At the beginning of its end, “Mad Men” lets Peggy Lee ask the questions.
“Is that all there is?” she croons in her oft-covered classic, which opens and closes Sunday night’s episode, the first of the seven-week denouement of one of TV’s greatest dramas. “If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is …”
The interesting times Don Draper has been cursed to live in barely register on his face as he spaces out in front of a presidential address.
Here in 2015, we can all get on our devices and figure out which year Kissinger bombed which country so we can know how far forward this toxic slice of New York has jumped in time — if at all.
“Severance,” written by series creator Matthew Weiner, begins the the victory lap of basic cable’s critical triumph, Weiner’s unapologetically existential, obsessively crafted drama about advertising in the 1960s. Like a belligerent account executive with a sloppy bourbon buzz, “Mad Men” won’t be slipping quietly out the back.
Don (the ever-so-slightly aged Jon Hamm) will escape the post-Woodstock years without looking too goofy. The same can’t be said for the other men at Sterling Cooper & Partners at this point. “Severance” is a fast-paced, workplace-focused episode (outside the office, it makes time for a private mourning visit and a public sex act). And Sterling Cooper is still Sterling Cooper, only more so.
Pete and Ken go over accounts while gossiping about a secretary pregnant with her boss’s baby. “Do you think he’ll marry her?” “Nah, he’ll just ignore it.”
Ted Chaough — remember, the family man with the guilty conscience? — hooks Don up with models and cocktails after work.
“Hemlines are going up,” he chortles. “I’m leaving now.”
Just in time for Easter, plastic eggs with stockings inside create a marketing emergency for Peggy and Joan’s Topaz Pantyhose account. When they approach their new McCann Erickson comrades for help, what follows is perhaps the most infuriatingly sexist meeting in “Mad Men” history, which is really saying something.
And afterward, Joan (Christina Hendricks) is back on the elevator again, furious and humiliated, with a barely sympathetic Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who says, “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t dress the way you do…”
Joan can’t even get any good retail therapy going: She’s recognized as a former employee at the department store and offered a discount while she’s trying to buy a pile of dresses.
“That’s very tempting,” she says with one of Hendricks’ patented icy smiles. “But I’m afraid you have me confused with someone else.”
I know I didn’t spend eight years watching Joan marry a rapist, have Roger Sterling’s love child and sell herself to a sweaty old man so that she could spend the Me Decade getting leered at in meetings. I could watch Roger (ever-dapper John Slattery) fire people all day long (Sunday’s surprise firing is an epic one), but Don’s cryptic conversations with strangers can feel staid and scholarly.
“I’m Don Draper,” he tells a confused woman who greets him at her door. “I’m in advertising.”
“Oh,” she replies, her eyes darkening, “I know who you are.”
People are always saying that kind of thing to our boy, aren’t they? And then — herein lies the addictive nature of the show — the action pauses for just a moment, the acting thrums with tension, and you feel satisfied that you have been a good student. And later, the camera lingers on the novel in the waitress’s apron pocket, and you take notice, because this is the kind of show where it matters that someone in the diner is reading John Dos Passos.
Fans who like to keep a close eye on Weiner’s cultural winks and nods should know that there has (presumably) been no bloody murder in the Hollywood Hills since the last time we saw Megan (Jessica Pare) asking Don for a divorce over the phone. But the Internet’s Megan-Draper-as-Sharon-Tate furor isn’t going to die down anytime soon. Weiner manages to splash a blood-red reminder before our eyes with brutal efficiency.
As usual, we’re way more interested in the implications of what year he’s living in than Don is. But he finally feels as though he’s a member of the era he’s walking around in, instead of a hostage from the Eisenhower administration.
Like Peggy Lee, who sings of shrugging her shoulders at circuses, true love and burning buildings, the black-suited antihero of “Mad Men” remains deeply unimpressed with what he sees around him. Watching him sleepwalk through another self-absorbed epiphany in the arms of his latest spring conquests would be less than what eight years of great TV deserves as its climax. Unless, as the song says, that’s really all there is.
Where to watch
“Mad Men” begins its final half-season Sunday night at 9 on AMC.