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'Mad Men': First impressions of 'The End of an Era'

January Jones as Betty Francis, left, Jon Hamm

January Jones as Betty Francis, left, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell, Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris and John Slattery as Roger Sterling in "Mad Men," in the second part of the show's seventh season. Credit: AMC / Frank Ockenfels 3

"Mad Men" returns April 5, for the final seven episodes, a short span titled "The End of an Era." The first episode is titled "Severance," and -- abiding by the usual request of creator Matthew Weiner -- let's not give away too much here.

Instead, here are some first impressions, or superficial ones, which should qualify as being sufficiently vague.

In that spirit, "Men" fans, my initial one: All is fine.

"Mad Men" returns much as it departed nearly a year ago, as a model of precision and storytelling economy. That hasn't changed, nor was it expected to.

In fact, what has changed, or at least what is about to be magnified, is perception -- ours. We know this precisely drawn world is coming to an end, while there's no way the characters can know. Therefore, everything going forward has to be filtered through that lens: that each word, act, situation is leading directly to a conclusion.

What will that conclusion be, and how will that force us to re-examine every assumption we ever made about this particular world? The stakes are considerable for a classic series, and for devoted fans who will examine every step Weiner makes. That's the peril of precision -- everything is freighted with great meaning, when perhaps no meaning was intended, or the meaning we thought was intended.

And if that's all there is ...

Speaking of which: "Severance" is framed by Peggy Lee's classic rendition of the Leiber-Stoller song "Is That All There Is?," which offers some clues about time frame and themes, and we'll get to those themes in a minute.

As usual, the episode framework itself encloses foreground, middle ground and deep background, each reflecting the other, or -- for another metaphor -- each in dialogue with the other. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with two principals now gone, has moved forward, but remains a relatively small fish in a larger pond, which is brimming with new products, brands, extensions, and extensions of extensions. America's at war, 10,000 miles away, but on the homefront everyone is buying.

"Severance" superficially feels like a reset, where the business of Sterling Cooper is business, and where everyone -- from principals to hirelings -- is actively engaged in the rites of advertising, with the usual pitches, client interference and treachery seasoning the narrative. It's a bright, well-lit world of trade craft and efficiency. The immediate past (from the finale episode last May) isn't even reflected here, as if gone, forgotten ...

That's your foreground.

Meanwhile, personal developments cast shadows. Don's personal life has entered a new uncertain phase. Peggy's is about to, as well. Prior business arrangements, specifically related to McCann Erickson, are about to complicate several professional lives -- notably Roger's and Pete's.

That's your middle ground.

Now, to the deep background and that 1969 Peggy Lee hit. The Leiber and Stoller song -- based on Thomas Mann's short story, "Disillusionment," first published in 1896 -- had been covered a handful of times before, but there was something about the Lee version, released in November of 1969, that captured, however fleetingly, a sense of national malaise -- of a nation at war, calculating its losses, examining its soul.

"Disillusionment" and the song were a emphatic rejection of the idea that life was a patchwork of meaningful events -- including death itself -- each tethered to some greater meaning. Instead, those events were just events -- transient, superficial, meaningless.

The song in fact contains these famous lyrics about death:

"I know what you must be saying to yourselves. 'If that's the way she feels about it, why doesn't she just end it all?' Oh, no, not me. I'm in no hurry for that final disappointment. 'Cause I know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you, that when that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself: 'Is that all there is? Is that all there is?' 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..."

OK, there are some first impressions, hints, suggestions, foregrounds, backgrounds, foreshadowings or faux-shadowings. Matthew Weiner is about to play with our heads once again, and -- if that’s all there is -- let's break out the booze, and have a ball.

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