"We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit," Richard Nixon announces from a television screen toward the end of Mad Men's seventh-season premiere. "Reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth."
The quote, from Nixon's first inaugural address, doesn't just offer a clue about the notoriously secretive timeline of the acclaimed AMC drama — hello, January of 1969! — it's also a great summary of where its characters stand after last year's season finale: managing just fine on the outside, but still suffering where no one can see.
Last season, after a disastrous pitch meeting with Hershey, a growing awareness of his drinking problem, and news of Sally's own experimentations with alcohol, Don Draper skipped out on high-tailing it to Sterling Cooper & Partners' California office and decided to face his problems head-on. The finale's last scene saw him taking his kids (who, like their mother, don't appear in this episode) to see his dilapidated childhood home, a sign that maybe the man with so many secrets was willing to open up for a change.
Well, not quite. Progress happens slowly, and if Sunday's episode, which kicks off the first half of Mad Men's final season, were an episode of Friends, it would probably be called "The One Where Creator Matthew Weiner Put the Brakes On Everyone." Or: "The One Where Everybody Hit a Brick Wall." Megan Draper, who committed to moving her acting career to California before Don changed his mind about staying in New York, has no idea the partners at SC&P put her husband on indefinite leave after a quasi-intervention, and all that physical and emotional distance is starting to take a toll on their intimacy during Don's West Coast visit. (But holy sideboob, Batman, they sure do rally).
Technically, Don is still working, just not in the office, and not under his own name. The revelation that he's secretly pitching and wowing Peggy Olson by feeding Freddy Rumsen copy unfolded so nonchalantly compared to its relative plot importance that I half-expected Homeland's Carrie Mathison to wander in and whisper, "We did it, Don — it worked!" Given that every episode of Mad Men begins with Don free-falling among Manhattan skyscrapers, it makes sense that the final episodes would continue to chronicle his descent — not suddenly turn into How Don Got His Groove Back. But what's even more interesting is that Don actually appears worthy of sympathy in a way he hasn't in some time (or, you know, ever). After all, he wasn't put on leave from SC&P just for being an alcoholic, he was also an arrogant, grade-A asshole with little consideration for other people. Mad Men is a show about the changing times, sure, but as TIME's television critic James Poniewozik has written, it's also a show about whether people really change with them. In this episode, the answer is a tentative yes.
That was never more apparent than on Don's flight back to New York, where he finds himself in a familiar situation — tempted by another woman — and opens up to her with such candor that I briefly wondered if they weren't strangers, but actually regular, bicoastal commuting buddies with a preference for kinky roleplay. Don admits he's been a terrible husband and that Megan knows this, too, dissecting their marriage like it's already dead. "I really thought I could do it this time," he confesses to the mystery brunette, but he, perhaps seeing a little too much of himself in the story of her late husband, ultimately declines to go home with her. I believe he claims he has work to do, though it was a bit hard to hear over the sounds of hell freezing over.
While Don may be able to piece his personal life back together, his covert advertising work is surely going to blow up in someone's face, and Peggy Olson is a likely target. She already tried to assert her independence from Don when she left for Cutler, Gleason & Chaough before it merged back with his company, so I can't wait for the GIF of the look on her face when she finds out her team's best material is actually coming from him. But Peggy, desperate for company and reeling from Ted's decision to stay with his wife, could also use Don: She's butting heads with new boss Lou Avery, who couldn't care less about her or the quality of the agency's work. Say what you will about Don Draper, but the man is at least committed to good ideas and strong creative work. As rewarding as it would be to see Peggy solve this one on her own, this episode is a reminder that the women of SC&P aren't in for a smooth ride to the top even as the '70s loom. Getting Don back in the picture wouldn't be the worst blow to Peggy's upward, if momentarily stalled, trajectory.
Joan, meanwhile, is also looking for opportunities to separate herself from the men who've been intertwined in her career. She became an SC&P partner by volunteering to spend a night with a sleazy Jaguar exec, and the incident still haunts her as she tries to show to the other partners she has other value beyond her, uh, assets. When a swamped Ken Cosgrove sends Joan in his place to meet with Wayne Barnes, Butler Footwear's new head of marketing, she realizes she's out of her league when he starts dropping MBA terminology to rub his superiority in her face.
But Joan is determined to prove herself. Wayne is threatening to drop SC&P and take his advertising in house, so she recruits a friendly but somewhat condescending university professor for a crash-course in marketing. The next time she's on the phone with Wayne, she talks strategy like a pro. "I took you seriously, but you didn't take me seriously," a seething Joan tells him. That basically sums up her relationship with pretty much every man on Mad Men, but the way Christina Hendricks transforms her character from nervous, repeating-the-talking-points Joan to confident, remember-that-I'm-a-partner Joan in the course of one phone call is particularly enjoyable. Joan talks Wayne out of ditching the agency, and though she's not out of the woodwork yet — he still treats her like a secretary, and she still has a lot to learn if she still wants to take on his ego and master's degree — it's her resourcefulness (okay, and a checkbook) that buys SC&P some time. (No word on just how far she's let Roger back into her personal life; perhaps he's too busy indulging in hedonistic polyamory and making sense of his daughter's sudden, possibly religious interest in reconciling.)
With the exception of Pete Campbell — who, though appearances can clearly be deceiving on this show, seems to be having the best time in California — Joan's success is the closest any character gets to a victory in this episode. Mad Men's music choices have always informed its themes, but the closing number of the episode, Vanilla Fudge's cover of The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On", has an especially obvious message: "Set me free, why don't you, baby? / Get out of my life, why don't you, baby? … You just keep me hanging on."
It couldn't be more fitting. Don, fresh from resisting another affair, is struggling for sobriety; Megan's on the verge of TV stardom, but not there yet; Peggy's barely keeping it together, scorned by Ted's rejection; Joan weathers one challenge at work, but others are on the horizon; Cosgrove can hardly handle on all his responsibility, while Roger, with all the time in the world, barely has a grip on his own family.
In 1969, everybody's just hanging on.