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Review: 'Mad Men' Returns With A Confident 2-Hour Premiere That Proves It's Still The Best Show On TV

by Cory Everett
April 7, 2013 11:00 PM
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Mad Men s6

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.

Mad Men S6 Don
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."

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  • bluey | April 29, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    This show is vapid and empty, the characters are shallow, the acting lousy. I'd rather see Julian in " Trailer Park Boys" walking around with his rum & coke; more believable. Hamm's acting's wooden, motivation and character development nonexistent. I keep expecting him to be caught shagging someone's dog.
    But, wow, check out the pontificating director and producer, the period detail, gosh - and the product placement can't be beat!
    Br Ba was too " Mission Impossible" this season. I hope the last part will show meth addicts again, so WW is not so abstractly evil. Remember the hungry dirty little boy whose mom crushed his dad under the ATM? Or the meth heads digging?
    Mad Men is superficial and soulless, a perverse soap opera. Br Ba may end up being great.

  • - | April 30, 2013 11:01 AM

    "Hamm's acting's wooden"
    Jesus Christ. And you clearly don't know what a soap opera is if you're calling Mad Men one. (Here's a hint, it's not 'any show that has barely any violence in it which I don't like')

  • guilherme | April 9, 2013 7:55 PMReply

    Breaking Bad is the best show on TV right now, both shows are very well written and directed, but BrBa is more cinematic, powerful, riveting and it's been almost perfect since season 2 (season 4 is the best season of any TV show ever, with "The Wire" season 4 at side.). The transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg is one of the best things that Television ever seen.

  • Ian Peterson | April 8, 2013 1:11 PMReply

    Certainly a brilliant series but a more balanced review was expected. While the last night's season opener brought back everything we like about Mad Men there were also moments that reminded us of its flaws. Thematically there was some recycling going on, the two hour long story arc was a challenge, directing / editing hit a few rough patches and the introduction of new characters worked intermittently. But, definitely, a very strong season premiere making us hope that following episodes will be less sprawling and more driven.

  • Egghead | April 8, 2013 11:30 AMReply

    Mad Men is certainly on its way to becoming one of the best shows in the last decade. And the writer highlighted perfectly exactly why that is. The characters of the show are the strongest set of characters on any show. That is all because of the writing. Nothing compares to it. It has by far the smartest writing on TV right now and it's a shame if you can't see that because everyone else does.

  • Travis | April 8, 2013 9:50 AMReply

    Mad Men is definitely one of the best shows on TV right now, and is likely one of the best shows of the last few decades. Jon Hamm, and the rest of the cast, has given great performances over the years and I’m anxious to see how the new season unfolds. Unfortunately I missed watching last night’s premiere because I was busy working late at DISH and didn’t make it home in time. This afternoon I’ll have to catch up by watching on my iPad during my commute. I’ve got the DISH Anywhere app so I can watch any show recorded to my DVR, or live TV broadcast, anywhere I go with internet access available.

  • Andy | April 8, 2013 8:42 PM

    Wow this is (kinda) cleverly disguised spam.......

  • DJP | April 8, 2013 1:02 AMReply

    Completely agree with Rena Moretti. Mad Men is the most overrated show on TV.
    People and critics think they're smart and sophisticated if they watch the show.
    Interesting occasionally but boring just as often. Much ado about nothing.

  • Brad | April 8, 2013 5:27 AM

    I am hardly smart and sophisticated, but it is by far the best acted, and written show on television. If you don't think it is interesting often then it is your failing, not the shows. Keep trolling though, six times.

  • Rena Moretti | April 8, 2013 12:46 AMReply

    In other words, it's still the most over-hyped, poorly acted (by Jon Hamm) snoozefest on TV.

    Amazing how TV critics always gravitate to the poorly-made, over-hyped flops...

  • Andy | April 8, 2013 1:24 AM

    Amazing how you can speak in such general terms without any supporting points or thoughts, thus adding zero to the conversation. Aka a troll. Great job Rena.

    The great part of this episode was how it showed Don and his internal conflict while contrasting it with Betty and her "trying to change for the times" attitude. Ah, The Doorway was a very clever title.

  • JemK | April 7, 2013 11:26 PMReply

    Are you kidding? Never faltered? You're obviously biased.
    And this show is as '60s as an '80s mullet.

  • Lou | April 7, 2013 11:23 PMReply

    I love the Mad Men story. I just wish the delivery were of quality. HD? A Joke.

    Excessively compressed. Dark suits or hair are all black, like wise anything light becomes white.

    This is done to decrease bandwidth to make it cheaper to transmit, yet is still called "HD".

    It's very disappointing.

  • Edward | April 7, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    The best show on TV that's not Top Of The Lake you mean.

  • Cory Everett | April 8, 2013 10:12 AM

    Was under the impression that "Top Of The Lake" was a mini-series but either way we can both agree that Elizabeth Moss stars in the best show on TV.

  • Brad | April 8, 2013 5:30 AM

    Top of the Lake is great, not sure if it is as good as Mad Men. It strives for perfection though, and more folks should be watching.

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