THE SERIES "Mad Men"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC

CATCHING UP Last season ended with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seeing agency patriarch Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) soft-shoeing his way through "The Best Things in Life Are Free." It was a strange moment, especially considering that Bert had died earlier in the finale, "Waterloo." Don was surprised and perplexed. But Don was also rich. He and the other partners, led by Roger (John Slattery), had agreed to be bought out by McCann-Erickson, which wants their Chevy business.

WHAT HAPPENS SUNDAY. Series creator Matthew Weiner has asked critics not to reveal too much plot detail. So lets just mention these: Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) must confront workplace sexism. There's a blast from the deep past. And what's that on Roger's upper lip?

There are only seven episodes to go before one of the great series in TV history wraps for good.

MY SAY When's the right moment to get all teary and sentimental about "Mad Men"? Would the eve of the "Final Seven" seem about right?

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Sure, why not? So pass the tissue box, please. On Sunday's opener, there's the usual smattering of literary references (John Dos Passos, Thomas Mann) and in that spirit, here's my own literary allusion, distantly recalled from high school English class: To paraphrase a famous line from a famous poem ("An Arundel Tomb"), what will survive of "Mad Men" is love.

Love for its elegance, beauty, precision, intelligence and language. Love for the style, fashions and music. Love for the people ("characters" seems too trivial) we know so well, we've shared so much history with, or just over a decade in "Mad Men" time.

What's love got to do with Sunday night? Everything, because all journeys end, and that wrenching process begins in just a day or so. We -- or at least I -- want to be certain our ardor won't be squandered in the show's rush to that finish line, a little less than two months away. "Severance" makes the case that it won't be. "Mad Men" remains "Mad Men," although with a hint of melancholy and end times. People die. Shows do, too. Mortality is crowding the screen.

If that sounds like a downer, don't worry. It's not (or maybe I'm just projecting my own impending separation anxiety). "Men" is still funny, mordantly so, still sharply observed, still full of that sense that the unexamined life isn't much of a life at all -- or that the examined one is full of mystery and the unknowable. There's a wonderful shot of Don in the dark, staring into the abyss. But what's staring back?

Sunday's episode, titled "Severance," superficially feels like a reset, where the business of Sterling Cooper remains business, although now part of the even bigger business of McCann. Meanwhile, personal developments cast shadows. Don's life has entered a new uncertain phase. Peggy's is about to as well. Prior arrangements -- personal and professional -- are about to complicate several other lives.

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Life in this highly specific world goes on, in other words. But what does that "life" mean, actually?

As usual, that's the question Sunday, or rather the subtext, enriched by Peggy Lee's haunting cover of the classic Leiber-Stoller song "Is That All There Is?" tracking in the background. Based on a Thomas Mann short story, the Lee version of this song seemed to reflect a national soul search by a country at war, calculating its losses, or desperately coming to terms with them. The song seemed to reject the notion that life was a patchwork of meaningful events, but were instead just "events" -- transient, superficial, ultimately meaningless.

Bleak and desperate? Possibly (the song is just a sad song). But here's the surprise: "Severance" makes the opposite case.

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