On 'Mad Men,' it's the beginning of the end

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson and Jon Hamm Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men" Season 7, Episode 6. Photo Credit: AMC

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Verne Gay Verne Gay

Gay is the television critic. ...

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This Sunday's "Mad Men" (AMC at 10 p.m.) marks the last episode of the first half of its final season. (The second half begins in 2015.) After Sunday's episode, fans will have to content themselves by asking questions such as "Who ever went to a Burger Chef, anyway?" and "What happened to Megan's hair?"

In that spirit, let's go to some other questions.

 

Where is SC&P and its denizens just before the midway point?

In a precarious place, maybe. Chevrolet is taking its big XP account in-house. (The XP would turn out to be the Vega -- a lemon that would tarnish all associated with it.) Instead, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Don (Jon Hamm) have a shot at Burger Chef, another future loser that eventually would be swallowed by Hardee's. But Don and Peggy couldn't very well know that, could they?

 

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Why the return of Bob Benson?

Ah, Bob (James Wolk), one of "Men's" more alluring and mysterious characters, who has been absent this season, until last Sunday. Bob, who is most likely gay, proposed to his pal Joan (Christina Hendricks). She declined his marriage-of-convenience proposal, which he rather artlessly pitched by saying: "We could be cold comfort to each other through an uncertain world." (General Motors, where Bob was seemingly headed, would frown on an unmarried senior manager.) Bob kept the ring, but gave Joan information about the XP account. She, in turn, gave the information to Roger (John Slattery), who now knows the news will devastate senior partner Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin), his rival (and Don's).

 

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Enough with the backstory already! What does it all mean?

Simply that the merger with CGC turned into a disaster, and that the happiness all our characters seek continues to be just out of reach. In a sense, 61/2 seasons of "Mad Men" have brought them -- and us -- right back where we started. Talk about your cycle of history.

 

There has been some web chatter about Megan's (Jessica Paré) fate -- what to make of that?

As Don's wife has entered her own personal age of Aquarius, some have speculated that in Sunday's episode, she finds her way to the Benedict Canyon house of Sharon Tate on the night of Aug. 8, where. . . . But here's what's wrong with this speculation: History plays in the background of "Mad Men," never the foreground. This isn't "Zelig," after all. Even if the foreshadowing is ominous, and Charles Manson is out there, there is likely another ending to Megan's story.

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What is one to make of Sunday's episode title, "Waterloo"?

"Mad Men" titles can be allusive ("The Monolith," referring to "2001: A Space Odyssey"), descriptive ("Field Trip") or ironic ("A Day's Work"). They are never meaningless. "Waterloo," of course, suggests defeat, but whose, exactly? And defeat for one means victory for another.

 

What was the high point of the season so far?

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Roger's almost-stirring defense of Don before the assembled partners who would have preferred he remain out in the cold (in "Field Trip").

 

And the low point?

Ginsberg's (Ben Feldman) self-mutilation, in "The Runaways" was one of the most horrific and unexpected scenes in the show's history.

 

How has the season been so far?

"Mad Men" can't be anything but good -- a model of consistency, and a marvel of intricate storytelling that is engineered with the precision of a Jag. That hasn't changed. What has changed is us -- the dwindling tribe of hard-core fans who remain in thrall to Matthew Weiner's vision but may have found themselves wondering this season what exactly they have been in thrall to. We all have a shared history here, but I'm also left wondering what we have left to learn, or whether we now know all there is to know. This journey feels stalled, if not quite stale. "Men" remains a joy -- just not quite the joy it was. Weiner's final seven episodes need to remind us, forcibly, why we cared so much in the first place.

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