Matt Weiner is right. This time last year I was exasperated over his self-important demand that critics scrub their reviews of all salient details about Season 5, but his two-hour Season 6 premiere convinced me: the element of surprise is so important to Mad Men — and the upcoming episode in particular — that you just can’t reveal too much about the characters or plot without ruining the first-time viewing experience. As much as the industry-wide compliance with Weiner’s guidelines seems like an uncomfortable reminder of entertainment journalists’ exaggerated reverence for the show and its creator, the truth is that no wise reviewer would break most of his rules anyway.
Besides, these restrictions give us a chance to prolong and savor our discussion of the premiere, which is so dense and visually rich and intriguing that it merits multifaceted consideration on its own terms before we even begin to think about how it fits into the upcoming season as a whole. Prohibited from referring to the plot, we’re free to take stock of the overarching mood.
From the first moment, Mad Men Season 6 is on what ’60s kids might have called a full-on death trip — often over-the-top in its dialogue and plot, the way last season was (sometimes to a fault), but containing enough subtly meaningful moments that it suggests Weiner and his team are re-embracing some of the more minimalist charms of previous years. If last season was about growing old and losing touch with a rapidly changing mid-’60s American culture, this will be the one to address in earnest a theme that’s haunted Mad Men since the beginning: mortality, and what we humans (especially the stylish, wealthy types who have time to worry about such things) make for ourselves in the short time we have on this planet. This is no great insight; the episode never stops reminding you of death, with even children dispensing unsettlingly morbid dialogue. Its title, “The Doorway,” is about exactly what you think.
But it’s not only about what you think — and that’s where the subtlety comes in. Introduced and expanded upon by Roger, the doorway metaphor is also about going through formative experience after formative experience and expecting each to make you into a better, wiser person but finding that it doesn’t. In this and many other moments in this episode, it’s clear that Mad Men is growing to embody a purposeful cross-section of people at various defining moments in their lives: childhood, teen years, beginning their career, hitting their stride, realizing they’re over the hill, dying. Since the first season, we’ve seen many characters transition from one stage to the next. For self-made legends like Don Draper, of course, there’s another, often recurring, stage somewhere in there: reinvention.
Beyond the slick suit and morning cocktails and parade of pretty women, it’s that seemingly endless capacity for rebirth that keeps us fascinated by Don. But the short interval separating the end of his marriage to Betty from what looked to be the onset of disillusionment with Megan in the Season 5 finale suggests that Don Draper (formerly Dick Whitman) is starting to see diminishing returns on these transformations. “To me, the theme of the season is, people will do anything to avoid anxiety,” Weiner said in an interview yesterday with USA Today. It’s a concept that comes up in the premiere, and when you apply it to Don, you realize that what he does to avoid anxiety is become a new person. Now that changing personae has ceased to do it for him, he may have to find another way to stop feeling so anxious.
With the specter of death effectively moving into the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices in this episode, I predict we’ll see Don endure his most major reckoning before the season is over. The question is whether he’ll emerge from it with the psychological resources to become yet another new person — and, if so, whether that person will finally be the real Don Draper.
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