About halfway into the premiere of season six of Mad Men, there is a brief but crucial shot that caught my attention. It was an image so revealing, and so stark, that I feel it sums up my thoughts on the show even since it premiered back in 2007. It was the moment where Betty, in all of her studiousness and dapper rapport, was standing on a cold New York street, and everyone around her seems to be completely unaware of her. Two men pass her by, and finally Betty musters enough courage to ask about the whereabouts of Sandy. She is so out of place in front of that building; something about that image was so striking, I couldn’t put it out of my mind. And then it hit me (thankfully once I sat down to write this review), and it was the notion that Betty and her whole life, her whole world, was now foreign to the one around her. Her era, the decade she represents, was now on its way out, and the seventies were on its way in. Nothing particularly overbearing brought this to my mind; maybe it was the fact that everything downtown is starting to look like the New York from Taxi Driver. She’s bundled up with her coat, and blue dress, that Henry no doubt bought for her. And she’s almost comically in the wrong place, both literally and figuratively. It might seem like an anachronism, yet it’s more than an indictment of the times. To me, it shows the slow inevitable death of the sixties.
But really, that’s what the whole show is about. From the start, it’s always been about the death of the sixties, more than being in the sixties, or being a part of them. In order to fully comprehend and appreciate something, especially a point in time as significant as that decade in American history, you have to get some distance from it. Only then, in retrospect, can you ascertain the right perspective to comment with whatever nostalgia or regret one might have. On the one side, you have the cultural tsunami of social change and Jefferson Airplane performances to last a life time. And on the other, you have all that degrading racism and sexism and war mongering and whatnot (but you have to take the good with the bad, what can you do). And with Mad Men, we get to watch these highly interesting and intelligent people essentially suffer through it all, like sadomasochistic scientists under a microscope of misery. I’ve never seen characters deal with such large existential crises outside of a Woody Allen movie, and I almost think the people at SCDP know they’re in it deep, too deep to understand until years down the road. While nothing particularly big happens plot wise, or historically to the point where I could tell you what year this season takes place from, I do know that a world of change has passed since the hiatus, and more change is on the horizon already.
So what did we miss, other than new and exciting facial hair? We learned that Don made a new friend, and then backstabbed him by sleeping with his wife. We also learned that Don isn’t such a horrible person because he was the best man to a stranger’s wedding on a beach in Hawaii. Those two sentences might not make a lot of sense to someone who hadn’t caught up with the show, because A) the show doesn’t take place in Hawaii and Don would never help strangers with cool tasks and B) Don has always been cheating on his wife. But ever since last season, it seems we grew to love a new Don Draper, one who didn’t cheat on his (new) wife. But just as Roger tells his shrink, “things are supposed to change you”. We don’t change, “we just go on in a straight line until you know where”, he says. And while Roger is the one to openly admit it, and I’m openly willing to agree with him, Don is the one that does the most amount of struggling with himself not being able to change, not being able to throw away his past like another man’s lighter in a trash can. We all wish we could do that sometimes, just toss out experiences and memories that are unneeded and continue on, to some degree. Most people would simply find that concept a luxury, while others (both me and Don Draper) would like to just heave entire years from our lives and eradicate them from existence.
And you don’t get much more fuel to the proverbial fire for that than being reminded you stole another man’s identity, and then created a new life using his name. And then killed some Koreans. It may seem like a bereaved thematic point to keep going back to, but I really do like how the show is able to connect Don’s current storylines to his original one; the moment he took upon the Draper name and started what would become the entire rollercoaster that is Mad Men. It’s this remembrance to the inciting incident from season one that kicks off a host of similar connections throughout the premiere (which I consider one episode, not two) that sort of just comments on the show itself. And without having to pull any ‘meta’ card tricks from its sleeve, the premiere is able to effectively lay down commentary on the show, and the seemingly endless and circuitous nature of not only Mad Men but on life itself. Pete Campbell, maybe my favorite character on the show, says to Don at one point “And then you walk away from me. And then you take a nap”. They all know how it goes, they know the routine by now. But I think that has to weight on these people by now, that year in and year out their lives go through the same motions, and where does it all end? What happens when there isn’t an office for them to walk into? No secretary to barrage, no women to chase.
Roger knows exactly what’s at the end of that journey: death. It certainly surrounded him all episode long, and finally at the very end he cracked. Although I think it’s funny that the death of his mother didn’t get him, it was that poor shoe shine box. And maybe not even the box itself, but the fact that now he had it, and that he didn’t even know how that poor man went. His mother had a stroke, at 91, which was no surprise, but something about the unexpected death of Mr. Shoeshine was what really got him. We usually look to Roger to be the comic relief for all of our problems, and to a lesser degree, the other characters problems. So it was to much chagrin that the funny man of the show had to be the one to break down emotionally, and over the entire course of two hours. Little by little, more and more people stopped laughing at his jokes. His shrink, his family, his secretary, Bert Cooper. And once a comedian loses his audience, what more does he have to do? “Life, like this analysis, will eventually end.” It was a real treat to get so much Roger at his most raw form, still giving Ms. Hazel Tinsley those zingers. At least he got to make Don throw up, a nice payback from five seasons ago.
Peggy, on the other hand, wasn’t so much surrounded by death as she was killing it at her new agency. It finally took time, but she’s the female Don Draper now, ravaging everyone underneath her for their insolent work, those fools. You can tell she exudes her rigorous training and experience from Sterling Cooper; even when it comes down to having meetings with companies about ads, they never seem to understand how ads and creatives work. I got annoyed by their incompetence at good ideas, she must be infuriated at this point with them. It was nice to see her turn on the patented Draper epiphany, and come up with the solution to her agency’s problems. There was so much to love about her story, I can’t really choose what the highlight was. Her phone call with the pastor was hilarious, and also brought up a potentially cool storyline involving future Super Bowls. Hopefully we get to a time when the Oakland Raiders were good. The lack of DVRs really hurt her ability to re-watch The Tonight Show not hosted by Carson but by Phyllis Diller. The gag of “Lend me your ears” is so morbid and dark you couldn’t help but laugh at the irony (I certainly did).
And speaking of laughing, how about those Betty rape jokes? Somehow, Matt Weiner was able to make Betty into a character I (finally) liked, and it only took some off-color jokes to Henry to do it. The plot of the missing violinist was clearly the runner-up for strangest WTF part of the episode, number one going to that doorman who died and then didn’t. But for a fifteen year old who had barely any screen time, she made quite the impression on the entire premiere. Her conversation with Betty early on was absolutely the best part of the episode, and while it was unbelievable that someone that young would be that intelligent, I almost took it as a puppet for Matt Weiner to yell things at the audience, and Betty’s entire quest to track her down had so much subtext behind it all of it fell out of my television and onto my floor. As her reward, she got to be psychologically taken down by a homeless man who called her a “bottled blonde”, and she got a new hair color! Elizabeth Taylor black, how exciting! I don’t know how much more Betty we’ll get, but I trust they limit her only for crazy thematic escapades in which her happiness is a token to a larger arcade of philosophic pencil pushing. If that made any sense.
And as for Don, the last big protagonist in the ‘final four’ of characters this episode, had the biggest moments of the night; as he should, I mean, he’s on every poster of the show. I think he senses the time are a-changin’, and the Hawaii trip didn’t do him any favors either. “Heaven is a little morbid”, he says as if everyone thinks Hawaii is a slice of heaven. I’m sure everyone pestering him about how it is was enough to drive him to make a suicidal ad about it. “This makes you think of suicide?” “Of course, that’s what makes it so great”. Don had a lot of things to keep his mind in other places, from the copy of Dante’s Inferno his mistress lends to him, to those pesky photographers, to Meagan’s superstardom, to slideshows of photos, and with the lighter as the cherry on top of it all. While I don’t know where exactly his story will go in the coming weeks, I can be sure of one thing and that’s I’ll be there every week to watch with my eyes glued to the screen, savoring for more.
I hope I never have to critique the writing, or the music, or the editing, or the direction, or the art design, or the cinematography, or new characters, or plotlines and pay-offs, or acting, because for five seasons of Mad Men it has been the example of how to do all of those things perfectly. With the benefit of the doubt I give this show, I won’t be getting into nitty gritty nitpicks on what wasn’t funny, or what was weird, because I truly believe that there is something going on that is greater than what we’re watching now, and soon it’ll all make more sense. Just look at the beginning of the premiere and the end of it. The foreshadowing was there, even from last year’s finale, we just couldn’t see it. So without reservations, I decree Mad Men is back, and it is just as magnificent as it always was.
Loose Ends (And Some Burning, Lingering Questions):
- Will Roger host The Price Is Right? Or maybe Family Feud, with that hairdo and powder blue suit? And speaking of which, lets embrace the wacky facial hair everyone had.
- Where the hell was Joan this episode?
- “Are these in color?” “No, and I’m starting to regret it”. Why didn’t you, cameraman?
- SCDP has an upstairs now? What the hell is up there?
- Is Dr. Arnold Rosen the equivalent of the guy on the train from last season? And is Don the new Peter? Is Peter the new Don?
- Who is this Bob character? Is he a murderer? Or a rabid fan of the show*cough*office?
- Will they ever find Sandy? And should they?
- Why do I still hate Bobby Draper so much?
- They get Meagan’s soap opera in Minnesota? What is it like? I’d like to watch.
- Who will win the Super Bowl?