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The first half of Season Seven of AMC’s Mad Men (the back half will drop in 2015) opened Sunday night with a familiar character addressing the camera, thus: “Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.” It is the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of the end—the first shot of the first episode of the first half of the last season of Mad Men.

Keeping up? The opening scene was disorienting, on several levels. It marked a stylistic rupture—since never before on Mad Men has a character spoken straight to camera in this way. And Freddy Rumsen, the character in question, seemed the unlikeliest guy to be doing this, now.

“This” is a classic Don Draper ad pitch. The commercial Freddy describes, for Accutron watches, depicts masculine charisma in the classic Draper mode. The scene is a business meeting, and “the meeting is boring, but you can’t be. You’re wearing an Accutron. This watch makes you interesting.” And this Draper-like vision (“the most interesting man in the world”?) is pitched with Draper-like verve by the least Draper-like figure, perhaps, in the history of Mad Men. Fifty-something Freddy Rumsen is stout, rumpled, and well past his prime—if he ever had a prime. He has not been properly employed since his humiliating dismissal (“six months’ leave” for alcohol rehab) from Sterling Cooper in Season Two. Since then, he has popped up now and again as a freelancer, sympathetic but very expendable.

“Now” is January 1969. Freddy is, by nature, a blast from the past; Peggy Olson crushed him in Season Four by damning his ad copy as “old.” So here is Freddy Rumsen, the man time forgot, the man without game, nailing a pitch about the achievement of prowess through the mastery of time: “It is Swiss. It is accurate.” In response, Peggy says what we are all thinking: “Wow, Freddy. … That is not what I expected.”

These incongruities will be explained, at least nominally, at the end.

In Mad Men time, two months have elapsed since the end of Season Six—the shortest-ever gap between Mad Men seasons—and as we resume, we find continuities and discontinuities. The characters are going on as before, but with variations.

Roger Sterling is so Roger Sterling, he’s going to break himself. We meet him in the morning, on the floor of his apartment, emerging from a stupor, quite naked and surrounded by naked women. This is the old Roger—drunken, womanizing—approaching a crisis. It can’t go on.

What woke Roger up? A phone call from his daughter Margaret, who is as vindictive as ever, though in a newly enlightened and “forgiving” mode. Margaret has been “searching” (“I’ve come to understand that anger can be vanquished by love”), apparently under the auspices of some cult. She is happy to forgive Roger “all of [his] transgressions,” and even happier to enumerate them over brunch at the Plaza. (Roger: “You want me to say I’m sorry? Because I don’t agree with all of that.”)

Sterling Cooper & Partners is now bicoastal, and New York boy Pete Campbell is enchanted with his new environs. Pete marvels at California as a space of Edenic synchronicity: “Last week, middle of January, Sunkist sent us out to the groves—and I picked an orange right off the tree. It’s seventy-five [degrees]. There’s snow on the mountains.” But he looks absurd in his “Californian” wardrobe, and he concedes that “the air is brown” in Los Angeles and “the bagels are terrible.”

Ken Cosgrove has become the monster he once tried so hard not to be. Newly vested as Head of Accounts, he is overworked and frantic about his place in the “hierarchy.” Sporting an eye-patch (memento of Season Six’s misadventures with the Chevy execs), he is made grotesque by lighting choices and camera angles—as he rants at Joan Harris (“That’s two dumb ideas!”) and underlings (“Anybody who doesn’t care doesn’t have to work here!”). In past seasons, Ken has been the one decent man in the agency. In Season Five his conscience compelled him to refuse partner status, and in Season Six he gave up the Chevy account in order to preserve himself as a husband and father. But the job has finally gotten to him. He has become the anti-Ken—or rather, he has become the Ken he always feared becoming.

Joan does what Joan does, but with ominous hints. As usual, she is competent beyond the scope of her position, here finding a way to retain (for now) the Butler Footwear account. Along the way she engages in a strange little plot involving a business-school professor who happens to be a Lane Pryce dress-alike. There is a head-fake: Joan thinks she is being propositioned (as Lane once propositioned her), only to find that the professor has in mind a more businesslike quid pro quo. He is conducting an advertising research study, and he wants information concerning “what percentage of your clients work on fees, versus commission.” Sigh of relief. (But note that “Commissions and Fees” is the title of the Season Five episode in which Lane committed suicide. And down the rabbit hole we go.)

Don, of course, is still Don—but the ground is shifting beneath him. Hence the moving walkway on which he glides through the Los Angeles airport. As he goes, we note in profile his very 1950s fedora, which he has not given up, though other characters’ wardrobes have evolved. The gliding elides; Don is moving without taking steps. When the walkway ends, he finds himself in Los Angeles, still dressed for New York. Soon he will find himself in the 1970s, still dressed for the Eisenhower administration.

Finally, Peggy. Now more than ever, Peggy seems A Woman In The Workplace. All her interactions seem unavoidably gendered, as she is distraught by the reappearance of her boss/lover Ted Chaough. Her reaction to Freddy Rumsen’s Accutron pitch (“Wow, Freddy”) sounded amusingly post-coital, and indeed she is smitten with the campaign, as the rest of the episode makes clear. She continues to plug Freddy’s pitch even after Creative Director Lou Avery has rejected it (with the language of romantic rejection: “I guess I’m immune to your charms”) and even after her friend and colleague Stan has implored her to “Let it go!”

The end of the episode reveals—to us, not to Peggy—what she has seen in “Freddy’s” pitch: It was Don’s pitch, and Don speaking, all along. Don, on indefinite “leave” from SC&P since Thanksgiving, is covertly still working as an ad man, feeding copy to Freddy. When Freddy refers to Don’s “Cyrano bit,” the reference is apt. Peggy, for one, was fooled and wooed. So Freddy’s incongruous mojo is explained: It was Don, ventriloquizing, in that opening scene.

Except that, in a way, it really was Freddy Rumsen talking all along. Now he mentors Don in the insight at the heart of the Accutron pitch: To stay in your prime, keep track of time. Freddy speaks from grim experience: “Two months [away from the agency]. Nobody’s called, right? They had Christmas without you. The Superbowl. Pretty soon it’s going to be Easter.” Don is gliding right out of the ad business.

Freddy Rumsen, of all men, is no Don Draper. But Don Draper may be Freddy Rumsen, or may become him. “Two months” and counting.

Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University.

More on: Mad Men, Don Draper

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