Spoilers for everything that has aired so far.
Thanks to AMC's decision to split the final season, we only got seven episodes of "Mad Men" this year, in what's being called the first half of the seventh season. However, as brief as the run was, this felt like a full season, giving many of the familiar characters complete and interesting arcs, and delivering a couple of major developments worth devoting a full post to by themselves. So as far as I'm concerned, this was the seventh season of "Mad Men," and will be analyzed as such.
The end of the sixth season saw Don Draper hit a low point, disintegrating during the Hershey pitch and being forced to take a leave of absence from Sterling Cooper & Partners. Would he stage a comeback like he had so may times before? Would he wash his hands of the agency and of his failing second marriage and start over again? We got the answer fairly early that a Don unable to work was a Don disastrously disconnected and adrift, out of sync. However, getting him out of bicoastal limbo and back to work took up most of the season. In essence, to get any semblance of the old Don Draper back, he had to grow up and become someone else.
And to do that he had to keep failing and failing miserably for a while. He had to be torn down and brought low, made to realize that Megan didn't need him in California and that the firm was doing just fine without him in New York. Betty and the kids? So busy with their own lives that his absence barely registers. Moreover, being awful to Peggy and Joan last year had big consequences, and his bold move to bring in Jim Cutler and Ted Chaough backfired, with Cutler and the supremely hateable new creative director Lou Avery becoming the season's major villains. Don's most enthusiastic supporter this year was fellow exile Pete Campbell, of all people! And it made Don the kind of fascinating, relatable protagonist that I'd been missing for too many seasons.
Of course, Don wasn't the only one in crisis this year. In the show it's now 1969, with the world about to plunge into the '70s and nobody quite ready for it. Peggy, like Don, didn't deal well with personal or professional situations that weren't going her way. She was downright unlikeable for an episode or two before finally getting past her blocks, which was a development that was honestly a little overdue. Peggy has been so sympathetic for so long, it was good to see the status quo shaken up. Nobody else had nearly as much screen time or emphasis among the regulars, but just about everybody got some of the spotlight in at least one episode to remind us why we love and/or hate them.
More than ever, "Mad Men" felt like a collection of character snapshots - Betty and Roger screwing up parenting, Joan ascending to accounts, Shirley's awful Valentine's Day, Megan meeting Don's niece, Sally in New York, Pete in California, and the disintegration of Michael Ginsberg. Some vignettes were executed better than others, and some episodes were certainly better about connecting all the disparate stories than others, but everything felt consequential and nobody felt shortchanged this year. Thematically, it all fit the end-of-an-era, time of reckoning feel to the season where the unknown future was bearing down quickly on everyone.
Nowhere was this more apparent than the finale, one of the best episodes of "Mad Men" to date, where all the major storylines pay off, and characters take big steps forward. Roger leads, Peggy pitches, and Don helps along both of their victories while securing his own position. On the other hand, Don and the firm are right back where they started and surely only delaying the inevitable. The firm's big new clients are names we know become obsolete. Sterling Cooper was actively trying to avoid the buyout last season. And the signs of generational change are all around, Cooper's farewell the most obvious one.
Despite the more heavy-handed symbols of impending doom being toned way, way down this year, "Mad Men" is as full of ominous portents as ever. I loved the multiple references to "2001: A Space Odyssey" accompanying the threatened technological takeover that doomed poor Ginsberg. I loved Bert Cooper going out on a soft-shoe (soft-sock?) number that all but rebuked Don for his successes. And even as Sally chose the nerd over the Neanderthal, she struck a cigarette-smoking pose so positively Betty, it sent chills up the spine.
As "Mad Men" draws to a close, it feels like Matt Weiner and company are well along in the process of saying goodbye to these characters and this universe. I doubt we're going to see Megan or Ginsberg again. I doubt we'll get much more time with Ken or Stan or Bob Benson. There are several episodes in Year Seven that had scenes that could have closed out the series for good. The fact that we have seven episodes left feels indulgent, honestly.
I don't expect that "Mad Men" will go out with a bang - it's not and never has been that kind of show - but the lead-up to the end has been so strong that I'm certain the finale will be worth the wait. Here's to Year Eight.