Mad Men Premiere Recap: Single Don Draper and Sterling Cooper Enter the '70s and Ask, Is That All There Is?

Mad Men enters the 1970s in the final season premiere -- where are the Sterling Cooper ad men when the show returns? Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

So long, swinging ‘60s and helloooo, sad panda '70s! After a solid run of escapism, Mad Men’s characters are coming back down to earth in the worst way as the show enters a new decade in its final episodes. There were existential crises from minute one as we caught up with the ad men (and women) of Sterling Cooper & Partners in the AMC hit’s midseason premiere, as the characters asked themselves, via an iconic Peggy Lee tune, is that all there is?!

From the looks of it, Mad Men will spend the rest of its TV time answering that question. In the meantime, here’s where we found our favorites when the curtain came up on season 7, part 2.

Back in New York, with no explanation

Sterling Cooper and co. had gone bi-coastal in the previous season; for that matter, so had Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) marriage to aspiring actress Megan (Jessica Pare). Now, it appears that everybody is back in New York full-time. Having the characters come full-circle to end the series in the place where it started makes sense, but what happened to torpedo both Sterling Cooper’s West Coast business and Don Draper’s West Coast dreams is a mystery, for now. 

Wearing some wild facial hair

Retro, porny mustaches and outrageous sideburns a la Martin van Buren were creeping into the Mad Men universe as of last year, but you know they’ve reached saturation point when the old guys are sporting ‘em. Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) are clearly trying to keep up with the era’s coolest trend, with both of them wearing some majorly dated facial fur. And of course, Stan Rizzo’s (Jay R. Ferguson) abundant beard still looks terrific, as always.

Trying to have it all

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is still career-driven, ambitious, and — of course — single. But after a promising first date with a guy who seems to appreciate her independent nature, Peggy can’t quite locate her sexual agency…or her passport for an impromptu trip to Paris. Will she get a shot at ooh-la-la l’amour with this guy next week? (I hope so! He’s pretty cute!)

Shopping away the rage

Meanwhile, Joan (Christina Hendricks) is chafing at the outrageous way that her colleagues still refuse to take her seriously just because she has (gasp!) boobs, as a meeting to discuss the future of Topaz pantyhose devolves into a Beavis-and-Butthead-esque free-for-all of stupid sexist jokes. But since the Lily Ledbetter Act is still decades away, all she can do to take the edge off the angst is rage-shop at New York department stores. Sigh. Joan, girl, we feel you.

Finding out what happens to a dream deferred

Mad Men has always been a show about identity. Who am I? Where did I come from? What am I doing? Where am I going? Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) was a guy who fell into advertising by accident, even though what he really wanted to be was a writer. It’s just that the time was never right, and the money in advertising was always too good. But in “Severance,” he gets fired, and gets the chance to finally pursue that dream — the one he calls "the life not lived" — only to realize that at some point in the past ten years, the life not lived quietly shriveled and died for lack of exploration. Ken used to be a writer. But now? He’s an ad man. His next move: To take over advertising at Dow Chemical, and take the place of his recently retired father-in-law.

Asking themselves, "Is that all there is?"

Finally, we come to Don Draper. Don has always seemed to exist simultaneously in his time and outside of it — and in this era of loud checked blazers and ratty mustaches, he's still just as reliably classic, clean-shaven, and devastatingly handsome as ever — but when he turns up onscreen in this episode, he's looking awfully worn around the edges, like the whole Don Draper persona is a suit that he'd really like to take off. (Don't get too excited, ladies; it's only a metaphor.) 

Clearly, things haven't worked out with Megan, and stopped working out a while ago. The only evidence of her in Don's apartment is an earring under the bed, which is discovered by the random airline stewardess whom Don is drunkenly schtupping. Yep, you guessed it: With his second marriage officially dunzo, Don is back to his old ways.

But all the things that made him fascinating six seasons ago — the job, the women, the money, the booze — seem shabby and tired now, like they're things he's doing just because he doesn't know how to do anything else. Don's affairs used to be obscenely hot stuff; now, his quickie with a willing diner waitress (Elizabeth Reaser) is some of the most sad, soulless sexytime you'll ever see on primetime television. (She doesn't quite say "Thanks for the tip," but close enough.) And when he learns that his old flame, Rachel Katz, has died, his appearance at her funeral ends up being a wake-up call.

“She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything,” Rachel's sister tells him.

Of course, Don has had everything, too. He's had more than his fair share; he's had a second chance at life already, having stolen a dead man's identity in the hope that it would give him a better, more promising future. But was this the life Don Draper wanted to live? Is he happy? Is he fulfilled?

Signs — and the Peggy Lee song that dominates this episode — point to "no." We'll just have to see if Don still has what it takes to reinvent himself, again, before the curtain falls.

Mad Men airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.

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