There are seven hours left to tell the decade-long story of "Mad Men," whose final half-season — Season 7, Part the Second, subtitled "The End of an Era" — begins Sunday on AMC.
It has been with us since the George W. Bush administration, and if you have been following along, it can seem very much like a life you have been living yourself. Looking back over the years and seasons, the old episodes, with their recurring cycles of chaos and order, crisis and escape, death and rebirth, can seem eerily familiar, not just a show you've watched but a life — lives you've not just watched but lived.
Like life, it resists explanation even as it seems to demand the hunt for meaning. It is a big-canvas show that seems to have things to say about America, and how we were, and how we are, but it is also a story about individuals in individual relationships. And like life, it lingers in the mind as a collection of moments, in snatches of speech or silence, in a memory of light, a cloud of smoke, a glance, a kiss, a slap — its glory is less in its plot than in its particulars.
So although it matters what happens to Don and Peggy and Roger and Joan — because this is a story, in the end, with an end — it also doesn't matter, because these characters have been happening all along. Whatever period, comma or semi-colon or space creator Matthew Weiner has placed at the end of his midcentury epic of domestic relations and professional intrigue, whatever meaning the end seems to assign to the beginning and everything in between, will be in this sense at least beside the point.
Weiner, who runs this ship and charts its course, has his own ideas about the show, obviously, which can only have been evolving since he first trained a camera on the back of Don Draper's — that is, Jon Hamm's — well-razored neck. (It was 1960 for Don, 2007 for us.) Some have attempted to decode not just his text but also his props and soundtrack, looking for clues to Don's end — suicide is a persistent theory — as if it were a treasure hunt and as if his fate were not a thing that has been discussed and debated for years among its writers and the devils and angels in Weiner's own head.
From shot to shot and scene to scene, "Mad Man" has been a tightly controlled, fine-tuned work — it's TV without a hair out of place, even when someone's hair is (perfectly) out of place. It seems to be naturalistic, because it is not full of pumped-up action or crime or magic; it's all about work and family and love and being shut out from those things. But it is highly stylized, a beautiful animated object that has launched not only a thousand think pieces but also caused a thousand pictorials to bloom, estimating conservatively; it has also brought down upon us a raft of modern period pieces — "Pan Am," "The Playboy Club," "The Americans."
The plan from the beginning seemed to be to contrast the creamy surfaces of the American postwar consumerist miracle with the cracks just below the surface, to measure the distance between the promise and the reality. This was not news to America in 1960, at least not to the readers of Mad Magazine, which lampooned the products and practices of Madison Avenue in most every issue. But the show has moved into deeper waters.
They are lonely, all these people. "You're starving, and not just for dinner," Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) said in her pitch to Burger Chef, two years after the death of the Summer of Love. They are out of time: Their encounters with modernity, with the counterculture, tend to confirm their squareness. "I've tried new-fashioned," Peggy (again) will say in Sunday's premiere to someone who calls her "old-fashioned." They resist the Computer Age, of "media buys pinpointed with surgical accuracy," the future that is now.
Weiner opens and closes the season's opening episode with "Is That All There Is?," a late career hit for Peggy Lee (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in a Brecht-Weill mood), playing on the soundtrack. It serves as a wry comment on the characters' dissatisfaction — almost all of them are very rich by now and no more settled for it — and also as an ironic fanfare to the last act.
The company, newly reconfigured yet again, is open for business. There are new mustaches in town. There are new patterns in the clothes and wallpaper. Don subscribes to a message service. He speaks casually — indeed, for comic effect — of his formerly secret horrible childhood. Life is progressing, and yet it is cycling back to the beginning: An old friend appears to Don in a dream; a new character is someone he thinks he knows. She will be the key to something, or not, but the end is near either way.
I have hope. "The best things in life are free," Robert Morse sang in his literal swan song as agency elder Bert Cooper to close the first half of the seventh season. (Was that a tear in Don Draper's eye?) It's an ad man's line, but it's no lie.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday