The shroud of secrecy that series creator Matthew Weiner places over every new installment – and especially the new seasons – of Mad Men has actually become an integral part of the show's appeal. Audiences head toward the now-standard two-hour season premiere with little more to go on than a perplexing arrangement of clips and sound bites from the previous season, leaving viewers to assume that even though the characters of TV's best program continue their inexorable march through time, perhaps nothing has really changed.
And that's what really set this series apart from all the others: Seeing what the future has in store for Don, Megan, Sally, Betty and the entirety of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is kind of difficult. There's a curiosity, sure, but it isn't easy to watch as the magnificent Don Draper loses the magic that once made him the toast of Madison Avenue, or as Roger Sterling dabbles in LSD to combat the ennui that's absorbed him even more than he's absorbed in himself. And although it's funny, no one wants to be reminded of getting older by watching as Pete Campbell relinquishes his hairline with less fuss than Harry Crane surrendered his office in season 5.
As we pull back and look upon it all, it seems that Mad Men is leading the audience down a path of death and despair. But after watching the spectacular season 6 premiere, 'The Doorway, Part I & II,' it seems that the series which left its audience with the (thankfully) unfulfilled expectation that Pete Campbell was a suicide waiting to happen, isn't just pointing toward the end; it's pointing toward the way out.
Last season saw Don on the precipice of becoming the Don Draper of old, after the idyllic fantasy of his marriage to Megan shifted into something that was no longer entirely under his control and therefore, not entirely fulfilling. The audience was left with Don poised to acknowledge a part of himself he'd figuratively kicked under the bed through the permissive lucidity of a fever-dream, while Jon Hamm's brilliant and subtle performance illustrated how easily the actor playing the character - and then the actual character - could shift between identities. With an understated raise of his brow, Hamm illustrated how easily Dick Whitman became Don Draper, and how Don Draper can leave behind the man who spent much of season 5 on "love leave" to become the man who, as we see in the season premiere, is sleeping with his neighbor's wife.
Season 6 offers a handful of pleasures early on. There's the thrill of finding out Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell have sideburns! Stan Rizzo and Michael Ginsberg have incredible facial hair! Burt Peterson is back! SCDP has an upstairs! Betty Francis is wandering around the Village and has dyed her hair! But more importantly, it's still all about Don Draper and his relationship to the unalterable passage of time – which is noted by the realization that his wristwatch has stopped as he's reading 'The Inferno' on a heavenly beach during the "vacation" he and Megan enjoy courtesy of Sheraton.
“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood," Don reads in voiceover after the season begins from the POV of a man watching while a doctor performs life-saving chest compressions on him.
Naturally, that points to death, but even as Don and everyone else is seemingly stuck contemplating their own future – Weiner seems to be taking issue with the assessment that season 5 (and to an extent, the show's future) was obsessed with death – 'The Doorway, Part I & II' manages to be both completely obsessed with death (e.g., Bobby Draper wants to check out a violin case because it reminds him of a coffin) and able to joke about the audience's preconceptions about the series' so-called obsession all at the same time.
The premiere feels like the antithesis to 'Just a Little Kiss' from the get-go, as Don chats with the clearly troubled PFC Dinkins and agrees to give his bride-to-be away, despite having just met him. From then on, Don is rapt with the notion that his time in Hawaii wasn't just a vacation; it was an experience that even he struggles to put into words. This puts the character in a sort of malaise that acts as the connective tissue throughout the rest of the episode. Even then, Don is met with a multitude of signals that either reminds him of death's looming presence, or the past he's tried so hard to conceal.
The two points come to a head at the funeral of Roger Sterling's mother, as Don, experiencing someone's death yet again, is forced to listen while an elderly woman eulogizes Roger's mother and explains how she adored her son, and how life was full because of him. All of this (and his uncanny ability to find a libation at any social event) causes Don's emotions – presumably about his absent maternal figure – to literally explode from within, forcing him to vomit into a handsome umbrella stand.
But it is Roger's monologues in therapy that paint the fullest picture of Mad Men season 6 and just what's going on with him and Don. Like Sandy, the formerly Julliard-bound violinist who regales the Francis family with Chopin's 'Nocturne in E Flat Major, Op. 9 No. 2,' these characters are just running away from their dissatisfying lives. They aren't looking toward the end; they're just looking for the doorway out.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with 'The Collaborators' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview of the episode below:
Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC