"Mad Men" is back for the start of its seventh season — which is or isn't the final season depending on whether you value contractual language (which says it is) over scheduling (which will give us seven episodes this spring and seven more next year) — and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I'm seated next to a man in a hairpiece eating a banana...

"Why are you making it so hard? Open the door and walk in." -Lou Avery

We return to the world of "Mad Men" a scant two months after our last glimpse, late in January of 1969. It's by far the shortest time gap between seasons, but almost as much has changed in those two months than in the 11 months between the heist of Sterling Cooper and our first look at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It seems only appropriate given the period. In the early '60s, social change still came at a glacial pace; by the decade's end, it was happening so rapidly that even some of the older hippies were starting to grouse about these damn kids today.

"Time Zones" brings us to the last year of the '60s on a deliberately disorienting course. We open not on Don, or Peggy, or any of our other heroes, but on long-lost pal Freddy Rumsen — last seen arranging Peggy's move to Cutler, Gleason and Chaough near the end of season 5 — doing an ad pitch. Only he's not just doing an ad pitch; he's doing a Don Draper ad pitch. (Even if we don't find out until much later in the episode that Don wrote it, it's so much his style that we can't help but make the connection.) And Scott Hornbacher shoots him in such a way that Freddy doesn't seem to be delivering this pitch to another character (who will be revealed in a moment to be Peggy), but straight to us. And he's not telling us about Accutron watches, not really. Instead, the subtext of his pitch seems to be something like this:

Hi there. Tonight, the role of Don Draper will be played by... me. Good ol' recovering drunk and reformed pants-wetter Freddy Rumsen. Only in a few minutes you'll see that the role of Don is now being played by cuddly old man Lou Avery, and that Pete will now be played by one-eyed Ken, and Joan will somehow be filling Ken's shoes, and Roger will be hosting a non-stop orgy in his apartment, and Pete will have gone completely native in LA while the actual Don Draper won't fit in on either coast. And the only constant will be Peggy Olson catching grief from decisions made by all the men in her life, past and present. 

"Mad Men." Trust no one, and expect the unexpected.

It's an excellent starting point for an episode that, even more than the average "Mad Men" premiere, has to spend an awful lot of time (especially given that it's our first one-hour premiere in a few years) filling us in on what happened during the hiatus. Lou Avery (whom we saw Duck Phillips bringing in for an interview right after Don was suspended) is the new creative director, and seems to be getting along well with everyone (Dawn in particular seems positively glowing to have a boss who's not an alcoholic disaster area) but Peggy. Ken has taken over as head of accounts and is miserable over all the pressure and responsibility that comes with the gig. With Pete basking in the California sun, "Not Great" Bob Benson wooing the Chevy execs in Detroit (while simultaneously traveling through time to hang out with Mork from Ork and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Roger in a more hedonistic phase than ever and Jim Cutler both lazy and untrustworthy, suddenly it falls to Joan to save the Butler Footwear account, giving her the sort of role she wanted, but more abruptly than she might have planned for.

And then there's Don Draper, who's kept off screen for a surprisingly long stretch at the beginning of the episode (he usually appears in either the first or second scene of each season), then introduced not in an office, a bar or a bedroom, but in an airplane bathroom, trying to make himself presentable for Megan as they attempt to hold their marriage together despite the continent separating them.

Don is a man caught between two places, comfortable in neither one — he and Megan walk on eggshells around each other, and where once they were in constant lust, here they don't even have sex on the first of his two nights in town, and when they do on the second, her demeanor is more resigned than excited. Don looks at how rapidly the quintessential New York boy Peter Dychman Campbell turned himself into a tan and happy Californian and is both impressed and a bit sheepish; he's supposed to be the chameleon, not Pete. Back home, we find that he's playing Cyrano with Freddy, not because he needs the money (as he notes, he's still getting paid as an SC&P partner, even if he's persona non grata at the New York office), but simply because writing copy is the one thing he still knows how to do.

As he admits about his marriage to his lovely seatmate on the flight home from LA, "I really thought I could do it this time," but he can't. He's a man who technically still has a job but has none of the power or duties that come with it, who is legally married but at best making what seems to be a doomed effort to keep it together, who has children he loves but rarely sees (and it doesn't seem an accident that Sally is absent from this one), who lives in an apartment with a great balcony view but sliding doors that won't shut properly. He's neither entirely in nor out of anything, but simply... there, waiting for his world to make sense again and going through the motions until they do.

And as we check in with the episode's other major and minor characters, we find them in similar forms of limbo.

Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com