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The end begins for 'Mad Men'

I have a feeling "Mad Men" is not going to end so happily for some of its fans.

I say that after watching Sunday night's opener of the final season and hearing creator Matthew Weiner talk about where the series is going in its last 14 episodes.

Before the final credits tonight, viewers will see one of the two characters who matters most, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), near spiritual paralysis, and the other, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), brought to her knees in emotional pain.

You'll hear Don saying things like, "She knows I'm a terrible husband … I really thought I could do it this time … I keep wondering, 'Have I broken the vessel?'"

And if his self-flagellation isn't enough, you'll also see such 1960s figures as a dour-faced President Richard Nixon speaking on TV, telling his fellow Americans, "We find ourselves rich in goods but ragged in spirit. … We see around us empty lives seeking fulfillment. Through a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the faith."

Screens within screens filled with self-loathing and malaise. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Actually, for me it did — at least the Don part.

I loved the character I started calling Existential Don in Season 1 — the physically beautiful but psychically wounded protagonist on a dark identity quest. I loved that quintessentially American journey initially at the heart of "Mad Men" for the wise and engaging way it explored the fluid nature of identity in a country that for centuries attracted newcomers with the promise that they could reinvent themselves free of the constraints placed at birth in other societies.

For the first two seasons or so, I thought Weiner and his writers skillfully explored and exploited the tension between the two Dons — the dark, troubled inner man versus the great-looking, world-beating, woman-winning outer man.

And just in case anyone thinks I'm imposing an artificially literary reading on this TV series, here's what Weiner says about Don and where he is as the season starts.

"He is in a crisis," Weiner said in a conference call two weeks ago. "I like to think of him in the context of a lot of literary characters that have this past. It's an American tradition, and it's actually a late 19th-century European tradition for operas and things like that to have this man who has this dual identity and is trying to establish himself. …

"I could list off a bunch of literary characters I love," he continued. "You know, starting with like Moses or Joseph — if you want to say they're literary. ... But there is a relationship to a lot of real American figures who are non-literary — whether it's reading biographies of people like Lee Iacocca and Sam Walton and Bill Clinton and John Rockefeller or William Randolph Hearst. These people have similar origin stories to Don in a way, and I just love the idea that America gives these people a chance. In the end, they are still themselves, and that's the central tension to some degree, at least in the American fictional world."

But I believe Weiner and AMC lost artistic control of that tension between the two Dons about halfway through the series when they became seduced by the online buzz and audience bump they enjoyed for story lines that featured Outer Don, the master of Madison Avenue, the magazine cover guy, Frank Sinatra in a Brooks Brother suit. And they simply could not resist playing to the extra advertising dollars that flowed their way when Existential Don receded and the world of "Mad Men" was free to be as pretty, sexy and promising as a full-page ad in "Vanity Fair."

While the ratings were never great for "Mad Men," they were better when it went for the gloss.

Existential Don, however, is where the real psychic power of this series resides — and that's where its legacy as one of the greatest dramas in the history of the medium will be won or lost. That's why Weiner has been trying to bring him back to the fore down the homestretch. The last shot of Don tonight is brilliant.

The question is whether those who love the gloss are going to think it's a downer and tune out across the expanse of 14 episodes broken into two seasons. The idea of presenting one season's worth of episodes as two distinct seasons worked wonderfully for AMC with "Breaking Bad." But that series had a crime-drama, action-adventure component. I'm not so sure it will work nearly as well for "Mad Men," especially if Don is wandering around in a near-comatose cosmic funk as he seems to be at key points tonight.

On the other hand, "Mad Men" has attracted more than just the two Don audiences during its run. As the roles of the women in "Mad Men" have grown, so has interest in them. That's particularly true in the case of Peggy.

Here's a prediction about the final season: Peggy is the one to watch. Her journey is the one people are going to be blogging, tweeting and talking about.

When asked about Peggy's "journey," Weiner said, "I don't want to talk about what Peggy's story is at all. All I will say is that Peggy's story is a constant mix between what is good for Peggy as a person and what is good for Peggy's career. And they have not gone together at all. She only knows how to pay attention to her job, and that may become a story for the season."

"May become a story for the season?" He doesn't know? Of course, he does.

Weiner's reticence on Peggy seemed all the more telling given his expansiveness during the call when it came to Don and other characters like Sally or Pete. I'm guessing the audience that tunes in primarily for Peggy's story is going to be the one that walks away from "Mad Men" at the end with some sense of fulfillment — rather than the kind of frustration many fans feel when a beloved show ends without the bang they expected.

And in terms of storytelling, starting the last season with Peggy on her knees and in great pain is a very sound place to begin.

There has always been a kind of synergy between the arcs of Peggy and Don, and that became even more focused at the end of last season. As he has lost power and status in the work world — the one realm to which Don could always go when things got very bad in his life — Peggy has gained authority and prestige. She really has "come a long way, baby," to quote a Virginia Slims cigarette ad of the era.

Weiner says one of the questions "Mad Men" is going to ask during its final season is whether telling the truth — as Don did at the end of last season with his daughter, Sally, and at a meeting with Hershey representatives — is good enough.

"Is making an effort enough?" Weiner asks. "Is announcing to the world that you've changed enough? That changes you. Does it do anything else? …You did something bad. You want to be different. You are different. But does anybody else care?"

Don does appear to be trying to be a better person in tonight's opener, but I believe Weiner is an honest enough storyteller that he's not going to give fans of this show a phony ending with, say, Don finding "himself" (whatever that might mean) or finding that the secret of a happy life is friends, family, fidelity and a nice vacation home.

Maybe Don is so maimed that he can't realistically be saved in any sense of that word. I'll buy that in a heartbeat. But if that's the case, how do you end this series without leaving everyone cosmically bummed?

Peggy would be one answer. Her story doesn't have the psychic resonance of Don's, perhaps, but it has the potential for more sociological thunder.

Weiner went on and on during the call about how America's cultural energy shifted from New York to Los Angeles in the 1960s, and, of course, that's true. And that theme is all over tonight's episode.

But I don't think that geographical and cultural change means nearly as much to some viewers today as the fact that the women's movement started in the 1960s. And Peggy's story line has all the power of that epic and long-overdue societal change behind it. I love the angry speech she makes tonight about excellence in the workplace.

Female viewers today can feel connected to her struggles and triumphs in a way that's far more profound than anything anyone is going to feel about television production or baseball teams moving west as America became a far more mobile and airborne society in the '60s.

After watching tonight's episode, I fear I might no longer care whether Existential Don finds his way to a better place in the universe now that he has started speaking some truth.

But I can't wait until next week to see how Peggy's going to get up off her knees. And what she's going to do once she does.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV: Season 7 of "Mad Men" starts at 10 p.m. April 13 on AMC.

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