Somewhere during Mad Men’s new two-part season premiere, a shiver went down my spine. Mad Men has an uncanny knack for dropping philosophical bombs with the grace and nonchalance of the enigmatic Don Draper, but in the fantastic and incredibly fresh premiere, the themes of change and sameness loom heavily, forgoing subtext for brevity. However, that’s not saying the show still doesn’t speak volumes when it isn’t anything at all. The moment comes when Don Draper, newly returned from a trip to Hawaii, comes to work to find his office rearranged for the purpose of taking a picture for advertising the newly enhanced Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Finding himself out of sorts and leaning against his desk, now positioned behind a different window, Don stares out at the Madison Avenue skyline, but instead of hearing the familiar sound of a bustling New York City, Don hears waves crashing along the beach. Don Draper’s body had returned from paradise, but his mind stayed behind. For a man surrounded by reminders of his past mistakes, the warm island atmosphere was something beautiful that Don didn’t want to leave, something that didn’t remind him of anything.
For a show in its sixth season, Mad Men definitely doesn’t feel overly familiar. Though we have seen the two-part premiere before from the show, these two hours feel entirely different. Whereas the season five premiere felt like a check-in with our favorite advertising friends, the new season jumps right into the action, unleashing new characters with little fanfare or explanation. Instead of easing our way back into the daily lives of the characters, in the case of Roger Sterling, we’re thrown into the midst of a crisis of mortality when Roger learns that his mother has passed. At the funeral, after being upstaged by a family member and his ex-wife’s new husband, Roger bellows, “it’s my funeral!” Later, when Roger is visiting a therapist he talks about how getting older doesn’t change you and how as he ages, he’s only going to lose everything. His real emotional breakdown comes when he learns of his shoeshine’s passing and he breaks down and cries in his office. The episode features the finest acting that the always terrific John Slattery has ever showcased on Mad Men, and promises that Roger Sterling will be grappling with his slow transformation into Bert Cooper not without a fight.
Death and mortality hang around Don as well. In an interesting moment, the show teases the collapse of a doorman in Don and Megan’s building at the very beginning of the episode, then recall the moment as a flashback. After Don spends a day drinking away his post-vacation blues and making a fool of himself at the Sterling wake, he runs into the same doorman, and in a drunken stupor, he demands to know what the man saw while he dead. In another moment showing Don’s unconscious fixation with death, he pitches an ad that conjures the idea of suicide, while being completely unaware of the dark interpretation. When he takes a closer look, he’s almost frightened by what his work is saying to him. There are even more subtle life and death images tossed into the episode, with Don conversing with a Vietnam soldier getting married and asking loaded questions about saving lives with his new doctor friend.Well, maybe friend isn’t the best way to put it. See, Don is sleeping with the man’s wife. They are a couple that lives a floor below Don and Megan. At first, the introduction of the new character seems healthy for Don. When the doctor comes to visit Don at his office, Don’s secretary Dawn seems floored to learn that her boss is speaking to someone and isn’t talking business. A real friend seemed like a good change for Don, but it turns out Don isn’t interested in progressing; only reverting. He sleeps with his friend’s wife on New Year’s after the good doctor has to travel in a snowstorm to go to work. The wife is played by the fantastic Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) and is a welcome addition to the show, but it’s frustrated to see Don back in his cheating ways. When she asks Don after their latest affair what his New Year’s Resolution is, he answers with ending the affair. There is a heart somewhere inside Don Draper, but it’s buried deep under a lot of baggage. Don definitely has time away from Megan, it seems, who is becoming a successful television actress and having more of her time demanded by her work. Season five focused heavily on Don realizing that maybe Megan wasn’t the supportive wife he could mold like he thought she was, and now it seems clear that he’s lost interest in his old new beginning. Eventually, I’m sure he’ll try to find another, but as Roger said, nothing really changes.
Except if you’re Peggy, then things have changed quite a bit. The former secretary is now in charge of creative at rival Ted Chaough’s advertising firm. Once she struggled to gain the praise of her mentor, Don, but now she’s drowning in adulation from her new boss as she saves a last minute Super Bowl ad. Peggy seems completely transformed, almost a mirror of Don’s professional image. She’s come a long way, and actually seems happy in her new position. It’ll be interesting to see how she remains relevant to the storyline while being successful at a different firm and almost completely removed from the SCDP environment.
Season six of Mad Men aims to be completely new and staunchly the same at the same time. Jumping ahead almost a half year to the beginning of 1968, it sends the message that though the style, the people, or the surroundings in your life may change, it doesn’t mean that your inner problems and issues do. They’ll be plenty of doors in your life, the episode says, but they only lead to more doors, and people like Roger Sterling and Don Draper are only confronted by the skeletons of their past lives on the other side; the doors never lead to somewhere new.
The Best of the Rest
- Betty is still pretty heavy, and now, dark haired after spending an evening making goulash with poor hippies while searching for Sally’s violinist friend. There’s a message in there somewhere…
- We’re not giving much from Pete or Joan this week, with the former only throwing barbs Don’s way for his lack of work ethic and Joan only being mentioned for the way that she’s ignored Roger after his mother’s passing.
- Don and a young soldier switch lighters, but its unclear whether Don’s lighter is engraved with the name of Don Draper or Dick Whitman.
- Everyone on SCDP creative is rocking new facial hair. Side note: sideburns.
- Don gives an impassioned monologue about how the power in the word love is being diluted, and then throws up when Sterling relative goes on about how special Mrs. Sterling’s love was for her son. Maybe the romance is gone from his new marriage.
- There seems to be a new accounts man at SCDP, and Ken Cosgrove isn’t too keen on him.