this and that.

But as nothing in Sunday's episode departs substantially from the season preceding it, in quality or substance or style — it's all good — or provides any kind of clue to the series' endgame, I will not be going into details. It is not because I am afraid of Matthew Weiner. I am pretty sure he does not know where I live, and am careful to change my routine and have my mail delivered to … but I say too much.

I will reveal, because anyone could work it out, that we have come at last to 1969, the numerical if not the cultural end of the 1960s, the series' nominal subject. I say "nominal" because for all the scrupulousness of its design, "Mad Men" always seemed to me a fantasy of that decade, made by people too young to remember it, focusing on characters too old to have been shaped by it, and produced at such a remove to be both romantic and skeptical about its revolutionary rhetoric and millennial pretensions.

That distance is especially true now that the narrative has moved out of its Gregory Peck and Grace Kelly, classic-cut, cigarettes and alcohol period into its more obviously, comically dated, fringe-and-sideburns last act.

What the decade does give Weiner is a way to look at characters under stress, in a time of changing mores, in which what look like new freedoms also create new restrictions. But the show is strong enough to tolerate interpretation. The cool elegance of its production notwithstanding, it has a humanity, a human energy, greater than any single character's assigned back story or "motivation."

Just so, though the time in which the series is set — defined by rapid, destabilizing, polarizing change, by actual violence — has seemed to some critics to demand a serious engagement with history, the theme as I take it is more abiding. As the new season dawns we find these characters — not just Don, but the lot of them — as we have found them before, lost, yearning, alienated, isolated in fact or in spirit; they are all looking for love.

Oddly, it takes Richard Nixon, whom Don watches on television delivering his first inaugural address, to sum it up: "We find ourselves rich in goods but ragged in spirit … we are caught in war wanting peace, we're torn by division wanting unity, we see around us empty lives wanting fulfillment."

Don, whose story this mostly is — though we are as invested in Joan and Peggy and Roger — is the clearest example of the disconnect. We were quickly shown, back in 2007, that the superficial perfection of his life masked an emptiness he has continually failed to overcome, and that what he did for work — selling stuff as remedy — echoed this. Paradoxically, his sense of what makes people tick, what makes him, even on his bad days, a great ad man, has also made him cynical about them.

There was a lot of speculation last season, much "Paul Is Dead" sifting of the text and the scenery for clues to Don's future; some concluded that his suicide was being foretold. And until the beautiful, brilliant pivot that ended the year, when he revealed some of his secret, dark past to his colleagues and children, it seemed that the sum of his trespasses could only be his own final fall, replaying the credits that open the show.

You will find things still generally a mess come Sunday, but now there is at least the possibility of light.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Mad Men'

Where: AMC

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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