(Corrects to Pennsylvania from Illinois in paragraph 3)
By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES, April 7 (Reuters) - The dresses are shorter, the women are bolder and the weather is sunnier, but Don Draper has never been more at odds with the changing world around him, as AMC's advertising drama "Mad Men" enters its final season.
In Sunday's seventh season premiere entitled "The Beginning," the show's leading man Don, played by Jon Hamm, finds himself in unfamiliar territory as the vibrant, funky atmosphere and social upheaval of 1968 surrounds him.
At the end of season six, Don's internal struggle with his real identity as the orphaned Dick Whitman - an identity he has kept hidden - starts to rear its head. As his Madison Avenue advertising company SC&P plans to expand to sunny Los Angeles, Don is suspended from work by his partners, and takes his young children to Pennsylvania to see the destitute house he grew up in. Don is "pretty dismal," in Hamm's words.
"His marriage is falling apart again, his relationship with his children has really never been worse. And the one place where he always had safe haven was work, that's been blown up as well, by his own actions. And it's very tricky. It's a very dark place for Don," Hamm said at the show's Los Angeles premiere.
It won't be a quick conclusion to the critical hit from cable channel AMC, which garnered an average of 3.8 million viewers per episode during its sixth season. The finale is split into two, with the final seven episodes to air in spring 2015.
Don enters season seven shaving in the bathroom of an airplane, a seeming metaphor for his life being up in the air as he heads to Los Angeles to see actress wife Megan. Upon his arrival, she shuns his offer to drive her convertible, and he gets into the passenger seat, a change for the man usually in the driver's seat for all aspects of his life.
"The audience has always had this assertion that Don is slowly growing out of touch with the world. It became obvious to me that Don, who is an impulsive person ... that that's what 1968 felt like," "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner said.
And that's all that can be said for the premiere, in keeping with Weiner's requests to journalists to refrain from revealing any key plot advancements, emphasizing that "secrecy is the currency of our drama," a tactic that has served the show well.
Weiner said Don's journey throughout "Mad Men" is an American story, comparable to car industry leader Lee Iacocca, newspaper publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and even former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
"These people have similar origin stories to Don in a way, and I just love the idea that America gives these people a chance. But in the end, they're still themselves and that's the central tension," he said.
The underlying theme of consequences has, and will continue, to play a key part in Don's journey as the show enters the final season. Weiner said the end of the show will explore the material concerns in life versus the immaterial.
AS DON DESCENDS, WOMEN RISE
While Don struggles both internally and externally with his eroding facade, the women of "Mad Men" are dealing with a growing push for equal rights.
Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), Don's timid, plain secretary in season one, finds herself now at the end of season six in Don's office taking over his duties. But her relationship with her career will be at the center of her story in the final season.
"Peggy's story is a constant mix between what's good for Peggy as a person and what's good for Peggy's career. And the two have not gone together at all," Weiner said.
Joan, played by Christina Hendricks, once an epitome of the pin-up 50s model, is encouraged by the growing power of women in the workplace, and attempts to expand her role at SC&P. Weiner said Joan "has stopped caring about how things look," thus allowing her character more freedom.
And Megan, played by Jessica Pare, becomes the dominant figure in the marriage as she follows her career dreams.
"The power has shifted as Megan has matured," Weiner said. "I don't think that woman is a symbol of anything other than a fresh start for (Don) and it didn't really turn out that way."
Since premiering in 2007, "Mad Men" has made its mark for its meticulous attention to detail in bringing the era of 1960s Madison Avenue to life, and the show has won multiple Emmys.
Manhattan itself has been central to the show, lending an ever-evolving backdrop to the lives of the show's characters, but Los Angeles will become a key element in the upcoming season. Weiner said he was interested to show California's rise over the 1960s as it became "the cultural center of the United States." (Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Mary Milliken and Diane Craft)