Can Don Draper change himself for the better? What does fulfillment look like for the flawed strivers of Mad Men? Do they even believe in progress for themselves? Do you? The premiere episode of the drama's two-part final season asks these questions in various ways, accenting them with thematically rich references and motifs. Lost Horizon, Frank Capra's classic film about castaway souls in a mythical, death-defying utopia. A Vanilla Fudge psychedelic-rock cover of ''You Keep Me Hangin' On.'' The paradise fantasy of California, all sunshine, tanned skin, and Disneyland bliss. The first line, spoken directly to camera by a character who has long embodied the idea of self-destruction and transformation, says it all: ''Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something. Do you have time to improve your life?'' It sounds heavy, yet the premiere is as buoyant as it is deep, light as it is layered. It is many things at once, including absolutely fantastic.
When we last saw Don (Jon Hamm), it was Thanksgiving of 1968. He had been suspended from Sterling Cooper and Partners for his existential unraveling (how unprofessional!) and had finally revealed the shameful truth of his Dick Whitman origins to his kids. I won't spoil when season 7 begins, but I will say it dotes on the ascension of Richard Nixon an ominous touchstone for a final chapter about the pragmatic realities of metamorphosis and empowerment.
The premiere introduces a few characters that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has asked critics not to describe, and reintroduces the show's key players in striking fashion, with beats that smartly nourish the climactic season's themes. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) still dabbling in counterculture hedonism to assuage his mortality angst collides with (newly spiritual?) daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) over terms of forgiveness and reconciliation. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) overextended at work and home encounters new obstacles to actualization and respect, including her own expectations for herself and an office culture that seems to have lost its interest in excellence.
One of the most artful aspects of the premiere is how it gives meaningful moments to so many supporting characters Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), Joan (Christina Hendricks), and Ken (Aaron Staton) while remaining largely about Don. He continues to sweat his significance, but he's trying to figure out how to make real change out of last season's sobering, liberating meltdown. He sees with clear eyes and accepts that he's broken, yet he's still at a loss as to how to fix himself. Like his late friend Lane, he's stuck in the in-between of here and there, yesterday and tomorrow, lost and found. You wonder if the answer he seeks is to abandon such binary thinking and cultivate grace for his present-tense self. Wherever Don's headed on this final flight of Mad Men, the ride promises to be exhilarating. A