04/15/2014 06:34 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

As Mad Men 's Ending Begins, So Does a Shift to Shangri-LA

Mad Men made a very welcome return to our screens Sunday night with its 7th season opener, "Time Zones." Now only 13 episodes, split between this spring and next year, remain in this great novel for television.

Opening with a suspiciously brilliant pitch for a watch ad by Freddie Rumsen, which nearly floors Peggy Olsen, though not so much that she doesn't try to muffle its perfect tag line, the episode founds out stalwarts mostly carrying on in a sort of functional despair. It's January 1969, made clear when we see Richard Nixon being inaugurated as president late in the episode. Just eight weeks since the end of Season 6.

While Freddie, the intermittently functional deepseated alcoholic we see effectively canned in a great early episode of the show who returns with sobriety and useful career advice for Peggy, is
a good pitch man, the words he is delivering, sound suspiciously like Don Draper's. And in fact, they are, as we learn at the end of the episode.

Telling the truth about his hard-scrabble childhood in the brothel, in a meeting with a big potential client, did not do wonders for Don's career but telling it to his kids certainly helped his soul.

Now suspended from Sterling Cooper, though still a partner and still getting his big paychecks, Don is not drowning his sorrows but is instead working with Freddie to pitch ad campaigns at his own and other agencies. In the proposed ad for Accutron, we see Draper's brilliance at capturing the product-as-talisman of identification and aspiration, as the would-be wearer, a young man seeking to make his way into the big world but suspicious of it impresses not only the two older suits of the ad a "Steve McQueen type."

But while Draper is on his game, we see that mediocrity has overtaken Sterling Cooper. Peggy pushes the ad on the deaf ears of Don's temporary (?) replacement as creative director, a classic old school hack who has not only taken the role that the Season 6 finale hinted would be Peggy's but takes little interest in her work as a whole.

Peggy still cares, but she's frustrated, both in work in her personal life.

While the secret Don-Freddie duo is getting strong notices around Madison Avenue, with Don finding satisfaction in his creative work no matter who gets the credit, the still public Don-Megan duo is on shakier ground. She ended up going out to LA, where she clearly has prospects as an actress and sexy starlet, something the episode's showcase musical number -- Don's arrival at LAX and reunion with his young wife, set to the Spencer Davis Group's driving "I'm A Man" -- makes abundantly clear. But there's distance and plenty of eggshells between the pair.

Despite the scintillating airport reunion, with Don joining the diaphanously mini-skirted Megan in her new sports car, sex proves not to be on the agenda for the evening, which they end with a viewing of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon as Megan falls asleep at her house in the LA hills. In a canyon, actually, which fans are quick to assume means Benedict Canyon, where Sharon Tate was murdered. LA factoid alert: There are several residential "canyons" in the city.
I'm willing to bet that Megan doesn't become a Tate-like victim. But the choice of movie, which Don tellingly finds much more interesting than does Megan, is no accident. For in Los Hori
Lost Horizon, an accomplished older man must assess what looks like a paradise in a land far from his own, a place called Shangri-la.

While Don considers his future, with one foot in New York and the other in California, and neither on especially solid ground, another New Yorker has made a fast adjustment to the California lifestyle.

That, as Don discovers in his only business meeting of the LA trip, is none other than Knickerbocker New Yorker Pete Campbell. He loves loves loves LA.

His constantly dour and sour attitudes are gone, replaced with a relaxed look and an upbeat attitude.

But Ted Chaogh, ostensibly running Sterling Coo's LA office after begging Don to let him take Draper's place out west in order to escape his burgeoning affair with Peggy and save his family, isn't getting into the swing of things. He proves to be just as pale as the other New Yorkers in his trip back to the home office, where he has an unpleasant encounter with Peggy.

While Don is in the midst of a sometimes very uncomfortable limbo period in his life -- will he return full time to Sterling Coo? does he want to? will he and Megan make it? how much does he care? will he live in New York or LA or continue to say that he is "bicoastal?" -- Peggy is in a bad way all over.

Her boss is an uncreative jerk, a seemingly benign autocrat who simply drips mediocrity. Her two mentors, Don and Ted, are out the door. Her workaholism has prevented her from developing a personal life. The apartment building she's saddled with leaves her with irritatingly mundane problems and unhappy tenants knocking on her door. No wonder she is sobbing by the end of the episode.

Don is in bad shape, too, the sliding glass door of his wondrous Manhattan apartment so frustratingly stuck open that he gives in to the January cold of his balcony in his betwixt and between frustration. But he has better options than Peggy. He's turned down his full liquor cabinet, just as he turned down a delectable divorcee on the flight back from LA, uncertain as his marriage may appear.

Incidentally, the divorcee, who recently buried her 50-year old husband who evidently drank himself to death, is played by Neve Campbell. Though they parted, I hereby nominate her as the "Chekov's gun" of Mad Men's final season.

Where are the rest of our stalwarts, as the Sixties draw to a close and the focus of the show begins to shift from New York in its heyday as the greatest city to California in its rise as the nation's cultural center?

We don't see them all -- with Don's kids and Betty and Henry Francis notable in their absence -- but Roger Sterling is making quite a push on the free love front, shacking up with two girls and a guy and rather bemusedly accepting the suspicious-sounding forgiveness of his bratty daughter. Between the further descent of into decadence of ever wisecracking Roger -- and wasn't John Slattery a perfect choice to play Tony Stark's dad in the Iron Man pictures? -- and what is sure to be the outrage of Ted when his personal cloud clears enough to make clear the decline of Sterling Coo creative, it's hard to see much opposition to Don's return to the agency if he wants it.

Joan Holloway is, like Peggy, again bumping against the glass ceiling of '60s sexism, even though she is a partner in the agency.

But by checking her ego she seems to be finding her ways into making herself indispensable in accounts management. The once Zen-like Ken, now in charge of accounts with Pete in La-La land and Roger in lay-lay land, isn't coping well. He needs high-powered help. It doesn't get much more high-powered than Joan, who I've always thought should be running the place, with Don and Peggy in charge of creative, and Pete and Roger around for ideas and charm, respectively.

Picking up just two months after last season's finale, "Time Zones" pitched us into the beginning of 1969, the Sixties revolution already hit by the counter-revolution of Nixon's election, but with many big changes yet to unfold far into the future.

Our characters, like the nation, look more than a little seasick in the midst of these clashing waves. But they are all still very much afloat.