Sunday was the beginning of the end for “Mad Men” as the first of the final seven episodes, “Severance,” premiered on AMC. Anyone hoping the home stretch might trigger an action-packed race to the finish line for the acclaimed series was sorely disappointed. The Season 7 midseason premiere doubled down on the show’s famous slow-paced subtlety as it began to try to answer one question: Will any of these characters find happiness? Unfortunately for the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the answer might be no.

Picking up in 1970 – a decade shift signaled loud and clear by the formidable mustaches of Roger (John Slattery) and Ted (Kevin Rahm) – the sale of SCDP to McCann is causing some major dynamic shifts in the office. The partners who sold their stock are now “filthy rich” – Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) words – but are still no closer to contentment despite all the cash.

Joan has power – at least in title – and money, but still must confront some harsh sexism while trying to please a client. After her McCann colleagues spent a meeting objectifying the SCDP partner, Joan went on a shopping spree at Bonwit Teller – buying curve-accentuating clothes to spite her sleazy co-workers. However, even while spending a small fortune on a whim, she was cut down to size by an employee who reminded her that she used to work at the department store.

Meanwhile, a very rich Pete was lamenting how – due to dealing with taxes – his payday from the sale of the company was a burden, while also musing that his time in California felt like a dream.

Peggy and Ken (Aaron Staton) provided the counterparts to Joan and Pete in the episode. In “Severance,” both stared through the open door of true happiness – the free kind Cooper (Robert Morse) sang about in the midseason finale – but then seemed to turn it down in order to chase the material success of their superiors.

Peggy got set up on a blind date with Mathis’ (Trevor Einhorn) brother-in-law Stevie (Devon Gummersall). The two totally hit it off and ended up deciding to spontaneously take off for Paris – in what would have been Peggy’s first vacation. However, the trip got postponed when Peggy’s passport turned out to be in her desk at work – ironic – and the next morning in the office she wrote the whole thing off as a drunken mistake.

Ken, on the other hand, was contemplating his future after watching his father-in-law (Ray Wise) retire and hearing his wife suggest he quit to finally pursue a writing career. The next day fate seemed to push him toward that end when he was abruptly fired due to some bad blood between him and new SCDP parent company McCann. Ken initially saw his termination as a sign to go live “the life not lived.” However, when the account man was offered his father-in-law’s job at Dow Chemical – which would make him a valuable client of SCDP – he jumped at the petty opportunity to get the best of his former employers.

Oh and there was a guy named Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in this episode too. Don was wrestling with a fate much worse than Pete's or Peggy's or Ken's – the idea that his chance at happiness already has come and gone. The ad man has devolved to his womanizing best – or worst, depending on your outlook – partying with models and relying on an answering service for late-night hookups.

However, Don’s eyes are firmly on the past. He became obsessed with a waitress at a diner (Elizabeth Reaser of "Twilight") who reminded him of some former flings and had a dream where Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) -- probably Don’s best chance in the series at true love -- auditioned for a chinchilla coat ad that Don was casting, telling him he “missed his flight.” After deciding to give her a call, he was shocked to learn the department store owner had died a week earlier from leukemia. In a tense scene, Don paid a visit to Rachel’s house, where her family was sitting shivah, and spoke with Rachel’s sister, Barbara (Rebecca Creskoff), who told him “[Rachel] lived the life she wanted. She had everything.”

Some might be critical of the show’s continued insistence on subtlety and rehashing old character arcs despite only six episodes remaining, but the brilliance of “Mad Men” always has been in the restraint it shows in exploring how people change and – more importantly – do not change. So, a decade later, Pete is still disgruntled, Peggy and Joan must still battle a glass ceiling – the episode’s best scene took place between the two women in an elevator where their argument over Joan’s objectification dug at the nuance of workplace sexism – and Don is still alone. “I don’t know what you’re looking for here,” Barbara told Don at Rachel’s house. Sitting at the diner – still fixating on the waitress – at the end of the episode, it was clear that Don, too, does not know what he is looking for – or even where to look.  

What did you think of “Severance”? Tweet your thoughts to @Ja9GarofaloTV