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.
"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."