Piers McCarthy reviews the two-hour season 6 premiere of Mad Men….
From its humble beginnings, starting with Don Draper sitting in a jazz bar, to the exotic locale of Hawaii, Mad Men continues to expand its scope and its subject matter.
Major spoilers ahead…
As always, Mad Men’s intricate design (whether it is costume, set or props) develops with each season. What is more noticeable in the first two episodes of Season 6 is a brazen contrast between Don and Betty’s respective lives. Don’s is warm and colourful for the most part, whilst Betty’s is cold and dark. If this is to be the style that deliberately runs through this penultimate season, it will certainly be an artistically interesting one.
Another division shown regularly is the cut back and forth between solemnity and shock, handled well since the beginning (an extreme example being a humdrum office party that escalates into a lawn mower cutting off someone’s toes). Season 6 begins in the same vein with a loud scream and a POV of someone receiving CPR. We then cut to the ambience of a steady tide, Don’s refined reading of The Inferno, and a tantalising shot of Megan’s stomach, tanning in the Hawaiian sun. We are yet to figure out the brief prologue but understand the holiday scenario of “now” – it all revolves around Don’s multi-faceted life and the crazy and collected moments in it.
Those interested in the glamour of Mad Men will immediately find it in this sun-swept paradise complete with bikini babes and handsome men lying in the rays. We then move onto a saucy scene of Megan and Don about to experience sex whilst high. This is the jumped-up aspect of Mad Men, away from the offices of New York, yet still relating to the sexual energy that has underpinned many episodes. So far, there is nothing too different about Season 6.
One thing that has definitely not changed is Don’s mysterious nature. During his Hawaiian stay he chats to a soldier at the bar and agrees to give the man’s wife-to-be away at the ceremony. It comes down to his military roots and the idea of honour. Still, it also seems like an elusive thing to do and Don’s wariness about the idea is more believable than his certainty. Later in the episode a house party in which the holiday photos are exhibited, Don says nothing about the photographed event and Megan has to explain it; he smiles and lets the moment and memory pass as if it becomes just another element of his enigmatic existence.
Up and east in NYC is Betty, the polar opposite to Don, saying everything on her mind and pursuing answers she doesn’t always need the answers to. Her story in this season begins at the ballet, with her mother-in-law, Sally, and Sally’s friend Sandy. Sandy becomes an integral part to episodes 1 and 2, with Betty devoting her attention to the girl’s aloof yet sharp nature. Sandy’s free-spirited disposition is an idea Betty consistently struggles with. When Sandy runs away Betty tries to track her down – finding herself way out of her comfort zone in a dilapidated house full of hobos – trying to bring her back to “normality”. As the era of Season 6 shows, there was a lot of change happening in America, and people like Betty were cautious and confused about it.
The regular cast are still around though some are different in appearance or job. Peggy is employed with a different ad agency, stuck with the dilemma of advertising headphones with the slogan “lend me your eyes” on the back of news saying the Viet cong were found cutting off civilians’ ears. Stan is sporting a new beard, and Michael still plays the office-clown. Roger Sterling is the only character in the SDPC office, aside Don, who has a predominant story arc.
Roger is first seen laid back in a therapy session, cracking wise at the notion of him and a shrink. However, with the death of his mother things are shaken up for him slightly. Mostly, though, it’s the presence of his ex-wife’s husband that makes things tense and dramatic. Sterling is a wonderful character and one does not get all the attention he deserves. He’s certainly a favourite amongst fans but mostly due to his buffoonery and comic honesty. The end of episode 2 sheds some light on the deeper aspect to his psyche; for a man who has served in Korea and had his fair share of mishaps, he’s a jubilant guy. He’s seemingly unfazed by the death of his mother but the news of a local shoe-shiner’s death leaves him in tears. It’s a powerful moment, not so much for the drama, but to see John Slattery’s more emotional side and the character finally exhibiting some “human” behaviour.
A last point to make is the continuation of Don’s existentialist crisis. A bout of sickness at Sterling’s mother’s funeral leads him back home and to the company of his doorman. Said doorman was the figure from which we watched a POV CPR from. Don drunkenly demands to know about what he saw when on death’s door. To understand the human mind for advertising he is always striving to figure out those of the people he knows; in doing so it has left his personal persona an ambiguous puzzle for him to piece together. As one of the photographers asks when taking office profiles, “I want you to be yourself”. Just who that is is something Don knows nothing about, but you can bet up until the end he’ll be searching for the answer.
Episodes 1 & 2 of Season 6 show us nothing shockingly different and, instead, set-up a further exploration into those characters’ minds. A lot to take in for the hour and 33 minutes, with various strands being dangled before us (some briefer than others, including one with a belligerent Cosgrove); I personally prefer 40 minutes a week of Mad Men, to take in the numerous narratives, rather than the double-feature.
Piers McCarthy – Follow me on Twitter.