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matthew gilbert

Don’s soul is in the balance as ‘Mad Men’ returns

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the seventh-season premiere of “Mad Men."

Michael Yarish/AMC

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the seventh-season premiere of “Mad Men."

About eight minutes into the seventh-season premiere of “Mad Men,” Don Draper finally appears. With “I’m a Man” by the Spencer Davis Group building on the soundtrack, a tightly cropped shot gives us Don looking at himself in an airplane bathroom mirror.

If you’re a fan of “Mad Men,” you’ll probably view this as a richly symbolic opening statement of intent: We are reflecting on Don Draper, a man in flight, and so is he. And if you’re a fan of “Mad Men,” you’ll probably find the next sequence — dapper Don on a moving sidewalk at LAX, standing still but still in motion — equally and thrillingly emblematic. And if you’re a fan, you’ll probably continue to get lost in the premiere’s operatic, melodramatic, cinematic, and literary progress, scene by evocative scene.

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If you aren’t a fan of AMC’s “Mad Men,” well, I’m betting you’ll be thinking, “Zilch happens, and slowly.” You won’t catch the facets of meaning, which are finer than even those on the soapy “Downton Abbey.” In the vacancy that haunts the “Mad Men” characters’ lives, you’ll see nothing.

But that’s how “Mad Men” rolls, deliberately, under the weight of suppressed angst, with all the intense focus the writers bring to each of these people, particularly Don. For viewers eager to watch actively, it’s a goldmine of moments to observe and consider. Indeed, there’s an online industry of recap artists who, like English majors during exam week, are parsing each telling glance, each unspoken sorrow. For everyone else, it’s a hollow exercise.

The show returns Sunday at 10 for the first half of its final season, which is to say that we’ve hit the beginning of the end. And it’s a promising reentry. All the major themes, so subtly articulated across the first six seasons, are coming to a head. Questions loom large, waiting for resolution or its postmodern equivalent — non-resolution resolution. Does Peggy have to choose between work and love, and will she always have to work for men? Can Joan prove to herself that she deserves her position? Will Roger — who’s naked when we first see him in the premiere — ever stop trying to fill his inner void with booze, drugs, and women? Will Pete — who now has an LA tan — ever not be a fop? And Sally: Is she going to escape from or succumb to her parents’ patterns?

But the biggest question, of course, is whether Don will change or not. Is “Mad Men” ultimately going to be about how a person can indeed change, like “Breaking Bad,” which traced the arc of a gentle man into a violent drug lord? If, underneath all of Don’s split-identity issues, all of his Madonna-whore and mother conflicts, all of his alcohol abuse and madness, there is a sympathetic and honest man, maybe that man will come to the surface. Maybe the man in flight — from his wives, from his children, from his colleagues, from himself — will finally land.

Or will the show be about how a person can’t change, which is the point that “The Sopranos” finally reached? Is “Mad Men” a portrait of human stasis? Thus far, every time we’ve seen Don on the verge of a new start, he retreats back into his haze of self-loathing, adultery, alcoholism, and destruction. “Mad Men” is a drama, but at points it has featured the kind of repetitive behaviors that define the situation comedy, as Don has fallen apart, glued himself together, and fallen apart again. Will there be no “arc” for Don, just a spiral down, like the man in the show’s title sequence? Is his character frozen, despite the heat in the outside world, the sweeping aesthetic, moral, sexual, and political transformations of the 1960s?

There was hope for Don at the end of last season, as he stood outside the Pennsylvania whorehouse of his childhood, looking deep into Sally’s eyes for a glimmer of understanding — which she gave him. He seemed to be at a critical juncture in his journey, that point in therapy where you’ve had to look back with compassion before being able to move forward. He’d hit bottom, in a way, during that ugly moment when Sally caught him in bed with Sylvia; he saw himself passing his own childhood trauma onto his daughter. Creator Matthew Weiner seemed to be maybe kind of sort of giving us a brief glimpse of what could be optimism, with Don put on leave at Sterling Cooper & Partners in order to regroup.

I won’t spoil anything significant here, but I will say that I found more pieces of evidence in favor of Don’s growth in the season premiere, which kicks off at the dawning of the Nixon era. The episode doubles as an homage to the poetry of Don’s professional brilliance, his ability to pitch ads with the haunting wisdom and theatricality of Rod Serling. Peggy is all about Don’s magic, as she answers to a new boss — Lou Avery — who is creatively wanting and casually sexist (and racist). Played by comedian Allan Havey, Lou looks like a vacuous 1950s sitcom dad as he represents the professional antithesis of Don.

And the hour delivers a series of lovely closing scenes that find Don feeling more honest intimacy than he has felt since the death of Anna, culminating in the kind of image and song choice that “Mad Men” fans find so powerful and moving. Seriously, watch Jon Hamm’s face during those final shots and wonder with me why he hasn’t yet won an Emmy for this role. Even if, in the last season, “Mad Men” doesn’t double back and winds up with Don in a better state of mind, his soul intact, that will be tragic.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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