One of television’s best shows is back, and brings with it darkness heavier than ever before. The sunny, "Zou Bisou Bisou" "Mad Men" days of last season are long gone. The strong, defiant older men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are fading, while the younger men are embracing the times (as seen by their sideburns, fashion, and facial hair. Harry looked hilarious.).
“Mad Men” has always had its share of darkness, best amplified by the leading man, Don Draper. But this show has also always thrived on subtlety, causing viewers to interpret, analyze, and guess almost every dialogue or action taken in each episode. The season 6 premiere ditches subtlety: In this episode, death is omnipresent.
You see hints of death in obvious ways: The news that shakes Roger Sterling; the conversations between Don and his new friend, Dr. Rosen; the incident with the doorman, who we thought was a goner but was revived; and in most conversations Don has with just about anyone.
Then, morbidity creeps in during the most positive of subjects: Marriage is the reason, says a Vietnam soldier who is about to tie the knot, that may save him from death in Vietnam. He hears it gives soldiers something to live for. Darkness lurks when Don somehow turns a pitch about Hawaii, or paradise, into a message that is chock full of allusions to suicide. Heaven, he says, is acquired only if something terrible happens. You hear it in jokes that Betty makes, who, after commending a 15-year-old on her violin skills, makes terrible jokes about her husband raping said teenage girl. (That was horrifying, even on Betty standards.)
The reason for this bleak theme? Peggy’s man Abe Drexler said it best: “It’s about time this unjust war is having an effect on commerce.” It’s about time the Vietnam war, which resulted in thousands of soldiers dying every year, caught up to our “Mad Men” friends. There was no trigger point-- no killing of a soldier (we all thought it would be Joan’s husband, right?), no reaction of a war-related news story. The darkness was just there—a real presence that seeped into these characters. Note: It seems that the episode ends on January 1, 1968. The Tet Offensive launches about a month later.)
In other notes:
Megan. You don’t see this theme directly reflecting in Megan Draper, whose rising stardom is evident by the amount of weight she has lost. Unlike her husband, who seems deeply disturbed, Megan seems blissfully happy, and blissfully ignorant in her newfound career as an actress. How could she not know Don is sleeping with their neighbor? I don’t think she is aware, but I think she’s choosing to overlook it. Not in a Betty Draper kind of looking-the-other-way, but in a more, self –absorbed, I-only-care-about-myself kind of way.
Peggy. She is the new Don Draper (minus all the scotch and adultery … so far). It was enthralling to see her save the day on a huge account, yet still learning lessons in leadership. It was the kind of moment (the victory, not the lesson) that we have grown accustomed to Don achieving. And it is brilliant of creator Matthew Weiner to show one star rise while the other falls.
Sally. Teenager! Just like Peggy is so her boss’s protégé, Sally is so her mother’s daughter. I thought she would reflect more of the hippie zeitgeist of her times, but she just seems like a normal adolescent with a sharp tongue. (Remind you of anyone? Her mother, perhaps?)
Joan. We want more!
Pete, Harry, Ken, and Stan. Cool hair / sideburns / beards, dudes.
Race and religion. Don is friends with a Jewish doctor (which seems more significant than Roger’s ex-wife’s Jane’s religion or Don’s ex-lover). His secretary, Dawn, seemed at ease with Don and the staff, unlike last season, where she was called “black coffee” in the season 5 finale. Can’t wait to see how these subjects are explored further.
The episode itself is called “The Doorway,” which I took it to mean the doorway between life and death, and the doorway Don is standing in— the inner turmoil and restlessness inside of him has never been so clear. (He’s cheating on his wife, something that seemed implausible in most of season 5, and got so drunk at a funeral he threw up. Really?) We see the older generation struggling with the times. (Betty in the East Village was one of the best scenes, next to the scene of Roger receiving some grim news.)
Although some of my favorite season 5 moments were heart warming-- Don and Joan’s day out, Peggy and Don running into each other in a theater-- I am looking forward to this “Dante’s Inferno” themed season, even if it will make us long for the show’s, and history's, supposed good ol’ days.
About Viewer Discretion
ContributorsKatie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
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