Mad Men has never been the subtlest show on television. The cleansing, spiritual rebirth of a character was represented by an actual dip in the ocean. An existential fog might be symbolized by an actual toxic fog drifting through Manhattan. Indeed, last season began with the middle-aged, eternally straying Don reading a quote from Dante's Inferno: "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood."

Sunday night's season premiere "Time Zones" opens with a similar gambit: A static shot of Freddie Rumsen, staring into the camera and delivering a carefully practiced monologue designed to sell Accutron watches. "Are you ready?" he asks the audience. "Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something."

You don't need to work that hard to realize he's talking about more than just wristwatches. Most of the media coverage surrounding Mad Men's premiere has focused on the fact that this is the beginning of the show's final season. (Like Breaking Bad, the final season will be split in two; seven episodes will air this year, and the remaining seven will air in 2015.)

Until now, the overarching message of Mad Men seemed to be that people are incapable of change. Mad Men's fifth season ended with Don Draper reverting to his old chauvinistic tricks. But then last year's season six finale left Don in a moment of uncharacteristic raw honesty; after confessing the painful truth about his childhood to his coworkers and clients, he took his children to see the brothel where he was raised. It called everything this story seemed to be saying into question.

So if "Time Zones" really is the beginning of something, it's a world in which onetime master of the universe Don Draper seems to have been pushed to the sidelines. It's a full eight minutes before Don Draper even appears. Instead, we're invited to meet his replacement: Lou Avery, whose baby blue Mr. Rogers sweater is a far cry from Don Draper's perfectly tailored power suits. That would probably be forgivable if Avery's instincts were as sharp, but his preferred Accutron pitch — the absurdly bland "Accutron is accurate" — is a far cry from "It's not a timepiece. It's a conversation piece," which Freddie originally pitched to Peggy. For her part, Peggy rails against her coworkers as "a bunch of hacks who are happy with shit" — and, like Don, winds up miserable and alone by the episode's end.

Where is Don, anyway? Splitting his time between Manhattan and Los Angeles, in the "bicoastal life" necessitated by Megan's move to California. The duo's marriage is intact, but on shaky ground; it's clear from the moment Megan struts onto the screen, backed by the Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man," that she's doing just fine without her husband around.

In California, Don and Megan do attempt a romantic weekend, which begins at a dinner meeting with Megan's sleazy agent Alan Silver, who assures Don that the attention he lavishes on Megan is "greed and nothing else." (He also reveals that Megan has received a callback for NBC's Bracken's World pilot — feel free to do a Google search if you're curious how that one turns out.) By the time they finally arrive at Megan's remote place in the hills, she's had enough celebratory champagne to call it a night. She retires to her home, and Don retires to her couch.

The day that follows passes in a flurry: A meeting with Pete Campbell, who has wholeheartedly embraced life as an Angeleno; a flirtatious encounter with a real estate agent named Bonnie Whiteside, who will almost certainly appear again; and a thematically appropriate screening of Lost Horizon, which invites the audience to imagine "a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight." When Don and Megan finally cut through the awkwardness and nervousness to a moment of real intimacy, it's almost too late to enjoy it. "I'm sorry," Don says as he prepares to take the redeye back to New York. "I have to get back to work."

Given that he never actually sets foot in an office, what kind of work is Don doing? By the end of "Time Zones," we learn that the impressive Accutron pitch at the beginning of the episode wasn't just Freddie Rumsen with a new lease on life; it was Freddie Rumsen doing a surprisingly convincing Don Draper impression. He's had a pretty good tutor: Don Draper himself, who has enlisted Freddie as a vessel to sell his copy to several firms in a "Cyrano routine."

It's no surprise that Don is capable of teaching someone how to act like him; Don Draper built his entire life by doing a convincing "Don Draper" impression. But just like last year, there are signs the performance is beginning to crack. On the flight back to New York, he ends up breaking character. When a beautiful stranger sits down next to him, they end up locked into a surprisingly intimate conversation. She talks about the death of her husband, and Don responds with his own list of regrets. Megan "knows I'm a terrible husband," he confesses as the woman rests her head on his shoulder. "I really thought I could do it this time."

We've seen Don in this situation so many times before. This could easily turn into a passionate, season-long emotional affair, like Rachel Menken or Suzanne Farrell; or it could be one of his one-episode, one-night stands. But when his latest potential love affair offers to give him a lift, Don turns her down. "I'm sorry," he says, once again. "I have to get back to work."

We've never seen Don stripped so bare; no full-time job, no love affairs, and a marriage that's on life support. At the episode's end, as he sits alone in his dark Manhattan apartment, he even resists two of his favorite comforts: Whiskey and television. Characters and audiences alike have been burned by the idea that Don Draper can be anything more than the self-loathing womanizer we met in the Mad Men pilot. But despite the bleakness of Don's situation, the final season of Mad Men hints at the possibility of a more hopeful ending, in which the man whose entire life is an invention manages to reinvent himself one last time.