“I hate to say, but I knew where to find you.”
The above quote is throwaway line from “The Strategy,” delivered by the delightfully loathsome Pete Campbell after he discovers Don working out of a dead man’s office. It’s a beautiful snarl of layered meanings, personal history, and pitch-black humor. And so much of what’s made Mad Men a rewarding journey is scenes like these, which prove that very little in this show is a throwaway. Mad Men’s seventh season, which concludes this Sunday, has done some of its best work so far by leaning on its own weighty past.
And weighty it is. Perhaps a reflection of the fractured agency (and the many fractured psychologies that haunt it), this season has carried an unsettling undertone, a darkness even this show has rarely reached. Some of its appearances are subtle—street noises wash into Don’s apartment like the tide every time he dares open his windows, a dismal New York lullaby. Others aren’t even pretending. The hulking mainframe computer has pushed the creative team from the center of the agency and driven Ginsberg to one of the show’s most gasp-worthy moments, second perhaps only to the tractor incident. Don has experienced the split personality of the coasts more than anyone, struggling to maintain a dying marriage and a shaky job. The business-class cabin is a handy metaphor for his own perpetual limbo, and his office is still clinging to the remnants of the man who came before.
However, it’s not Don at the center of this season. That honor goes to Peggy. Though the show’s as interested in its women as ever, almost all their trajectories have been upward. Dawn, Joan, and Sally are coming into their own in largely optimistic ways: getting recognition for their work, getting overdue respect from peers, and finally getting to be honest. Peggy offers a stark contrast; her frustrations at work are a grinding wheel that’s only honed her edges. It’s a dark mirror held up to the image of her we had at the end of last season—sitting in Don’s office on her way to the top. The complaint’s been made, not inaccurately, that this is a show caught in circles of self-reflection interrupted by inevitable habit. But that’s the point: Mad Men’s most realistic aspect is the ways it mercilessly thwarts its characters equally from without and within.
Studied and often overt symbolism has characterized every iteration of the agency once known as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce; This series has never been shy about wearing the past like armor. Mad Men’s quality is in the ways it studiously earns those slow-build callbacks, and there’s never been a better sense of comfortable resignation than in some of this season’s grace notes. Freddie’s sober-up cup of coffee with Don is, on the surface, a shortcut to get Don back at his desk; only knowing Freddie’s history brings the necessary weight. Abrasively sunny California has turned Ted and Pete into a comedy duo who occasionally take calls; Betty quietly recognizes her parenting; Joan retains her first-season ability to tell at a kiss when a man’s barking up the wrong tree; and power shifts in the office continue apace (Harry Crane will bury them all). Seven years into the show, though, what’s quite literally “A Day’s Work” for SC&P is, for us, the quiet agony of knowing many of these people better than they know themselves. The other quiet agony of the show comes from those we don’t know. Characters who have long been ghosts and characters we haven’t gotten enough of to really understand work as sharp reminders that we never know anyone as well as we think, ourselves included.
But because the ache for meaningful connection in an essentially solitary world is so central a theme, Don and Peggy together have always been Mad Men’s beating heart—because of their combined ability to occasionally beat those odds. Their rocky reunion was as pervasively distracting as the humming computer, an uncertainty generated precisely because of the shared history that arms them to strike at one another’s hearts. Their breakthrough in “The Strategy” has nothing to do with the ad pitch. (It never did. Their office sells psychology; the burgers and cars and cigarettes are just thematically spiffy props). Working together thaws them into that old mold in which it’s possible to push an inch forward into a moment of genuine connection. It’s everything we hoped was possible; as go these two, so goes Mad Men.
But “The Strategy” doesn’t end with that, either. It doesn’t even end with the expected nostalgic throwback to seasons past—a slam-dunk pitch brings back Don and Peggy’s professional sparkle, lands the client, and puts their doubts to rest. It’s been too many years for that. They’re old enough to live with doubt. Instead, it ends with Don and Peggy in Burger Chef with Pete on a Sunday night—proving that family’s who you break bread with, and Pete, he’s looking at it. A bittersweet pitch, to be sure, but a sublime example of what this show can do at its best; it leans on the past in new but equally painstaking context. Matthew Weiner has positioned the audience to hope as hard as the characters do for a happiness that will probably elude them. This season, they’re beginning to be aware of it. It’s a poignant approach, and that artful inevitability only makes sense as we head into the home stretch: Unfortunately, we’ll know where to find them.