Every season premiere of Mad Men offers us a compelling glimpse at characters who’ve been living their lives even when the cameras aren’t following them. While we aren’t sure what year it is – 1967? 1969? – Matthew Weiner offers us a window to the zeitgeist, the feeling of upheaval of that beloved decade. The minutest of details allows us to see how things have changed while we weren’t looking. Last night’s season six premiere was no exception to this rule – everybody is alive and well (mostly), but each character’s attitude has shifted, some seismically and some gently. Last night’s episode reflected a completely unsettling pall of impending doom, an obsession with rape and death. The times, they are a’changin.
The episode starts with a jolt: a female scream, a fuzzy POV shot of someone performing CPR on a prone body. Then we are suddenly on the beach in Hawaii as Don Draper’s voiceover throws the episode’s theme in our faces. Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood. A quote from Dante’s Inferno. As he speaks, the camera focuses decadently on on Megan’s sweaty, titillating belly. In the first few minutes of the premiere, Don says nothing while Megan talks and talks. She’s important now, and her body, displayed to the universe on her soaps and commerials, is fully on display. She wandered down the beach to someplace seedy and bought two joints, persuading Don he should try it again.
In the opening scenes of the episode – up until about seven or eight minutes in – everybody else is talking at Don, and he, that master of manipulation, doesn’t say a damn word. It’s eerie, actually. His wife, who’s evidently come into some fame from TV roles, is voluptuous and sexy in a way Betty Draper never was – and she’s reveling in it. At a tiki bar in blue Hawaii, Don encounters a kid who’s drunk, desperate for connection, and going back to Vietnam any day now. “Army” is the first word out of Don’s mouth. Out of some sense of duty, pity, and camaraderie, Don awakes early to give away the young private’s bride on the Hawaiian beach.
As Don and Megan return, sun-kissed and beautiful, from their winter beach vacation, the doorman collapses. This is a gentleman with whom they’re close enough to ask, “How are you feeling?” but whose real name they don’t know – and that’s important. This is the man from the first scene, the man on whom Dr. Rosen, Megan and Don’s neighbor, is performing CPR. The idea of knowing oneself is evidently looming large this season, and this startling scene brings it to the fore.
While Megan and Don languish on a Hawaiian beach, in New York the Francis women attend The Nutcracker. Betty is still wrestling with her weight, but passes up some candy in the theater, eyeing it with some envy. Sally is becoming the very picture of her mother…and it’s frightening. “Betty got a ticket,” she says to Henry; her frightening poise and the way she speaks to and about her mother reflect a very ugly but comfortable vibe that’s developed between the two of them. Sally’s friend Sandy (the similarity of the names is no coincidence – there are no coincidences on this show) plays the violin, and tells the Drapers she’s going to Juilliard next semester. Bobby notes, uncomfortably, that the violin case looks like a coffin. Betty, on the other hand, offers a different kind of horrible morbidity. She noticed Henry’s affectionate gaze when Sandy played the violin. “She’s just in the next room,” Betty says. “Why don’t you go in there and rape her?” (What in the everloving…?) “If you want to be alone with her…you can stick a rag in her mouth and it won’t wake the boys,” she says, teasingly, smiling. Who is this woman? Henry’s evidently used to this dirty fantasizing, as he hardly flinches. (After Steubenville and the India gang rapes, this kind of language is especially hot-button – and one assumes Weiner did it on purpose.)
In the Francis kitchen, Sandy and Betty share a late night conversation. The similarities between the two are remarkably blatant in action and dialogue. For the first few seasons of Mad Men, Betty Draper did nothing except sit at the Draper kitchen table and smoke cigarettes. Sandy is doing the same. She talks to Betty about Betty’s past, her stay in New York City. Sandy recognizes Betty’s life for what it really is, breaks it down incisively, and Betty can see it. Her heftier frame and her padded pink housecoat shield her from the wild life she used to live – and doesn’t miss.
Sandy, as it turns out, never got into Juilliard, and she’s desperate for…well, an experience. When Sandy tells Sally she’s left for college, Betty goes after her. Poor Betty, standing around in the dingy NYC street in her neat pastels with honking horns and longhairs. She finally gets into the building she thinks Sandy lives in, and she’s so out of place it nearly hurts. In this dingy, frigid, drug-riddled hovel, a bunch of kids are squatting. Someone says “cold as a witch’s tit” to Betty Draper Francis. Someone tries to hand Betty Draper Francis a joint. She walks in on a guy pissing into a bucket. She contributes a goulash recipe, but is stunned and disgusted there’s no running water. Seeing this person, impeccably dressed and cold as ice, in these circumstances, is effectively bizarre and chilling.
Her interactions with the kids in the hovel are uncomfortable – the sixties were a time of discord between the haves and the have-nots, and that is coming to a head. Betty reverts to childish behavior as a result, telling them petulantly, “You have bad manners…I hope you get tetanus or crabs or whatever else is wandering around this place” – so this is the same old Betty. One of the kids notes that it kills her to be out of control, and she narrowly escapes being mugged. Sandy sold her violin to one of these poor unfortunate souls, and Betty finally gives up the search. A few days later, she arrives home with a brand new ‘do. Our quintessential blond housewife is now a brunette, no longer a bottle blond. Will she search for a new version of herself this season? One can only hope.
Peggy Olsen is thriving in her new position, fielding midnight phone calls even as a longhaired Abe rushes past her with diarrhea, letting us see just how their comfort level with one another has become. Wearing a little beret and knee socks on her night off, Peggy looks every inch the Girl Scout – she’s changed, but her fashion sense is still a little flawed. “‘Lend me your ears? It’s Shakespeare!” she cries into the phone. Her confidence is lovely.
Roger Sterling, that stodgiest of ad men, is in therapy (analysis, as was the parlance). He reclines on a chaise, bitching about how nobody actually knows him; he’s obviously not comfortable, and his jokes and frivolity don’t amuse the analyst. Once again, the writers use Roger to dropkick us with the episode’s overriding theme. “The experiences are nothing,” Roger moans. “That’s all there are. Doors and windows, bridges and gates…they all close behind you,” Roger says, and before you know it, “you’re headed straight to you-know-where.” A nearly-clumsy reference to Dante’s Inferno.
It feels funny, watching the Mad Men premiere on a laptop or a DVR, that once it has aired in 196?, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson is gone forever. In 196?, there was no DVR, no VCR, no way to record television. (We’re so damn spoiled.) Much to Peggy’s chagrin, some comedian did a routine that dealt with soldiers slicing off Viet Cong ears to display on necklaces. This meshes uncomfortably with a print ad for headphones, whose tagline is “Lend me your ears.” It’s horrendously morbid, and no one seems to think anything of the fact that American G.I.s are keeping ears as trophies and comedians are joking about it. Certainly not Peggy Olsen, who bosses her minions and struggles to get through to Ted Chaough about the super bowl ad (which for some reason involves a lengthy conversation with a pastor).
Don, who’s still suspiciously silent even after arriving back in his normal life, realizes he’s accidentally exchanged lighters with PFC Dinkins, the kid he met in Hawaii. The engraved lighter, given by the service, says, “In life we do things that are just not our bag.” Back at SCDP, the partners are having portraits taken. “I want you to be yourself,” the photographer says to Don. Yet again, we’re reminded that Don isn’t himself, and he never will be. “I had an experience,” he says; “I don’t know how to put it into words,” a statement that mirrors Roger’s earlier assessment that “experiences are nothing.”
Joan Holloway Harris is regal in purple (a color the brilliant Tom and Lorenzo noted had a very specific meaning in earlier episodes, but which doesn’t seem to now) and lovely as ever. “Don’t know if it’s the photographers or the writers, but it really smells like reefer in here,” she says to Don – words you’d never expect to hear from her. Everybody eyeing Joan as she poses sensually – a subtle reminder of just how Joan got to be partner. Well, if you’ve got it, use it, I guess. Sigh. Pete Campbell, whose smarm is pretty out of control at this point in his life, asks Don about business, Don gives him shit for it, at which point Pete grabs his shoulder amiably. They’re closer and everybody seems to have fallen into a vibe.
When Roger’s secretary Caroline informs him that his mother has passed of a stroke, she’s upset, sobbing, but Roger is nonplussed. He arranges a funeral at his mom’s home and invites all the proper people, who react with improper nonchalance. Pete, Harry, and Ken chatter about dead mothers as Roger’s “fruitcake” auntie opines how Roger was the love of his mother’s life. Roger’s second wife Jane appears, looking lovely as always, but it isn’t her who causes Roger to have a minor breakdown. His first wife Mona brings her new husband, causing a minor freakout. Suddenly, a very drunk Don vomits everywhere, for some reason. Before racing up the stairs like a kid, Roger yells “It’s my funeral!” What is this foreshadowing? Why is death looming so near? Who’s going to go first?
After the funeral, Roger’s daughter asks him for money, leaving Roger feeling abused. “She gave me my last new experience,” he tells the analyst, “and now I know that all I’m going to be doing from here on is losing everything…I don’t feel anything. Life will eventually end, and someone else will get the bill.” In his last scene in the episode, Roger learns his shoeshine man died. Caroline hands him the guy’s shoeshine kit and walks away, calm as a cucumber. Alone in his office, Roger sobs like a baby over the death of his shoeshine man – a scary and indicative contrast to his composure regarding the death of his own mother.
Coming back from Roger’s funeral (self-named), a wasted Don asks the doorman what he saw when he died. Was it “like hot tropical sunshine?” His curiosity and obsession with death is unsettling at best. Megan reports happily that at work today she pushed Derek’s mom down the stairs (Derek is evidently another character on the soap). She doesn’t differentiate between her character and herself. “You’ll still love me, even if I’m a lying, cheating whore?” she asks Don sweetly. She hands him PFC Dinkins’s lighter, which Don had tossed in the trash. The resurrected lighter feels like a gentle indication that Megan, of all Don’s women, knows he isn’t who he says he is – and she won’t let him forget about it.
Don explains in a pitch to Royal Hawaiian, the company that provided his lovely little winter vacation, that the trip gave him an “unsettling feeling…you are different. You don’t miss anything, you’re not homesick.” Everything is the same temperature, the breeze and the blue…”The soul can go in and out of the body…” Compared to Don’s incisive, intense way with words in earlier seasons, this babbling is odd and disconcerting. The client notes that this is very grotesque imagery, that the subject of the proposed ad seems to be killing himself. When someone explains that it’s, well, a little morbid, Don counters that “Heaven’s a little morbid.”
Peggy Olsen, our poor downtrodden heroine, seems to be the only one who’s doing well. She and Stan are still in close touch – Stan puts down the phone but doesn’t hang it up so that he can go grab a sandwich. “You think Joan and Roger are still sleeping together?” he asks her. “We don’t know if that really ever happened,” she answered, letting us in on the fact that what once was sacred at SCDP is no longer. Ted Chaough tells Peggy she’s brilliant, but she’s gotta let people go home to their families on New Year’s Eve. She is Don Draper.
On New Year’s Eve in the Draper apartment, someone’s horrible Tippi-Hedren-lookalike wife flirts obviously with Don while Megan plays a slideshow of their Hawaiian vacation. Linda Cardellini (a.k.a. Lindsay Weir from Freaks and Geeks) plays another wife, uncomfortable with references to gay bathroom sex and the discomfiting flirtation Don fields. There’s such narcissism here, so much focus on oneself and one’s own problems. These people are becoming insufferable – except poor Linda Cardellini, who continues to point the focus away from the people in the room and back toward their children, their things, their lives. All of the men in this episode are obsessed with death, and most of the women with rape, periods, and sex. Although everyone seems comfortable in their new lives, their new roles, having their new experiences, something is extremely off. If this sets the tone for the whole season, it may be a taxing one.
Choosing a life path, the notion of impending death, the fact that these men are no longer vital and necessary – these are the themes of season six, if the premiere is to be believed. New experiences, new doorways, new paths, all inching us closer to an inevitable death. The writing, as always, is directly on point. Remember a few seasons ago when you had to really pay attention to understand what Weiner was telling you? I miss that. I have this ugly feeling that upon giving the show a bigger budget (and therefore slashing The Walking Dead‘s funding, if lore is to be believed), AMC insisted Mad Men not be quite so “abstract” and “poetic.” So now the writers are hammering in their intentions, and it’s a little disappointing. The costuming and set design, thanks to that budget increase, are flawless and gorgeous as always. The acting is brilliant as ever. The tone, though, is extremely unsettling.
How did you feel? What do you think lies in store for our cast of characters? What are the writers up to in season 6? Share your thoughts in the comments!