Mad Men is back for the first of its seven final episodes, and Jon Hamm‘s Don Draper is still firmly committed to being admitted to the marble-columned pantheon of Existentially Miserable Businessmen (as Represented in American Arts and Letters).
It’s hard to imagine that he won’t get in by the end and join such august company as Willy Loman, Charles Foster Kane, Tony Soprano, the Wolf of Wall Street and, going back quite a stretch, Silas Lapham.
But what did we expect? If Don were the Easter Bunny, he would be sitting off in the corner of the egg hunt, nursing his scotch, smoking a cigarette and distractedly encouraging the kids as they filled their baskets. “Good one you got there, Scotty Nice, Lisa Beth, mm.”
Series creator Matthew Weiner has, as he often does, urged reviewers not to spoil any of the episode’s surprises. This isn’t hard, since not all that much happens in Sunday’s premiere. Whatever the series’ ultimate conclusion, Mad Men has stuck to its peculiar tone of crepuscular heaviness.
That has been the source of much of its power: The show has been ebbing ever since it premiered.
In the course of the episode, Don dreams an erotic dream involving a woman draped in fur. The dream turns out to be deeply meaningful, even prophetic, and death-haunted. He also finds himself drawn sexually, and perhaps in a much deeper way, to a woman named Di.
It would be reassuring if Don then dated a woman named Liv, but that doesn’t happen.
Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) considers taking a risk on an impulsive romantic adventure. Yes, that Peggy, the one who occasionally seems to have been raised in a Prussian military academy. But, then, to consider being impulsive is a contradiction in terms. Oh, Peggy!
Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) is on the verge of throwing in the towel, retreating to the country and writing the Great American Novel (which, in a sense, is what Mad Men already is). Joan (Christina Hendricks) puts up with some brutal sexist jokes in a meeting. Apart from Don, she’s possibly the show’s most interesting character – a successful businesswoman who can’t trust her own success.
But Hamm, just by the way he wears a traditional suit, simultaneously looks like someone who could have been a top male model in the 1960s and also like someone condemned to work in the back offices of Hell. The mix of corporate masculinity and inner torment remains very, very potent.
The episode ends with a twist that is a genuine surprise, but not a very interesting one. Its longer-term purpose in the plot is obscure.
The episode’s soundtrack includes Peggy Lee‘s 1969 classic "Is That All There Is?" – a song of such languid, seductive nihilism that it was the subject of church sermons back in the day. This is such an obvious comment on Don at midlife it might be intended as a joke.
If Mad Men deserves to be considered a modern classic – and it does – we might as well admit it’s almost as strange as Twin Peaks. If not stranger.
Mad Men airs Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.