“Midway through life’s journey, I went astray on a straight road – and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
It’s time to rejoin the existential angst of the unhappy folk at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as Mad Men returns for its sixth, apparently penultimate season. After the tumultuous events of last year – Joan whoring herself to a sweaty exec for a partnership, Peggy heading off to a rival agency, and Lane Pryce hanging himself in his office – our heroes are unhappy. For this show, this is not unusual.
The season premiere, appropriately enough, was all about death. We opened with a POV shot of some unknown person being resuscitated from a heart attack. Oh no! Is it Don? Roger? Bert, even?
Since Matthew Weiner’s script immediately cut straight to a Hawaiian beach, that was a mystery to be eked out for a short while. It lent a hallucinatory air to the proceedings, as I began to wonder whether Don and Megan’s idyllic holiday was actually one of the dream sequences the show occasionally does; it’s often so thickly portentous even when it isn’t a dream, it can be hard to tell. Let’s face it, Mad Men is so heavy with portents, the folk from Frank Herbert’s Dune look uncomplicated by comparison.
Don Draper must be the only person whose choice of beach reading is Dante’s Inferno, another portent that made me wonder if this was a near-death experience. But no, as we began seeing things from Megan’s perspective too, that clearly wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, the Drapers’ vacation had a surreal quality to it.
Don, unable to sleep, met a drunken soldier at the hotel bar. As they chatted about their respective combat experiences, Don found himself agreeing to be best man for the clearly doomed PFC Dinkins at his wedding the next morning, before heading back to Vietnam. The whole sequence had such a dreamlike quality, it was hard to tell if it was imaginary until Megan found her husband giving away a bride on the beach the next morning, taking a snapshot of the occasion.
Mention of Vietnam got me wondering exactly when the new season was set. Mad Men never does anything as easy as telling the viewer; you have to work it out from hints in the dialogue, the fashions, the cars etc. Last year, the elapsed time between seasons was easy to work out from Joan’s pregnancy. This year, there was no such easy clue, but the Christmas trees, and the repeated references to Dr Christiaan Barnard’s first heart transplant, gave it away – we were in December 1967.
So, the characters have just been through the Summer of Love, though in typical Mad Men fashion, it’s a very cold winter when we catch up with them. Don, increasingly out of touch with the young, was dismissive of the trivialisation of the word ‘love’, being used to pepper conversations and ad campaigns – “Why are we contributing to the trivialization of the word? It doesn’t belong in the kitchen. We’re wearing it out.”
In keeping with the times, absolutely everyone’s now smoking weed – the creative team at SCDP even sparking up in the office, to very little reaction from Don (“I smell creativity”). Vietnam would now be in full swing, and the horror of the combat starting to come through to the American public – as Peggy discovered to her annoyance.
In keeping with what I’d expected at the end of last year, we spent a deal of time here catching up with Peggy and how she was doing at rival firm Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Not unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of Don Draper in her work style – she’s confident and thoroughly in charge of her rather timid creative team. She’s also now living with longtime boyfriend Abe, and walking all over him too, which he seems perfectly content with; he too seems permanently stoned.
Still, Peggy obviously misses the SCDP crew; working all night at the office, she spends ages on the phone to old buddy Stan. So it was that Stan happened to overhear everything that passed between her and her boss – Don’s old rival – Ted Chaough. Trouble a-brewing?
Roger, meanwhile, appeared to have got his acid-fuelled serenity out of his system and was spending time with a therapist. John Slattery was as wryly amusing as ever; he manages to keep Roger deep enough to avoid him being just a comical buffoon. We saw both sides in these two episodes, as he too got to reflect on death, in this case his mother’s.
This was announced to him by his tearful secretary Caroline, who he awkwardly comforted while balancing two glasses of gin. The comedy was heightened even more at a supremely awkward wake. In Mad Men, no social occasion ever goes well, and this was no exception. Having to deal with fawning elderly relatives, two ex-wives and his grasping daughter, it was a relief for Roger when the unexpectedly sloshed Don turned up, staggered about a bit and vomited into the umbrella stand, mercifully cutting short his wheelchair-bound aunt’s saccharine eulogy.
It felt strangely out of character (presumably intentionally) for Don to be so out of control on booze. Yes, he’s had his problems there before, but he seemed to get over them. This time, there was little forewarning; after Megan (now a minor soap opera star) left for some filming, he was seen silently sipping whisky while the maid vacuumed. Next minute he was turning up at Roger’s, barely able to stand up.
Don being Don, he was lost in introspection half the time, staring at things with a troubled expression in that way he has. In one of the show’s examples of portentous symbolism, he’d discovered that, while in Hawaii, he’d accidentally switched his Zippo lighter with that of Private Dinkins, and he can’t get rid of it. He tried throwing it in the trash, only for Megan to hand it back to him after the maid found it. Later, he asked his secretary Dawn to get the Army to return it to Dinkins; given this opener’s obsession with death, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the young man is already on his way home in a body bag.
Don seems obsessed with death. Perhaps he’s still haunted by guilt over Lane’s suicide, which itself reawakened his guilt over his brother’s. We discovered fairly early on (in a joltingly timeslipped sequence) that the victim of the heart attack seen at the outset was the seemingly insignificant doorman at Don’s apartment, Jonesy. As the drunken Don was manhandled home by Pete and Ken, he stopped to slurringly and insistently press Jonesy for details of what he’d seen when he ‘died’ – as it turned out, the old standby of ‘a white light’.
Perhaps this was what inspired Don to come up with an ill-advised pitch to the Sheraton honchos, showing an abandoned set of clothes on a Hawaiian beach. He thought it was an image of freedom; to everyone else, it suggested suicide. An interesting juxtaposition of ideas, if a little obvious by this show’s standards.
Betty at least didn’t seem morbidly obsessed with death, as we caught up with her and Sally watching Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. But she too was acting very oddly. With Sally’s friend Sandy staying over for Christmas, she was obviously none too keen on husband Henry apparently perving at her – but it was a bit out of the blue when she acidly suggested that he should rape her. And that she should watch. Joke it may have been, but this is not the prim Betty we remember – is middle age taking a toll on her sexual tastes along with her waistline?
Taking her unusual behaviour further, she seemed to be forging a maternal bond with Sandy in the way she never has with Sally. Tracking the errant teenager to a filthy commune in Greenwich Village, she then took on the role of den mother to the straggly hippy boys trying ineptly to cook goulash while stoned. She didn’t find Sandy, though – and what was the heavily telegraphed significance of her ripping her coat?
And while Roger may have taken the death of his mother with a sanguine, almost exasperated air, death came back to hit him hard as he was handed the cleaning tools of his just-deceased shoeshine guy – and collapsed in a weeping heap. Of course, this would usually just be a delayed reaction to the death that really should affect him; but it would be quite in keeping for Roger Sterling to be more attached to his shoeshine boy than his mother.
Not many clues here about where the season’s going to go. Everything seems pretty stable at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (nice that they kept Lane’s name on the ticket). Don’s full of introspective angst and middle-aged obsolescence, but when isn’t he? Black secretary Dawn is still the sole representative of non-white ethnicities in the office. And Peggy seems to be doing just fine at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, despite the unfortunate problem with the Koss headphones account.
Yes, on the surface, everything seemed fine. But then, in this show, that’s often the way. This episode had a doom-laden, ominous tone deriving from nothing out of the ordinary at all; Dinkins’ lighter, Don’s rearranged office and so forth. And the noticeable fixation with death – and what happens after – may be some tonal indicator of what’s to come. For now though, while this was a good season opener and certainly very watchable, it lacked the compelling tone of last year. A low key start, even for a show this low key – let’s see where it goes from here.
As mentioned above, the first successful heart transplant – achieved by Dr Christiaan Barnard on 3 December 1967 – got a lot of shout outs. It was also perfectly accurate that Phyllis Diller was fronting the Tonight Show at that point – Matthew Weiner pointed out that Johnny Carson routinely took the holidays off. Not sure who the comedian guest was that made the unfortunate gag about GIs having necklaces made from human ears, but that certainly did become a scandal at about this point.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
As we’ve moved on from 1966, apparently the Hideous Checked Sports Coats so prominent last year are no longer In. What is In, after the Summer of Love made hippies trendy, is flamboyant facial hair. Ginsberg was sporting a fulsome moustache:
While Stan had gone the whole hog with a massive full-on beard:
Even Peggy’s beau Abe is no longer the clean-cut beatnik we remember, but has morphed into a Frank Zappa lookalike:
No wonder he seemed so stoned.
Roger, for his part, was sporting a style new to him – a none-too-subtle pastel blazer, with two rows of conspicuous buttons:
Tune in next week to see what other atrocities the looming end of the decade will force our characters to wear…