Where is Don Draper? Though his presence haunts the first moments of the episode, our first sight of Don (Jon Hamm) doesn’t come until well into Mad Men’s seventh season premiere. Even as Mad Men premieres go, it’s a somewhat confounding way to reacquaint audiences to the series. An atmosphere of disorientation pervades, but it’s one that feels deliberately designed to command the viewer’s attention in a way that we’re perhaps not accustomed to. “It’s time for a conversation,” says Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) boldly in the opening scene, a line that viewers can take not just as the slogan for an ad campaign pitch she’s working on, but also a possible keynote for the show’s final season.
That the episode feels somewhat uneventful only belies the intriguing, subtle shifts that have taken place since last season. We find Peggy in a bind at SC&P, inspired by a winning idea for Accutron watches, but frustrated by a reshuffled creative department that’s become content with uninspired, hack ideas. Her steady progression through the series from being Don’s protégé to becoming his creative successor—if not in title, then certainly in attitude—by the end of last season has a reached a plateau, hinting perhaps that a drastic move is in the offing. Roger’s (John Slattery) embracing of the counterculture seems to have corroded his terrific sense of humor and taken him beyond the edges of free love; never before have we seen him so thoroughly disillusioned by his own appetites. Joan (Christina Hendricks) continues to forge a tenuous path as a SC&P partner even as she starts to feel her age within a business world shifting toward new, younger ways of thinking. Yet Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), who arguably aged the most in season six, now beams with a youthful glow. What looms over all of these slight shifts in circumstance is less the sense of narrative sleight of hand that creator Matthew Weiner has pulled off so deftly in the past and more a sense that the passage of time has now become a fully conscious part of Mad Men’s drama, for the characters as well as the audience.
When Don finally arrives on screen, his entrance stands apart as the most jarring moment in the episode, not because it reveals anything surprising about his current situation, but for the way it’s treated cinematically. His arrival in Los Angeles for a weekend visit with Megan (Jessica Paré) plays out, well, like flagrant advertisement for “Don Draper.” Set to the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” and shot in slow motion, in rich, vibrant color and lighting, the short set piece is both incredibly sexy and more than a little disorienting. It’s hard to know how to take this reintroduction to Don because it’s so obviously self-referential, a quality Mad Men has traditionally employed with finer nuance and taste. Here, such overt stylization creates an aesthetic distance between Don and the audience in a way that borders on kitschy.
Indeed, Don is depicted as man who seems to be existing in-between emotional and geographical places, not quite the man he was last season, but not quite the man that such a flamboyant entrance demands. On his return flight to New York, reflecting on the transgressions he’s committed in his marriages to Betty (January Jones) and Megan in an intimate conversation with a fellow passenger, Don wonders, “Have I broken the vessel?” It’s another self-referential nod, in this case to the shot of the broken glass that figured beautifully in season two’s “The Jet Set,” artfully conveying Don’s current state of mind—searching, disconnected, painfully alone.
As always, there’s no predicting exactly where or how Mad Men will culminate. Over the course of its run, Don has in various ways embodied the distinctly American impulse to flight, independence, reinvention, and liberation, as well as the selfishness and destruction that this impulse entails. What made his nonnegotiable dislodging from SC&P at the end of last season such a powerful event was that, though it was brought on by the most revealing confession he’s ever made about himself, for once, it didn’t happen on his terms. Similarly, the devastation Don inflicted on his relationship with his daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), also finally exposed his darkness in a way that appeared to place him hopelessly beyond redemption.
So where is Don? If the passing moment in which we see him watching a late-night airing of Frank Capra’s 1937 film Lost Horizon—a story about a group of people who, either by fate or chance, discover peace and longevity at the earthly paradise of Shangri-La—is any indication, he’s definitely not where he wants to be. Yet one suspects that wherever Mad Men’s American saga is taking Don and the rest of its characters, the getting there is likely to be as exhilarating and thoughtfully rendered as it can be.