At this point, few would argue that “Mad Men” doesn’t deserve to be listed as one of the greatest television shows of the modern age, but what not many have considered until now (perhaps for fear of jinxing it) is that if it continues to be as strong as it has been, it may just top them all. Not many shows have been able to maintain this kind of quality and consistency this far into their run. Even hall-of-famers “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” started to falter a bit by season 5, but so far “Mad Men” hasn’t lost a step. Pick any season of the show and you could make an argument for that being its finest, with three or four brilliant episodes from each to help make your case. Now entering its sixth season, fans of the show have been holding their breath wondering if creator Matt Weiner and co. can possibly keep this up.
As with the beginning of a new season for any show, viewers may experience a bit of whiplash as the writers pump the brakes a bit, slowing down from the rush of the last few episodes and setting up the conflicts and themes that will play out over the next 13 hours. The spectre of death that hung over last season culminating in poor Lane Pryce hanging himself still lingers in tonight’s premiere — there may be more references to death in this premiere alone than in the entire run of “Fraggle Rock“ — which focuses primarily on four characters: Don, Betty, Roger and Peggy. Like the furniture in Don’s office, things are in a much different place since we last saw them. Attitudes, hairstyles and relationships have all changed and thanks to an expanded running time, you’ve got a luxurious 90+ minutes to look around and put together just how things are going for the SCDP gang. (You can watch the episode in its entirety below.)
Last season’s finale, “The Phantom,“ took place around April 1967, and the new episode picks up around 8 months later during Christmas and extending to New Year’s (thus entering 1968). As with every prior season of the show, which has jumped ahead in time, half the fun is orienting yourself to where everybody is now. Watch how confidently and deliberately the show reveals each new detail. In the opening minutes we see that it’s Christmastime, Megan is now on a soap opera, Betty is slimmed down a bit but still struggling with her weight and Don, despite his tropical surroundings, is no longer content. Also pay close attention when Don and Megan return home from their trip to just how seamlessly we transition into a flashback of doorman Jonesy’s (Ray Abruzzo) heart attack. On the surface it may seem to be just another instance of Don thinking about his mortality but later you find out that this was also his first meeting of Dr. Rosen (Brian Markinson) and his wife Silvia (Linda Cardellini), who we come to find out play quite a significant role in Don’s life now.
With the first two hours of Season 6 now behind us, we thought now would be a good time to dive into the premiere and look for clues of what might be in store this season.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm)
“I had an experience. I don’t know how to put it into words,” Don says upon his return from Hawaii in what may be the biggest clue for what lies ahead for him this year. Last year Roger had an awakening after dropping LSD and it seems that Hawaii may have awakened something similar in Don. Despite his picturesque surroundings, at no point during his trip does Don look relaxed or happy, clearly indicating a shift since last year. Weiner told USA Today, “I always think ‘Here we go again’ is kind of the human condition. For Don, he has never confronted what made him marry [Megan] or what makes him do anything. To me, the theme of the season is, people will do anything to avoid anxiety…Don’s not going to be seeing a shrink but he is in a state of anxiety, and that marriage, at least last year, really alleviated some of it.”
When we last saw Don in the season 5 finale, he was pondering an invitation (that doubled as an existential query) from a young woman, and we wondered if he would return to his old ways. While it takes most of the episode to reveal the answer, we eventually find out that the answer is yes. But rather than enter a “here we go again” affair, there’s something sad and suffocating about a man being trapped in a loop he can’t break out of. As he mutters “Happy New Year” to Megan at the close of the episode you can see he’s really thinking about what a piece of shit he is. It’s a brilliant piece of acting by Jon Hamm and though we’ve seen him enter these situations many times before — first and perhaps most notably at the end of the pilot — there’s something terribly tragic about it now. Rewatch the episode and observe how he towers over the slight, balding Dr. Rosen, who he seems to genuinely enjoy spending time with, and realize that he’s stabbing him in the back. How could he not hate himself?
One of the most admirable things about the show in recent years is that it seems intent on tearing down the viewer’s idea of Don Draper “cool.” For those people that tune in just for the clothes, the drinking and the womanizing, here is your hero stumbling into his friend’s funeral and puking into a plant. And while Don seems to have recommitted himself to his work, he may no longer have the magic touch. He’s now fighting against the times and flails in his pitch trying to get the clients to buy off on his vision of Hawaii as an “experience.” Will Don be able to change? Is substantial change even possible? Hamm hinted to Zap2It, “We find out more in Season 6 about why Don is how he is. And why Don does what he does. His house is built on a weak foundation. He’s a fundamentally damaged and broken guy. I would advise him to fix that foundation. And then work on the house. Don’t work on the house first. Work on the foundation first.”
Roger Sterling (John Slattery)
Last season Roger dropped LSD, the world opened up to him in an entirely different way and he got divorced from Jane. We last saw him naked, staring out the window, perhaps wondering what lay on the horizon. When we pick up with him in the premiere, he’s in therapy trying to figure out what it’s all about. It seems his happiness too, was temporary. While mortality looms over many of the characters on the show, it literally surrounds Roger here. Upon hearing that his mother has died, he seems to have almost no reaction and even treats her funeral with complete nonchalance. Bu he breaks down when he learns that Georgio, his shoeshiner, has passed away. Was he really more affected by the death of a man he barely knew over his own mother?
Or was it that this man had been so quickly forgotten and he feared the same for himself?
Slattery spoke to Hitfix about Roger’s journey, “I think maybe he is a late bloomer. At this stage [he’s] trying to figure out something that’s going to sustain a little more interest than just the things he’s been up to before… through this inadvertent acid experience. I think he’s opening. I think he’s willing to change or willing to do what he has to to find some sort of sustained meaning in the whole thing. I think given the focus on youth that exists now, that existed probably more then, and being the age he is, there are all kinds of things that enter into the question and I think he’s interested in something new.” Like Don, he’ll be searching for his own happiness this season trying to find that next open doorway.
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)
Though we knew Elisabeth Moss would be returning to the show, we had no guarantee of what capacity it might be in. After all, no other character has left the SCDP (or Sterling Cooper in the old days) offices and remained a central figure on the show: Sal (Bryan Batt), Kinsey (Michael Gladis) and Duck (Mark Moses) were all dropped from the cast once their characters were given the boot only to make the occasional cameo appearances when the story demanded. Thankfully if the premiere is any indication, Peggy’s role on the show will not be diminished at all, which is great news because Moss and her character have always been the crucial counterpoint to Don. Moss confirmed as much to Collider recently saying, “The only thing I can say is I’m very happy with where it’s gone, I’m very happy with what’s happened. I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I have had to do in this season. I was kind of expecting not to be in it so much, because I thought, oh, I’m at a different agency. And I’m pleasantly surprised.”
The SCDP creative room can’t help but feel a little bit stale without Peggy there though it’s nice to see her on a late night call with Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), catching up on all the latest office gossip. This show has always been great at hinting at much greater lives for our characters than the ones we get to peek in on. Stan and Peggy were at odds for much of their time together and though we never got to see the breakthrough where they eventually became friendly, it happened somewhere offscreen. In the first two hours, we see Peggy at her new job having settled into her new environment and having become very much like her old mentor. Watch her scold an underling for presenting three versions of the same idea and think back to how far she’s come since the pilot. As so many of the other characters have run into walls trying to change, Peggy is perhaps the only character who if they ran into their former self, would find her completely unrecognizable.
Betty Francis (January Jones)
Betty, more than any other character on the show, has gotten a lot of hatred from the audience, which has been directed both at January Jones herself and the writers for crafting such an “unlikable” character. At this point, no matter how she tries to screw it up, it’s hard not to sympathize with her, trapped in this prison of her own making. Though her husband is endlessly supportive, her beauty has begun to fade as she struggles with her weight, her mother-in-law is horribly overbearing and Sally (Kiernan Shipka), now entering her teenage years, is starting to rebel.
There’s also something disconcerting about how unconditionally Henry (Christopher Stanley) loves Betty regardless of her physical appearance, mood swings and anything else she can throw at him. Sometimes it seems like she’ll do anything to get a rise out of him but he just won’t comply. (We’re praying her kinky/jealous idea to invite their teenage houseguest into a threesome with her husband is the most cringeworthy thing she’ll do all season.) Despite a house full of extended family members, Betty, too, is alone. Will her visit to St. Marks Place awaken something in her as well? Or will she retreat back to familiarity? Her rash decision to go brunette may hint at other big changes on the horizon for Betty.
After “Homeland” broke the series’ streak of four consecutive Emmy wins, I joked that the show would be back with a vengeance this year, imagining the notoriously competitive Weiner would no doubt want to restake his claim. (He recently admitted to the NYTimes, “It was a bad night…unpleasant.”) But returning with fire and fury isn’t the show’s style, instead the season 6 premiere quietly, confidently reminds viewers that there really isn’t and has never been anything quite like it on TV.
Few shows can capture visual poetry with such gracefulness (watch Don gazing out his office window as the sounds of the ocean fade up around him) while still being fucking funny. “How many funerals have you been to today,” Pete smirks as Don stumbles into Roger’s mother’s wake.
Never has a show been less driven by plot and more led by the characters themselves. Where they need to grow (or regress) determines which storylines will be needed to get them from A to B (and in some cases back to A). TV has rarely been so brave and may never be again. With the show scheduled to conclude after its 7th season, let’s enjoy it while it lasts. [A]