The first seven episodes of the "Mad Men" final season (9 p.m. April 14, AMC; 3 stars out of 4) have been titled "The Beginning." But this isn't the beginning at all, really -- it's the beginning of the end, both of the 1960s and the show itself.
Each season of "Mad Men" picks up with a jump into the future -- Season 2 opens more than a year from the Season 1 finale. But these time-machine trips have become shorter and shorter as the show has progressed, and at the dawn of Season 7, we find ourselves in January 1969, a mere two months after we last saw our antiheroes gathered around the Thanksgiving table.
It's a deliberate move that at once feels appropriate and ominous. All around, the characters' lives are changing -- Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) is more laid-back; Megan's (Jessica Pare) career is leaping forward; Roger (John Slattery) has adopted a groooooovy new lifestyle; Freddie (Joel Murray) is making waves as a freelance copywriter. But the parallel existences of Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) are at a standstill. He's living in the same New York apartment while wife Megan makes a name for herself in Hollywood. She's unclogging toilets for her ungrateful tenants, still nursing a broken heart after Ted's (Kevin Rahm) rejection.
As the late '60s finish killing off the ghosts of the '50s that ruled the earlier half of the decade, have the reasons for Don Draper's entire buttoned-up existence ceased to exist? This is his personal hell -- a world in which he's no longer charm personified, no longer the ruler of his home or office. And with only 14 episodes left to tell the story, it's unlikely he'll claw his way back to the top.
While we appear to be in for a depressing ride, fear not: Creator Matthew Weiner still has a few winks and tricks up his sleeve. I was tickled by a surprise twist near the end of the episode that sets up some delicious skulduggery to come, and the show's camera work is used to fantastic effect, particularly in the respective first shots of Freddie and Megan. The first episode also features Richard Nixon's presidential inauguration, and I can't wait to see how rich historic events like the Stonewall riots, the moon landing, Woodstock and the Charles Manson murders are woven into the show's tapestry.
Oh, and Ken (Aaron Staton) still has that eye patch. He's in less than a good mood these days.