"Mad Men" season 7 preview: What we know as the show begins its end

Betty Francis (January Jones), Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), Megan Draper (Jessica Pare), Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) of "Mad Men."
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

It's the beginning of the end.

When "Mad Men" returns Sunday night, it will with the first of the acclaimed drama's final 14 episodes (fans will get to see the first seven this year, and the remaining seven in 2015).

But before we get to where Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell and the rest of the characters are going, let's look back at where we last left them.

Don spent last season in a downward spiral, engaging in an affair with his neighbor Sylvia (and discovered in the heat of it, unfortunately, by his daughter, Sally) and damaging both his marriage and his career. We ended at Thanksgiving 1968, with Don forced on a mandatory leave of absence from his job at Sterling Cooper & Partners after revealing his whorehouse upbringing to his colleagues and Hershey executives during a pitch. He's also come clean to his children, bringing them to see the brothel he grew up in.

SC&P was also looking beyond Manhattan to the West Coast for their Sunkist account. Don initially jumped at the opportunity go to Los Angeles, telling Megan she could pursue her acting career in Hollywood, but after the Hershey incident he backs down -- upsetting his wife and putting an even bigger question mark on the fate of their marriage. Ted, who'd asked to go to California in hopes of keeping his family intact after ending his affair with Peggy, makes the move instead, with Pete Campbell (now estranged from wife Trudy and dealing with the loss of his mother, who "fell overboard" on a cruise ship after apparently marrying her caretaker, Manolo) along for the ride.

Peggy saw her professional stature continue to rise this season, after she left the agency and then returned when the SCDP and CGC merged. Though she was rejected by Ted after they acted on their feelings for each another, she ends the episode filling in for Don after he goes on leave -- sitting in his office and wearing the pants (literally) at the agency.

"Mad Men" has always been about evolution -- changes to American sensibilities and changes in these characters lives. The season 7 opener, "Time Zones," proves no different -- it picks up with many characters heading in new directions, both personally and professionally, and looking for second chances.

Without giving much away, we'll say the airport motif for this season's teasers is an apt one. The premiere is the takeoff point for Don and the fallout from his season 6 choices, and while much of the episode revolves around him there are also glimpses of Megan, Peggy, Roger, Joan and Pete (oh, Pete. Just wait until you see Pete). It's a strong episode that'll likely have fans eager to fasten their seatbelts and come along for the ride. (For more on the premiere, come back Sunday for our full recap.)

"Mad Men" returns Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.