Tuned In

TV Weekend: Mortality (and Reefer) In the Air for Mad Men’s Return

As season 6 opens Sunday, some characters' patterns continue, but all around is the sense that, eventually, everything comes to an end.

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Michael Yarish/AMC

Mad Men, like The Sopranos (on which creator Matthew Weiner was a writer), is very much about people falling into patterns or repeating their mistakes: deceiving or falling for deceptions, trying to control others or avoiding responsibility for anyone.  Weiner is not David Chase and Mad Men is a less brutally cynical show; but at least in broad strokes, it seems to share the philosophy that people don’t change, not at heart, not for good. It’s not just Don Draper: Pete Campbell may be more presentable than the whiny cad we first met, but by the end of season five he’s still lying to his wife after an affair ends badly. Is he changed, or just camouflaged?

As on The Sopranos, all that raises a question. If Don Draper, Tony Soprano, et al., keep returning to form, with no certain ending arc, why keep the show going–or conversely, why not keep it on the air forever? (That, maybe, was the real genius of The Sopranos’ blackout ending; it was the Schrödinger’s cat of finales, both alive and dead, terminal and endless.)

One answer is that “people never change” is not entirely true. Even when a character returns to form year in and year out, his circumstances change. The times change. His body changes. Yes, the pattern continues, but all around there is proof–changing fashions, growing children–that eventually (to quote The Sopranos’ Carmela) “everything comes to an end.”

Which is why a period drama like Mad Men may be an ideal setting for telling that kind of story, because it sets stubborn personalities against a recognizable backdrop of change. The ’60s, if Weiner sticks to those boundaries, provide a hard endpoint. (The show is expected to end with season 7, though it’s not yet set in stone.) By setting simple parameters–the story of the 1960s–Mad Men shows over the years that, no matter how many times Don lights the same cigarette, the decade is ripening around him. Faces appear and disappear at the office. The color scheme changes. Decorum loosens. Hair lengthens.

And, yes, people die. As Roger Sterling tells his shrink in the two-hour premiere of Mad Men’s season 6, life is just one door after another. “That’s all there are,” he says, “and they all open the same way. And they all close behind you.” Yet someday, you’ll come to the last one. (Underline that thought: Weiner has, because he titled the episode, “The Doorway.”) As Roger says, with uncharacteristic introspection, at some point you will have had your last new experience.

The cloud of mortality hanging over season 6’s confident, moving (but not fast-moving) opener has been gathering for a while—not just with actual deaths like those of Lane Pryce and Mrs. Blankenship but with intimations of Don’s aging, going back at least to the season 2 opener, in which Don’s doctor warned him about his blood pressure. Indeed, if you consider his stolen-identity origin story from season one, Don Draper has already died once. The rest is all borrowed time.

Don is still virile and dominating, but there’s more than ever the sense that he and we are feeling his age. Look at him close and he’s the same guy, but compare the show now to its first season (set in 1960) and it’s another world. Even if Don’s marriage was rotten, Mad Men began in an America that valorized the nuclear family. Now, even Don, hammering out an ad campaign, has to admit that the idea of using a happily married couple after Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love “seems paleolithic.”

Money is still made and scotch is still poured, but there’s a creeping haze; as Joan observes at one point, suddenly, everything smells like reefer. Don, meanwhile, is still Don, but there’s a greater sense that he’s lost a step, physically and—maybe more jarring—creatively. Where his memorable old pitches (the Carousel, e.g.) touched the emotional core of his clients, a haunting image he comes up with for a new campaign (for a Hawaiian hotel) morphs into a disturbingly revealing, Freudian overshare. Seeing Don fumble to salvage a client meeting is like watching an aging favorite pitcher lose his fastball.

The changing times are not bad for everyone, though, and the double premiere, directed by Scott Hornbacher, dips in and out of the many stories the five seasons have set up. For characters like Peggy, say—who has changed tremendously over the seasons even if traces of her core self slip out like her Bay Ridge Brooklyn accent—the march of the ’60s has meant opportunity, not just decay. The new season finds her in Ted Chaough’s shop, coolly handling a crisis that might have melted the ice cubes in Don’s old-fashioned. The spotlight shifts among characters who were here from the beginning to those we just came to know in the last season or two, showing off the series’ now-deep bench. More than last year’s double-shot debut, it feels like one long piece rather than two hour episodes joined together—more like a Mad Men movie.

There is a reasonable question whether there’s much point to an advance review of a returning drama like this. Part of that issue is specific to Mad Men, because each season Weiner insists critics not reveal a list of mostly trivial details that no one would blink to see in reviews of any other show, including great—and more plot-driven—dramas like Breaking Bad. (This year’s verboten list: “The year the season begins; status of Don and Megan’s relationship; whether the agency has expanded to an additional floor[!]*; new characters; new relationships or partnerships.”) Those guidelines, if taken literally, mean that a review essentially has to praise or criticize the episode without evidence. (It may even discourage negative reviews, because a fair critic would want to cite actual examples in slamming a canonical heavyweight like Mad Men, and Weiner has put that off-limits.)

* I am not going to “spoil” the answer to this one, because who cares? I will note, however, that (1) it is essentially revealed in last year’s season finale, “The Phantom,” and (2) Weiner is apparently so concerned with its secrecy that he gave away the answer himself in a post-finale interview last June. (He did the same thing with Don and Betty’s divorce, saying in interviews after season three that he meant it to be obvious and explicit, then retroactively declaring it a “spoiler” before the debut of season four. Go figure.)

But more important, this is Mad Men’s sixth season: it would be absurd to claim, on the basis of the first two hours, that the show is “better” or “worse” or even “as good” as ever. Whatever you thought of season 5, it didn’t really start revealing its shape until four or five hours in. But looking back at that season premiere, there were hints: not just the plot foreshadowing of Lane’s woes, but set pieces like Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” number foretold a pizzazz-y, bold season of big set pieces, spelled-out metaphors, and bigger-than-usual watercooler moments.

If you try to give the same reading, early, to the season 6 debut, it suggests a moodier, less Technicolor, more fugue-like Mad Men this year. As always, it’s fantastic in drawing out small insights between its bourgeois characters, and somewhat less fantastic in handling more topical or counterculture aspects of the ’60s. (A subplot involving Betty and some downtown-NYC bohemians is one of the most cardboardy Mad Men has ever done.) And for a show that has never relied on shocking the viewer into attention every five minutes, it’s remarkable at making simple, fleeting images–say, the limp fish on Sally’s plate in “At the Codfish Ball”–stunning and archetypal.

I liked the episode, a lot. But I also liked, a lot, Mad Men’s season 3, which until its office-Ocean’s-Eleven finale turned off some fans with its slow pace and melancholy. And while I loved many episodes of season 5—like “Far Away Places,” a lusciously-crafted, sherbet-orange jewel box—I didn’t think it held together as well as a whole, compared with 3 and 4, for all its brilliant, eye-popping moments. Many critics and fans disagreed–and I’m guessing that some of them will wish these two hours were a little more, comment se dit, zoobezoo?

But that different Mad Men fans can love different things about the show is a measure of its greatness. Exploring those different facets in a double-sized premiere, Weiner is able to show off just what a sprawling, sleek midcentury-modern edifice he’s built here. It’s a sumptuous pleasure to go through one doorway and another, feeling all the while the dawning knowledge that someday we will turn a corner, and come to the last.

Mad Men’s season-six premiere airs on AMC Apr. 7. Look for morning-after-recaps on time.com by Jesse Dorris. Like last season, I’ll be posting on Mad Men throughout the season, on a non-regularly-scheduled basis.