'Mad Men' TV Review: Season 6 Returns With Focus On Death
At long last, Matthew Weiner's Mad Men is back, and it has brought along its trademark brooding attitude (you know you love it). This two-hour premiere moves slowly with few grand events, but then so does the Great American Novel most of the time. It’s the same old Mad Men we know and love, but with more facial hair and pot. In this episode, death seems to follow the characters everywhere, both literally and figuratively. Much of the cast is preoccupied with feelings of hopelessness and fear over the imminence of their own demise.
The brush-with-death attitude begins in the very first seconds of the episode, with a flash of the Drapers’ doorman having a heart attack. Immediately afterward the camera cuts to absolute paradise, with Don (Jon Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) on the beach together in Hawaii, where he was sent on a business trip. Of course, Don is his usual charmingly negative, broody self. Megan is a known television actress now (good, she doesn’t have to flounder in Unfulfilled Housewife Land anymore, we all saw how well that was going for her). As always, Megan is trying to have fun and enjoy life and Don is pouting in his own sad-sack misery. While Don is in the midst of one of his typical pout-at-the-bar routines, he comes across a very drunk Vietnam soldier, Pfc. Dinkins, on the eve of his wedding. Dinkins has several months left of his tour and isn’t sure if he’ll come back alive (cue morbid fear-of-death again). Don sees a young version of himself in this man, who says he hopes he lives long enough to end up like Don. He ends up taking Dinkins’ lighter home with him, and the thing follows him everywhere like baggage he can’t escape.
When we catch up with Betty (January Jones) and the family, we find that the Francises are putting up now-teenage Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka) 15-year-old friend Sandy, whose mother has just died. Betty is (gasp) still overweight, and she’s also a little more, dare I say, compassionate? When Sandy confides in Betty, she seems to show a maternal side that has never made an appearance in the presence of her own children. Well, everything seemed maternal besides those bizarre and tactless rape jokes she was making, but that’s a whole different discussion. Sandy’s been rejected from Juilliard, where she had planned to go next year to play violin, and she tells Betty she simply wants to move to New York anyway and live in the Village (…with all the other disillusioned youth of America). Betty was a model in Manhattan before meeting Don, and she’s seen the unglamorous side of bohemian life. She is consumed with worry about Sandy, which is very touching but I’m pretty sure she has never shown as much concern for Sally or her sons, ever.
Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is living with Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), and they seem pretty content. It’s really gratifying to see Peggy doing well in life because, well, if Mad Men has a hero it’s Peggy. She seems to have really hit her stride as a woman in the workplace. She is confident and assertive in the best of ways.
Roger (John Slattery) is in therapy and expressing his existential woes. He feels insignificant at work, that nobody truly knows him, and that nothing he experiences really seems to change his direction. He fears aging and becoming irrelevant. He has a sense of humor about it all, which is way more than can be said for Don. Even as a defense mechanism, Roger’s ability to laugh at his own plight is refreshing compared to the type of coping we’re used to seeing in the series.
Peggy is working on a Super Bowl commercial for Koss headphones at her new agency, but their slogan is thought to be potentially controversial in regards to the Vietnam War. But Peggy defends herself and insists that if she’s given a few days she can come up with a new version of the ad.
Roger’s mother dies and he isn’t too broken up about it. At the disastrous funeral, he’s up to his usual ways, making jokes and flirting. The painful awkwardness of the day is accented by Roger’s elderly aunt spewing negativity and Don throwing up in front of a room full of people. Roger tries to connect with Mona (Talia Balsam) and Margaret (Elizabeth Rice), but Margaret is more interested in his financial help than anything else. He realizes she doesn’t need him anymore.
When he later gets word that his shoe shiner has died, Roger finally breaks down in tears, faced with his own mortality and the loss of those around him. Is he unraveling or having an emotional breakthrough?
When Sandy disappears to the city, Betty goes to Manhattan looking for her. Has Betty evolved into an actual caring person? Is this even possible? She still hasn’t shown much care for her own kids, but at least she is caring for somebody. As she wanders deeper into the Village she is simultaneously reminded of her own youth and completely alienated by today’s kids, who are much grittier than her former peers. After her search for Sandy proves unsuccessful, she eventually returns home to the safe life she chose for herself in suburbia. She greets her family with freshly-dyed dark hair, which is…surprising.
Peggy is facing crunch-time to come up with new ad ideas, and she turns to some of the old brainstorming tricks Don has taught her. She means business, and best of all, she knows that she is talented. Don should be so proud.
On New Years Eve, we find that Don is having an affair with the wife of his neighbor, Dr. Rosen. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I have to say I was a little shocked to see him back to his philandering behavior. Dr. Rosen and Don are friends, and earlier in the episode we watched him help save the life of their doorman after a heart attack. Way to be a good friend, Don. Sometimes I really do sympathize with Don, I swear. But watching him have yet another affair is downright annoying. For a second I really thought he might turn things around in this new marriage. Maybe Don’s subconscious just can’t stand the fact that Megan has found success outside of her life with him. Maybe Don’s inner whiny brat is annoyed that she has a source of happiness that is not him, so he has to find a way to ruin some aspect of her life. The one encouraging part of the situation is that he actually feels guilt, which he never really seemed to do when he cheated on Betty. So that’s a good start. However, it seems that his guilt isn’t enough to stop him from hurting Megan. So Don gets no credit for feeling bad if he still isn’t going to change or do anything about it. Happy New Year, jerk.
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