Mad Men is a notoriously slow burner season to season – the first few episodes are kind of a snore until things build into an inferno by the season finale. Season 7 is the series’ final and creator Matthew Weiner has decided to split it in half, presumably giving us some sizzle now, more later.
Final seasons come with a surplus of anticipation, and a show that has cut as deep a journey as Mad Men has a ton riding on its closing season. To date this show has not yet seen a lackluster season; each installation delivered a complete and whole narrative and tremendous character growth –whether they flourish or falter or come to an end.
The seventh season has begun in Mad Men’s traditional steam-building fashion and has done a lot of things right thus far. Here’s what dedicated and critical viewers should be thankful for as we round the corner on episode 5.
1. Peggy’s struggle
Peggy Olson has long been the secondary protagonist of the series, and she is the underdog heroine to Don Draper’s floundering, misogynist-drunk antihero. Season 6 saw writers giving Peggy heavy personal upheaval while juggling major professional growth that, in Mad Men’s realistic time bubble, is never won without a fight.
This season we see Peggy’s sour side. She seems to be mirroring the actions of the men around her –putting others down when she’s emotional, like her African-American secretary Shirley, throwing tantrums, acting stubborn—rather than rising above them. She’s still the Peggy the Peggy fans (and yours truly) love, putting her nose to the grindstone, sharpening her talents (and her talons, it must be said) and trudging forward. We see her crying and on her knees by episode 2. Season to season it’s Peggy’s story diving in and out and alongside of Don’s story that has given the show its narrative edge, and Season 7 has shown it will continue to stretch and bend Peggy Olson before our eyes.
2. And Don’s struggle
At times during the early seasons, I wondered if we would ever see Don Draper really, deeply fail, or if he was to forever ride on his silver screen looks and down-to-the-wire creative prodigy. But nothing lasts forever. The past two seasons have been solid in their depiction of Don’s realistically inevitable downward spiral.
Season 7 opens with Don up to his old deft deception: Megan has no idea that he has been put on leave from SCDP, and he’s engaging in a Cyrano de Bergerac act writing copy for Freddy Rumsen. And he’s still a drunk.
From his desperate macho plea to reenter SCDP to his tantrums and vodka-in-the-soda-can antics upon returning to work, Don is in a bad place. Megan spurns him. So does Sally. Joan and Peggy openly admit dismay at the idea of working with him again. “Appallingly few people are on his side,” notes NYM Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz. Knowing Mad Men, it’s likely that our antihero has further to fall – as the opening credits have alluded to from the get-go.
3. Nonwhite character glimpses (better late than never)
Dawn gets a Peggy-esque bump up the ladder after standing her ground to Lou Avery in episode 2. Hell yes she shouldn’t be scolded for being away from her desk while she’s out buying his wife perfume.
Dawn’s scene with Shirley, Peggy’s secretary and a sole black ally in the SCDP office, is one of the best written thus far this season. It’s full of head shaking and tough humor. The movement of the scene is also dead-on when they stop their breakroom conversation as a white coworker enters briefly.
4. Sally Draper: Future Sh*t Kicker
“A Day’s Work,” made Sally Draper our Valentine for being not the first, but possibly the most effective Don Draper bulls**t-caller. The veil is fully lifted from Sally’s eyes when she accidentally discovers her dad has been lying about going to work. She’s less appalled than the first time the veil was lifted—when she caught her father schtupping his neighbor—it was a maturely swallowed pill of disgust. Sally’s delivery of “I love you,” hurriedly getting out of the car and slamming the door on Don before he has a chance to reply was everything we need to know about where Sally is and where Sally and Don are as father and daughter.
5. Other nuggets
• The heavy Stanley Kubrick referencing in episode 4: “The Monolith.”
• Betty’s Got Milk moment.
• Megan’s L.A. wardrobe.
• The return and relevance of Freddy Rumsen.
• All of the cult story in episode 4, but especially the arc’s climax with Margaret and Roger facing off, covered in mud, seeing themselves in one another.
• The foil/mirror episodes of this season’s “A Day’s Work” and season 2’s “For Those Who Think Young” – a better breakdown can be read here at Vulture.com.