"Mad Men" has become a better guessing game than "Lost."
As the AMC drama enters its next-to-last season Sunday night, creator Matthew Weiner drops clues to what we might ultimately get in the last episode.
Will Don Draper go completely crazy and mimic the opening credits? Will he confess his dual life to everyone? Or will he blithely move on, acting as if it's possible to get away with everything?
In the season opener, Draper (the always-good Jon Hamm) gets unsolicited advice and wisdom from folks he barely knows. Ex-wife Betty (January Jones) hears some choice stuff, too, and both get involved in journeys that could take them spiraling off into unexpected directions.
It's Christmas in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce-land and the office is decked with more than whiskey and gin bottles. All seems to be fine until you realize who's doing what with whom.
The first, two-hour, edition gives John Slattery some of his best work in years. His Roger Sterling -- all angst and mirrors -- is in therapy, hoping to make sense of changes in his life. He gets several more before the two hours are up and a chance to needle Don about a recent trip to Hawaii.
That "business" excursion brings Draper into contact with a soldier, a wedding and a truth or two about Megan (Jessica Pare) that changes the dynamics of power.
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is different, too. Now working at a new agency, she's a tough boss, insisting, "Anything matrimonial feels paleolithic."
The year? Ah, that's what Weiner wants you to discover on your own. There are clues everywhere, however, and clothing cues that should get you in the right mindset.
This year's opener is is much brighter than past ones -- the colors pop, the scenes crackle. But that dark "Mad Men" lining keeps peeking through.
Interestingly, a lot of nothing adds up to a big something. Always moody, "Mad Men" could seem boring to the uninitiated, prescient to the faithful. You can't watch one episode and hope to "get" it. It takes more.
Sunday's opener is a good starting place. Weiner introduces new characters, sets up the era and gives you a good primer to the dynamics at SCDP. He also plants those seeds that are bound to bear fruit when the series ends next year.
Hamm gets more to play in this episode, too. He starts as the suave Don we've come to know, then veers. A neighbor plays a part in his new interests; Megan becomes a new woman.
Betty, meanwhile, is dealing with drama of her own. That mouthy daughter is still at it (oh, how the knife cuts!) but there's another sounding board that could change her life, too.
Even better? Peggy isn't gone from the scene.
Don, Betty, Peggy and Roger could each be the star of a single series. Instead, Weiner puts them on parallel tracks and waits for the trains to collide.
When they do, "Mad Men" becomes one of those excellent examples of opportunity meeting preparedness. The sixth season is right on track.