Mad Men Season 6 Premiere Review: The Jumping Off Point

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Mad Men S06E01/S06E02: "The Doorway"

The darkness that permeated Mad Men's fifth season culminated with the suicide of Lane Pryce, but the cloud that parked itself over Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in 1966 and stayed there into 1967 doesn't appear to be dissipating, even though the firm itself appeared to be flourishing when we caught up with Don, Joan, Roger and the others in the days leading up to New Year's Eve 1968. SCDP expanded to a second floor in the Time Life Building, an expansion partially funded by a pair of strong fiscal quarters, but also partially enabled by the large life insurance policy that Lane left behind for the firm, which casts a bit of a morbid shadow over all of the good fortune that SCDP apparently experienced during the Summer of Love. 

The lingering sense of doom and gloom was further illustrated with our very first Season 6 shot of Don himself. Megan, whom we learned nabbed a small, but recognizable role on a soap called To Have and to Hold, was stretched out in the Hawaiian sand while Don determinedly pushed himself through a reading of The Infernonot exactly a beach read, that one. Adding to the unease, Don's watch randomly stopped while he was contemplating Hell with Dante Alighieri. Megan casually theorized that he'd somehow gotten it wet, but Don was unnerved, and that feeling was reflected later on, during his pitch to the Royal Hawaiian hotel people after he'd returned to New York. 

In news reports concerning disasters, deaths, and other unfortunate events, we often hear about watches and clocks that've stopped at the time of impact or detonation. Don's watch stopped unexpectedly on that beach in Hawaii, where he claimed to have had an experience that he couldn't define. He spent the days immediately following his and Megan's return to the city drinking and despairing, making a spectacle of himself at the funeral of Roger's mother, and dogging his doorman—who'd survived a heart attack some time earlier—about what the man saw when he "died" and specifically, whether the "light" he mentioned was anything like a warm "tropical sun." 

Needless to say, the Royal Hawaiian people weren't exactly thrilled with Don's pitch, which seemed to imply that their beaches were an amazing location... to commit suicide. But the hotel folks weren't the only client Don and his team struggled to appease. Don rejected a pair of ideas from Stan, Ginsberg, and Fake Peggy that tried to inject a little romance into a Dow oven cleaner, calling them outdated: "Anything matrimonial feels paleolithic." Don went on to rant against the word "love" in advertising as a whole (and knowing Don, life in general), claiming that society had worn out the sentiment during the heavily hyped "Summer of Love" that'd taken in San Francisco in the preceding months. The convergence of all kinds of people from all different walks of life changed the connotation of the word, at least from an advertising perspective. The old idea of love—meaning neat little newlyweds and neat little families in neat little homes—had started to feel stale, and the new idea, at least to Don, was too difficult to define, continuing the trend from last season of Don Draper, the man who always seemed to know what America was thinking, struggling to keep pace as the sixties sped up. 

The influence of the Summer of Love could be seen and felt even on the other side of the country. It represented a rejection of "the Establishment," of the culture and ideas that Don has relied on to make his name and fortune by understanding and exploiting it on a deep, intrinsic level. One of the greatest threats to Don, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and the business at which they excel is the difficulty of marketing to population that doesn't want to be marketed to. One that, at least for a little while, rejected the whole concept of needing to own people and things. 

(Non-fat, or at least not-AS-fat) Betty also found herself questioning her place in that Establishment after developing a creepy attachment to one of Sally's friends and journeying into the city to find her after she sold her prized violin and ran away to do the hippie thing. Also, real quick, WTF with the rapey talk, Betty? WTF?!?

Betty—showing, as usual, more interest in and devotion to other peoples' children than she has for her own—went to St. Mark's Place to track down the missing Sandy. She didn't find the girl, but she DID find a band of boys living off the grid in an abandoned building and apparently spent the entire day just hanging around, helping them cook a pot of goulash and asking questions about weed that made her sound like a total narc. She was definitely out of her element, but didn't crash and burn nearly as hard as I thought she would while slumming it with those who proudly declared themselves to be society's throwaways. She was actually, I thought, uncharacteristically kind—you know, for Betty—and even though she was insulted by the leader boy's reading of her driver's license, "Eyes, blue. Hair ...bottled," her sudden decision to ditch her signature blonde 'do in favor of her apparent natural brunette locks was, in its own small way, part of what the counterculture movement was about. 

Mad Men has long been about the journey of Don Draper/Dick Whitman as he struggles to discover and accept exactly who he is, but as the series has progressed, more and more of his peers have gotten in on the self-discovery action as well. Last season, Pete and Roger struggled with feelings of unfulfillment and discontent. We didn't see a lot of Pete (or Joan) in this premiere, but Roger's neurosis appears to be going strong. We saw him meeting with a therapist and expounding on his unhappiness. Life is a series of doors, bridges, and windows and you go through them, experience the things that you experience, and you are, he'd always believed, changed by those experiences. But then he changed his mind and decided that that whole mindset was bullshit. 

Angry over Don barfing during the eulogy and ex-wife Mona bringing her new beau to his mother's funeral, Roger angrily declared the gathering over and argued, "This is MY funeral," when Mona and Margaret tried to intervene. Sure, it was his funeral in the sense that he was most likely paying for the whole affair, but it was still a strange choice of words, and telling, considering what we know about Roger's mindset at the moment. 

Roger has always come off as the "spoiled little rich boy," first of Sterling Cooper and then of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and in recent seasons, he's come to realize just how little he's actually accomplished in his life. He uncharacteristically checked his privilege in the wake of his mother's death, pointing out that he'd always had an invisible parachute of security while growing up between his mother and his money. Yes, it was his name on the door, but it was there more because of his late father, not because of anything he actually did. He realized that most of the employees at SCDP were only friendly toward him because he was their boss. At Mona's urging to reach out to his daughter, Margaret, Roger gifted her a priceless family possession: baptismal water from the River Jordan. Margaret was clearly disappointed that it wasn't something of physical value, and after learning that grams had left her entire fortune to the zoo, eventually asked Roger to back her husband's business venture—even going as far as to remind Roger that he'd only achieved success because of his own dad. 

The final blow came with another death in Roger's life, one that seemingly should've been less of a blow to him than the death of his mother: When Roger's shoeshine guy failed to show up for a few days, he called the man's family to inquire about him. The family was so touched by the gesture that they sent Roger the dead man's shoeshine kit; the flood of emotion he'd lacked at his own mother's funeral hit Roger full-force as he accepted the humble present. Earlier in the episode, Roger had stated that his mother loved him "in some completely pointless way." She'd adored him simply because he was her son, and while that's actually a very good sentiment for parents to have toward their children, generally speaking, it didn't bring much comfort to Roger in his current sad headspace. The simple inheritance from his lowly shoeshiner was bigger and more important to him than his parents' money, because he'd earned it. It was a small symbol of Roger caring for another individual and that other person reciprocating.


The only character who appears to have entered 1968 unscathed is Peggy. Free from Don's influence, Peggy is killing it in her new position at Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough. Don's influence, however, was apparent in everything that Peggy did in this episode; her demeanor and her dialogue could have easily been lifted from an early Don Draper monologue. When a crass comedy routine on The Tonight Show highlighted some of the more unsavory actions of soldiers in Vietnam, an executive from Koss headphones drew unfavorable parallels between the joke about American soldiers severing the ears of Vietnamese soldiers and the Shakespeare-inspired "Lend me your ears" campaign that Peggy was spearheading. Peggy handled his concerns with all the grace, elegance, and finesse of a vintage Don (who, conversely, fumbled pretty hard when Royal Hawaiian criticized his "jumping-off point" pitch), and pulled a suitable substitute ad from the literal scraps of the original commercial. 

It seems like Peggy's been living the dream since her departure from SCDP, pushing her underlings just as hard as Don has ridden his creative teams over the years. She thought nothing of keeping staff late on a holiday and didn't hesitate to call them lazy to their faces when the work they brought her wasn't up to snuff. Even her personal life, which has often been in worse shape than professional life, appears to be in a good place. She's still dating Abe (who was totally rocking the Frank Zappa look when he brought Peggy a late dinner at the office), and their relationship feels refreshingly positive compared to so many of those we've seen over the course of Mad Men's run. He picked on her for being a hardass, but I got the impression that she took pride in the jest. It seems like she genuinely enjoys his presence, and despite his own feelings about commercialism and Peggy's career choice, Zappa Abe was respectful and even helpful as Peggy tried to rework the rejected Koss ad. Honestly... I thought they were kind of cute. I was also really excited to see that Peggy remained in contact with at least Stan from SCDP. I like to think that it means her relationship with the firm isn't as fractured by her departure as I feared. Yay Peggy!


What did you think of Mad Men's Season 6 premiere? Based on what we saw, where do you think this season is headed?



NOTES


– The year was never specifically mentioned, but eager-beaver brown-nosing Bob Benson (James Wolk) mentioned having tickets to see the Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl—the Alabama Crimson Tide played Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1968.

– Don didn't say a single word out loud for the entire opening scene. 

– Don and the Lighter: Anyone betting that when Dawn tracks down Dinkins' unit, we'll find out that he was killed? Don's eagerness to get rid of the Vietnam-bound soldier's lighter that accidentally wound up in his possession reminded me a lot of his panic when Bobby wore Gene Hofstadt's German soldier helmet from World War I. Don didn't want his son handling a "dead man's hat," and he himself doesn't want to carry around a (probable) dead man's lighter—especially after that man pointed out that they had the same one.

– Dinkins joked that he was getting married because someone told him that married men survived longer while at war because they had something to live for. Then he asked Don if he was married while he was in Korea. Don said he wasn't, but technically Don Draper was. It was Dick Whitman who wasn't married... and on paper, it was Dick Whitman who didn't survive. I don't know if that means anything outside of being an interesting little detail, but eh, it's an interesting little detail. 

– Once again, WTF, Betty and the rapey talk?

– Morbid lines: not just for adults anymore! "I like the case. It looks like a coffin." Thank you, Bobby Draper, you little weirdo you. See also: "I hate it. You're ugly!" regarding his mama's new 'do.

– LOL at Sally calling her mom "Betty" to her face. <3 her. 

– "Sure, you go to college, meet a boy, you drop out, you get married, struggle for a year in New York while he learns how to tie a tie, and then move to the country and just start the whole disaster over." —Sandy

– It wouldn't be a Mad Men season premiere without Megan Draper doing an awkward/provocative dance and making everyone uncomfortable. 

– Do you think Don and Megan are swingers? He seemed to be sneaking around to bang their doctor neighbor's wife... but idk. Megan is kind of a free spirit. Maybe she'd be into it. 

– Speaking of Don and the doctor neighbor's wife, were you surprised by their affair? I mean, we shouldn't've been, but it's at least worth noting that the episode was bookended by him reading "her Dante" and the reveal that they're sleeping together. "What do you want for this year?" "I want to stop doing this." "I know." 

– I was half expecting that heart attack scene in the opener with Megan screaming in the background to be something we'd build up to over the course of the season, Breaking Bad-style. Still, quite the morose start to the season (in a good way).

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