AMC's "Mad Men" returns at 10 p.m. Sunday for the beginning of its swan song: The first seven episodes of season seven start airing this month (AMC calls it "The Beginning"), and the final seven episodes (aka "The End") will air in 2015.
When viewers last saw Don Draper (Jon Hamm), he was taking a forced break from his job atop ad agency SC&P after a season of marked absenteeism. Don also came clean to his colleagues and family about his past as Dick Whitman.
The new season begins in January 1969 around the time of Richard Nixon's first presidential inauguration. There's a new occupant in Don's old office, and the tone at SC&P is tense. Even usually calm, calibrated Ken Cosgrove (Carnegie Mellon University grad Aaron Staton) yells a lot, although that might have more to do with wearing an eye patch after last season's injury (there's a great gag related to his vision impairment).
Roger (John Slattery) gets invited to lunch with his newly blissed-out daughter. And Joan (Christina Hendricks) receives a new work challenge.
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) takes a watch commercial pitch from washed-up freelancer Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray), and it's surprisingly artful, which Peggy doesn't hesitate to note.
"There's a nice way to say that and there's the way you just said it," a perturbed Freddy replies just as he announces his plan to get another cup of coffee before he leaves her office.
"You really put the free in freelancer, don't you?" Peggy teases.
It's one of the few lighter moments in this first hour of the new season, which is generally a pretty morose affair, particularly its downer ending. Has Don really hit rock bottom -- he's "damaged goods," as another character suggests -- or does he have further to fall?
Executive producer Matthew Weiner, who wrote Sunday's season premiere (directed by executive producer Scott Hornbacher), said the theme for the show's final season is consequences and whether change is possible.
"When your needs are met, you start thinking about other things," Mr. Weiner said in a recent teleconference with reporters. "For Don we saw real growth over the last season from what are the material concerns of your life to what are the immaterial concerns of your life, and that's really what the ending of the show is about."
Mr. Weiner has always been scrupulous about protecting any spoilers in "Mad Men" stories, especially after the show became a cultural phenomenon. Sometimes he even asks critics not to reveal what year a new season is set in (that was not on the list of verboten "spoilers" this time). He said the desire for secrecy grew out of his experience as a writer on "The Sopranos."
"I think about how much fun it was before this whole machinery of spoilers was in operation, when you were going to sit down and have no idea what is going to happen, and that's even more important for our show because the plots are not told in extremes," he said. "They're happening on a very human scale. Don forgetting to pick Sally up at school is a big story point. I love to surprise, and I love the fact that we have a unique position commercially as being something you just don't know what's going to happen when you sit down to watch. I watch trailers for movies, and knowing the entire story in the movie is disappointing for me."
So while Mr. Weiner is loath to tease much of the new season beyond a very general theme, he's happy to reflect on the characters' journeys so far. One thing viewers can count on: Limited happiness.
"Drama is made out of conflict," he said. "People's lives being good is never good drama. So we're always looking for more problems for these people."
Mr. Weiner said Don had a major breakthrough last season when he came clean about his past to his family.
"Is making an effort enough? Announcing to the world you've changed, that changes you, but does it do anything else? At the end of last season he's turning outward to share his life with his daughter and come clean about [his past], but it's also turning inward to say, I've been acting impulsively and trying not to think about what it is I'm doing, trying to alleviate anxiety. Don definitely changed. ... His failure resulted in some kind of change, some kind of reconciliation, no matter how small."
Peggy finds herself sobbing in Sunday's season premiere.
"Peggy's story is a constant mix between what is good for Peggy as a person and what is good for Peggy's career, and they have not gone together at all," Mr. Weiner said. "She only knows how to pay attention to her job and that may become a story for the season."
Mr. Weiner sees Megan, Don's second wife, as a character with more power going into season seven.
"He's free to commit to her because he's finished with his affair [with Sylvia] and hit bottom with his drinking and reneging on his proposal to her to go to California -- he couldn't follow through -- and now are there repercussions for that?" Mr. Weiner said. "I think he really loves her and he is guilt-ridden and shamed and has a desire to restore that love. So she is in a slightly more powerful position. Somebody who can bestow forgiveness always has more power than the person apologizing."
Mr. Weiner said Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) comes by his abhorrence of racism genuinely.
"Pete is truly in the seat of the underdog," he said. "He hates injustice. It may be because he's been treated badly in his life or because of his parents. ... He comes down on the human side of things. He's selfish and petty and bitter for no reason and doesn't appreciate what he has, but he very clearly is not a racist and he's offended by [racism]."
Mr. Weiner said Joan has changed a lot since the series began. Initially she seemed to pity Peggy's attempts to advance at the workplace and now Joan has increased her own power within the ad agency.
"She stopped caring a little bit about how things look. What a freedom in life!" Mr. Weiner said.
And he sees Roger as almost child-like and the opposite of Don: Roger has no shortage of love of self.
"Roger has lots of things Don doesn't: He was born with privilege," Mr. Weiner said. "He's a patrician person anyway, but he's always been indulgent and has a child-like attitude toward things. The fact that he took LSD and learned something most of us know -- other people have thoughts he doesn't know about -- sounds silly, but he's undergone a bit of an education."
Mr. Weiner and his staff have five episodes left to write before the series ends.
"We have a pretty clear road map," he said. "There are things we wanted to do that we will not be able to do [in the remaining episodes], but I think because I'm surrounded by such talented writers, everything that is really good will get through."
Of course, for Pittsburgh viewers, "Mad Men" has provided its share of entertaining local connections, particularly when it comes to Heinz, which has been featured as an ad agency client several times in the series. Those mentions predate the involvement of writer Tom Smuts ("The Guardian"), a Shadyside native who joined the show in season six and returns for season seven.
"I understand regional pride and I have personally had a fascination with Heinz that precedes Tom Smuts, but I do like his perspective on Pittsburgh," Mr. Weiner said. "It's always been a gift to the show to have people from different places in the United States, especially the industrial Northeast as its role has changed."
Mr. Weiner lived in Baltimore until age 11, when his family moved to Southern California.
Mr. Weiner has friends in Pittsburgh and has always been fond of the city.
"I have a particular affection for Pittsburgh anyway. I don't know why, but I always have," he said. "And Tom satisfies that on a daily basis with a particularly Pittsburgh-centric view of the world."
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.