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Preview: 'Mad Men' swings into a new era for final season

Sometimes the only way to get through hell is to just keep moving. Don Draper knows this. That's why, after a sixth season full of dwelling on his past, struggling to move beyond his current problems and contemplating his mortality, the star of AMC's Mad Men is leading the show into the '70s with a groovy momentum. • The '60s-set drama begins the first half of its seventh and final season Sunday, and it's clear Season 6 was just a windup for the end game on the horizon. Air travel plays a big part in the premiere, and that makes sense. This year, it feels like Mad Men is going to take us somewhere. • As one character says in the episode's first few moments: "This is the beginning of something."

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The premiere buzzes with a vibrant energy, as if it's already drinking in those psychedelic vibes of the impending '70s. Everyone's moving forward, toward bouffant hair and long-sleeved minidresses and fringe jackets.

(Without revealing the specific year when Season 7 takes place, consider this: Mad Man creator Matthew Weiner told the Los Angeles Times that the show will "have reached the conclusion of the '60s" by the time Season 7 ends, and Season 6 ended in the latter half of 1968.)

With a new decade comes a chance for the characters, and the show, to start over.

In that sense, Sunday's episode is instantly different from last year's morose, death-obsessed Season 6 premiere, which telegraphed a year of endings and morbidity. Pete's and Roger's mothers died. Don got fired. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

That premiere was all about death: A character stands over another trying to revive him; Don reads Dante's Inferno on the beach; Don pitches a dark ad for a sunny hotel chain.

The season that followed continued on that macabre path, looking back so much that its characters — Don in particular — were hardly able to progress: Don's flashbacks to his childhood in a whorehouse and his tormented relationship with Sylvia hammered home the point that the man born Dick Whitman was hampered by his past.

In last year's final moments, we got a glimpse at a new future for Don, one that wasn't totally defined by his upbringing: He takes his kids to see where he grew up, in one of his most honest moments ever.

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The Season 7 premiere explores that vulnerability in surprising ways.

No spoilers here about just what he's up to or where, but Don (Jon Hamm) is definitely embarking on a new journey. The first time we see him in the season premiere — a terrific introduction that oozes Don Draper cool — he's literally moving forward.

He's back to work but it's not what you expect. And he's still up to one or two of his old tricks, of course, but he seems more self-aware than ever that certain things are always going to be a part of him.

Weiner has said this season will explore how people change and grow, and the ramifications of behavior. Can people really change? How does that look to the people around them? What does it mean to start over?

Those questions are relevant for all our favorite characters in the premiere. Yes, there are brand-new faces, and surprising faces, too, but it seems that Mad Men is intent on getting back to its core characters. Joan, Pete, Roger, Peggy, even Megan — they're all moving in new directions.

Roger (John Slattery) is getting into the spirit of the '70s the only way he knows how, by fully embracing the antiestablishment key party vibes. Joan (Christina Hendricks) gets new responsibilities at the agency via eye-patched and overwhelmed head of accounts Ken Cosgrove that take her, of all places, to a business school. Megan (Jessica Pare) is moving beyond the world of soap operas.

But it's everyone's favorite sad sack Pete Campbell (the show's secret weapon, Vincent Kartheiser) who seems by far the most content. Last we left him, he was obsessing over his mother's death, getting divorced, sharing frustrated quips with Bob Benson (James Wolk) in the elevator. Now? Professionally, personally, sartorially — he's living the dream.

If there's one character who never seems to get as far ahead as she'd like to, it's Peggy (Elisabeth Moss, excellent as always). Our last image of her, sitting in Don's office in a pantsuit, suggested she was on the precipice of big success. But isn't she always? She left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to take a promotion, only to be forced back into the old hierarchy during a merger. She thought Ted Chaough was going to leave his wife for her, then he didn't. This season, she's still very much affected by those two key moments, and not in a good way. (Not to mention her new boss, who, in his own words, is "immune to her charms.") Suddenly, Peggy is faced with asking herself what she really wants — and whether she's any closer to getting it.

Notably missing from this episode are Don's kids Sally and Bobby — and the aftermath of their father's confession. Sorry, January Jones, but we can't complain about the absence of Betty. And though there's a brief mention of Season 6's beloved mystery man Bob Benson, Wolk's role on the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones suggests we won't be seeing much of Bob this season.

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The Don Draper that appears in Sunday's episode still has his matinee idol looks and the ability to wow in a suit. He's still quick with a quip and super suave. But make no mistake: This is a new Don. This Don seems ready for a change. Nothing makes that clearer than the episode's final few minutes, a beautifully structured shot with a killer music cue that points to a new direction for Mad Men's impeccably coiffed adman. Six seasons of lies and self-loathing are slipping away. What will they reveal? Don takes bold steps toward finding out.

Michelle Stark can be reached at Follow @mstark17 on Twitter.