With the advance restrictions imposed by series creator Matthew Weiner, up to and including the passage of time, reviewing a “Mad Men” premiere is a Nik Wallenda-worthy balancing act, which might explain why many prefer detailed recaps. Still, what AMC is billing as “The End of an Era” deserves a proper sendoff, starting with a general sense of whether this signature drama — the one that made “Breaking Bad” possible — looks headed in the right direction. Certainly, the first of the four-time Emmy winner’s seven final hours contains intriguing developments, without offering many clues about where this last campaign will lead.
Granted, despite hype that AMC is understandably eager to stoke, “Mad Men” isn’t the sort of series that lends itself to an overly dramatic conclusion. A guy like its protagonist, ad-man supreme Don Draper (Jon Hamm), doesn’t go out in a hail of bullets, but rather alone in a smoke-filled room, suggesting the close should be marked by more of a whisper than a bang.
That said, ever since it became clear the series would run more than five seasons and engage in time leaps that extend its fictional duration, these characters — who started out in the Eisenhower years — have seemingly had a date with the 1970s. After all, “Mad Men’s” social politics have dwelt on what wasn’t always so swell about the good old days — especially if you were a minority or woman — offering a tacit response to modern cultural warriors still re-litigating what was gained or lost amid the tumult of the ’60s.
All that serves as a backdrop to this closing run, which is still grappling with the central ad agency’s shifting internal dynamics, as well as examples of brazen sexism in the workplace. (Each time lapse inevitably brings a new wave of revised hairstyles and fashions, which can provide amusing clues as to exactly how far we’ve traveled, as well as, at least initially, be something of a distraction.)
As for Don, suffice it to say he appears to have reached another in a series of emotional crossroads, spurred in part by a figure from his past. The opener also makes good use of a song that sums up the restlessness of his character — outwardly, the embodiment of the American dream — particularly well.
Meanwhile, protege Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) continues to wrestle with finding some semblance of work-life balance, while other key players remain discreetly and conspicuously unseen, reflecting Weiner’s habit of stingily disgorging secrets at his own pace.
While it’s difficult to divine too much about what’s next from this chapter, “Mad Men” appears to have reached a hospitable place — one that allows the writers to steadfastly focus on the characters — after sometimes being flummoxed by the program’s attempts to incorporate more wrenching events associated with the ’60s into its narrative.
Having been at the cusp of a wave that inspired basic cable to elevate its game with original drama, “Mad Men” will safely assume its place in TV lore. And since the show has been more about the journey than the destination, the reaction to its finishing kick — pro or con — should really be something of an afterthought.
From that perspective, AMC’s ad line is both highly appropriate and, in TV terms, something of a misnomer, inasmuch as this ambitious series had less to do with ending an era than helping foster an environment that ushered in a new one.