Mad Men: TV Review

Mad Men returns for the first seven episodes of its 14-episode split-season run with a fantastic first hour chock full of hints about the paths our favorite characters may take.

The season-seven premiere is only one hour (there were two-hour premieres the last two seasons), but it packs in dense story layering and is also a visual feast, kicking off the end in style.

Mad Men creator and writer Matthew Weiner has always kicked off new seasons with brilliant, memorable episodes. This time is no different, as Mad Men starts the beginning of the end, airing the first of its final 14 episodes on April 13.

In "Time Zones," Weiner densely packs storylines on top of each other, some with intriguing twists, others hinting at the possibility of new directions, change, dread, weirdness and reinvention.

In what is expected to be a final season drawing on the ramifications of behavior and choice, we get the initial hints of where the characters are following the season-six fallout.

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Obviously, one episode – and that's all AMC sent to critics – can't tell the story of the entire season, but evaluated merely as one episode competing against all the previous episodes in the series, this one is pretty spectacular. Though few season openers can top the two-hour minimovie "The Doorway," which kicked off season six (with its lyrical and aggressive allusions to death, it may have been the best opener since the pilot) "Time Zones" is notable for having numerous, telling scenes that might hint at which way the end lies.

And it has a sort of reintroduction scene of Don Draper flying out to meet Megan in California that is a thing of beauty, pumped along by the furious beat of "I'm a Man" by the Spencer Davis Group – a scene that almost involuntarily makes you want to jump up and throw two fists in the air. Much of the scene is shot in slow motion and effortlessly introduces waves of bold California colors as Don coolly glides on an escalator until he slides out of the frame; Megan, all legs and sultry lips, guides her baby blue dress toward Don as she exits a fabulous green Austin-Healey convertible, completing the California vibe.

You could argue that Weiner often uses each season's premiere to shock viewers into the change they're about to witness – whether it's clothes, hair styles, new office digs or, in season five ("A Little Kiss"), how Megan's now-infamous surprise birthday party song to Don seemed so sprightly and sublimely out of place on a Mad Men episode, which was harder to process than, say, seeing Harry not wearing a button-down shirt and tie, or having people smoke pot at Don's house.

But Weiner begins the last 14 episodes (seven this spring, seven more starting in spring 2015) with an hour that at once gives us the vestiges of the Mad Men we were first introduced to, set as the calendar rolled over into 1960, and what might actually become of the people we met so long ago as a storied, complicated decade has its last gasp.

Season seven starts in January of 1969, as President Richard Nixon is inaugurated (his speech is packed with references to the fast-moving sense of change, of moving out of turmoil and toward peace – sign posts that Mad Men touched on more in season six, as it covered the chaos of 1968, than it had ever bothered with in previous seasons).

No doubt the final 14 episodes will give us -- if not definitively, than with some semblance of understanding -- the fates of the characters we've come to love on Mad Men. Weiner's structure to the series from the start has been keen on how values were not always symbiotically tied to the year depicted. For example, Mad Men started in 1960, but the sociological attitudes of the characters were essentially those rooted in the 1950s. Now, as Mad Men prepares its exit, it will be interesting to see if the characters are looking into the bold 1970s while trying to unshackle themselves from, to use this term as broadly as possible and knowing the stereotypes and imagery it's laden with, "the 1960s."

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(Clearly the hallmarks of changing fashion are everywhere – and not always for the better. The suave men's suits of the early days of the show were essentially replaced last season with boxier cuts, heavier fabric, etc. This year the suits are positively hideous. If Don Draper can't pull off a suit, then men's designers need to be brought to trial. Peggy is also seen in a truly terrible suit – and it's only the first episode. Megan, who's been more fashion-forward than any other character on the show, still looks divine in everything she wears, but dreaded '70s design – including what looks like macrame tapestry – is littered throughout her Southern California house in the canyon; and it's warped and saturated by the color brown as well.)

Interestingly, a lot of the "loose ends" left by the season-six finale are not directly addressed in the season-seven premiere. When Mad Men ended season six, Don was out at Sterling Cooper and Partners. Ted Chaough was going to California instead of Don (and of course Peggy took that as Ted running away from her, which he was). Pete, whose own marriage finally crumbled, went west as well. The allure of a career in Los Angeles also hooked Megan, who went even when Don backed out – she had already seen the signposts of marital doom and opted for the kind of freedom California can offer.

Don, whose existential crises and repetitive cycles of bad behavior finally crushed his defenses, closed out season six by admitting his psyche-scarring past (to clients, which essentially got him fired; and to daughter Sally, who gave him the kind of big-moment glance that could be interpreted as both forgiveness and redemption for Don, since he had given Sally her own you-can't-unsee-this moment when she caught him sleeping with his mistress Sylvia).

The season-seven premiere focuses mainly on Don and Megan, with Peggy, Pete, Roger and Joan having their moments. If this final season focuses on the repercussions of the past and the choices that were made in it, a good bet could be made that Peggy's storyline might rival Don's for most cathartic fallout and/or redemption. With Don out at SC&P, Lou Avery (Allan Havey) has brought his old-school ways to the firm, perhaps beginning a collision course with Peggy, whom we last saw in seasons six sitting in Don's office chair, shot from the back in the exact same framing and composition the show used for Don in season one (and has used numerous times since). It's the Mad Men logo, of course. But old, unhip and controlling Lou ("I think you're putting me in a position to say, ‘I don't care what you think,'" he says to Peggy, with venom) is keeping her out of the chair. Is this Peggy's fate – to climb so high only to be reminded it's "men" not "women" in the title?

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Pete, on the other hand, is unexpectedly loving his change – the uptight and devout New Yorker is strangely at home in Los Angeles. (The clothes … oh, dear, the clothes.) "The city is flat and ugly and the air is brown, but I love the vibrations," he says. Pete's living out by "the tar pits" but has a sexy real estate agent looking for, in his words, "the ideal pad."

The color palette the show is giving Pete, at least in the premiere, combined with an ever-present smile (when's the last time we saw that?) and, most hilariously, the hug he gives Don when they meet for lunch, might suggest a trajectory for Pete worthy of his insufferable past.

It's hard to grasp, as any kind of early signifier, if Roger's continued dalliance (spiral?) into a world of "free love" and egregious drugs is choice, fate or penance. But the brief bit Weiner doles out is something to behold.

If Megan was polarizing to some fans, there's a moment in the premiere when Weiner seems to have fun with that notion as Megan's new, overly effusive manager says to Don: "I'll say one thing about this girl – she evokes strong feelings." And then turns to Megan and says: "We can hold off fixing your teeth."

But of course Don is the center of the Mad Men universe and always will be. Weiner has come up with some impressive scenes beyond the fantastic, previously mentioned reintroduction. There are two that Weiner didn't flag to critics as spoilers, but I won't reveal them anyway because they certainly come across that way -- one as a distinct behavioral reveal and the other a haunting and intriguing hint about the struggle for change. (I won't even talk about the second kick-ass song Weiner uses in this episode, since that, playing over the lusciously shot and meticulously framed final scene, seems laden with meaning.)

It's only one episode, of course, but like Breaking Bad before it, every one of these hours begins the countdown to the end, so the passing of each episode brings a little melancholy.

That said, Mad Men is back, looking as vibrant as ever.

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