SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MAD MEN SEASON PREMIERE, STOP READING AND WATCH THE MAD MEN SEASON PREMIERE.
Is Don Draper alone? That was the million dollar question posed at the end of Mad Men's fifth season. Matt Weiner, the show's creator, made the world wait for what seemed like an eternity to get the big reveal, even though we knew the answer all along.
Season 6 opens from the point of view of a man on his back, a doctor trying to revive him. It cuts to Draper, sitting on a beach and reading Dante's Inferno, Megan soaking in the sun next to him. Later, we find out that the man having the heart attack was the doorman at the Drapers' building. Thus, Don's thinking of the doorman's heart attack and considering the finality of life when he's reading Dante on the beach.
“Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
"Who even cares what time it is?" Megan asks.
And so, the scene is set for Mad Men Season 6. The two-hour premiere comes across as an episode filled with self-awareness. Roger Sterling's mother dies and he spends the episode planning her arrangements and unloading in therapy. He ponders the meaning of life and the casualty of most of its experiences. Much of what Sterling reveals in therapy can be construed to be commentary about Mad Men itself.
"All I'm going to be doing from now on is losing everything," Sterling notes. The comment could be a nod to the hype built around the return of Mad Men and the way the final episode of Weiner's baby, The Sopranos, was critically ridiculed. He adds, "Turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where." Much like the perspective and experiences we gain from indulging in and obsessing over Mad Men.
We develop an attachment to these characters. We relate their experiences and struggles with our own and hold out hope for their evolution (and our own). But, there's no brilliant tagline or inspirational monologue or Emmy Award that can stop the inevitable: Like the rest of us, Mad Men is mortal. Eventually, Don Draper and company will be relegated to a series of YouTube clips and a 10th anniversary oral history in Vulture. It's finite art.
For now, however, we have plenty of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce drama to work through. The rest of Mad Men's long awaited premiere doesn't take the time to show us what the characters have been up to since our last glimpse into their lives, instead choosing to remind us of everyone's past. Peggy Olsen is more and more like Don every episode. Here, she's shown handling an ad crisis of her own when a joke on The Tonight Show threatens to ruin an entire campaign she's been working on. (At one point, Peggy says, "F*** The Tonight Show." The line seemed incredibly poignant considering all of the column inches and blog posts devoted to the upcoming Leno-to-Fallon transition.)
She evokes her inner Draper by plucking genius out of smoky air, and reminds viewers of her own start as she lashes out at her copywriters from behind her desk. Her boyfriend sees the exchange and comments that he didn't know such ridicule was necessary to "get into the frat." Later, Peggy keeps the workers late on New Year's Eve, unaware that they feel obligated to stay. Teddy Chaough comes in and praises her idea, but reminds her which side of the desk she's on now. She realizes she's turning into Don.
Part of the premiere is spent in Greenwich Village, where Betty is searching for a friend of Sally's that ran away to live in New York. The girl was trying to grow up too quickly, eager to escape the cookie-cutter lifestyle that Betty and everyone else living the American Dream out in the suburbs have chosen. Betty makes it her personal mission to find the girl and convince her not to give everything up her rush to feel something different. We're reminded of Betty's time at Bryn Mawr and the modeling career she gave up when she chose family life with Don. (At one point, Betty gets a ticket for wreckless driving. When they're pulled over, her mother-in-law comments that she doesn't think things could get any darker. Sally's friend replies, "My mother is dead." It feels like this is another subtle reference to the direction Mad Men is heading.)
As for Don, the trip to Hawaii unfolds just as you'd expect. He's in paradise with his beautiful wife, getting the royal treatment for a resort looking to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for a new ad campaign. There's a pig roast and hula dancers and white sand and clear water. A woman recognizes Megan from a soap opera, indicating that her acting career is taking off. (In the recap before the episode began, we see the clip of Don and Peggy sitting together at the movies when Don remarks, "That's what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on." Then, we see Don and Megan on the set of the Beauty and the Beast-themed commercial that Don helped her land. It appears that Megan's career is taking off at the same time that Don's internal struggle with his past is beginning to bubble over again. Foreshadow much?)
After getting high and having sex, Megan is fast asleep, but Don's awake, as he used to be when his marriage with Betty was heading for disaster. Unsurprisingly, he ends up at the hotel bar. A drunk guy stumbles up, offering one-liner after one-liner. Turns out that the guy is soldier who recognizes Don's lighter and asks about his time in the service. The guy is getting married in the morning and asks Don to give away the bride. Draper and PFC Dinkins inadvertantly switch lighters, obviously a reference to the assumed identity that has allowed Don to live this lavish life. Don continuously tries to get rid of the lighter, but it keeps making its way back to him, much like he can't shake the rest of his past.
For Draper, though, it all comes back to the Carousel. In Season 1, he seduced the Kodak folks and, in turn, Mad Men viewers, by literally re-inventing "The Wheel" with a lesson about nostaglia.
"Teddy told me that, in Greek, nostalgia literally means 'the pain from an old wound.'"
And then, in the middle of the Season 6 premiere, Megan whips out that re-invented wheel to show their guests pictures from their trip to Hawaii. She clicks through slides, raving about their escape to paradise, glossing over Don's encounter with the young soldier who was getting married. But, as his lovely, actress wife gushes about the islands and the resort and their happily ever after life, Don picks at his old wound. His concern for keeping Dick Whitman and the rest of his past a secret. The familiarity of a typical marriage. She's busy entertaining their guests while he's consumed by his own conscience.
When reviewing work some of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce underlings produce*, Don says, "Anything matrimonial feels Paleolithic." This feeling is echoed when Weiner reveals that Don's been been having an affair with his downstairs neighbor.
Considering mortality on a crowded Hawaiian beach. At the bar of a massive vacation resort. Vomiting in the corner of Sterling's mother's funeral. In bed with his new friend's wife. Sitting on the couch in a roomful of friends, looking at pictures from his vacation. In bed with his new friend's wife. Physically, he's constantly surrounded by people, but he's always consumed by his own thoughts. Don Draper: Never by himself, but perpetually alone.
*Note: an earlier version of this recap mentioned that this line was delivered when Don pitched the folks from the Hawaiian resort.