There are far too many sites out there, floating amongst the series of tubes sustaining the Internet that do episode-by-episode recaps really well. That is not my intended scene for a number of reasons (in no particular order): timeliness, interest, ability, desire. So I will not be rehashing anything, at least such is not my purpose here; if you have any burning questions, ask me. I’m happy to recall any details or discuss such. Communicate!
But back to aspirations of what my critique demands, some ground rules if you will: what is the point of regurgitating the same thematic ideas and notions seen elsewhere? It certainly isn’t very satisfying to say what everyone else is saying. I could easily throw something together at the conclusion of each episode aired, babbling about DEATH, CULTURE, BURT! and calling it a night. Hell, I could probably create a boilerplate and mad lib my way through (Pete’s hairline is __________).
When a show interests me, I’m smitten. Mad Men currently stands atop what I consider quality TV, everything that is good about storytelling lies within this odd cross section of the 1960s. And now is back for season six.
So, What of The Two-Hour Premiere?
(Um, spoilers? No kvetching if you aren’t caught up and something is revealed. I mean, really.)
I think that we, the viewers were really spoiled by how previous seasons kicked off: the wild-west excitement of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce starting anew in that bright, white, fresh office space in season four. The notion of growth, building something of ones own loomed heavy and large. As for season five, the energetic youthfulness of Megan is easy to point towards given her birthday song and dance (and dress, eeesh) for Don, but when I think back to that party in the newlywed’s apartment, I think of the collective group present. Everyone is there; every pairing (minus Fat Betty Francis and her mother-in-law, I suppose) of consequence and no one really feels out of place. All together and…happy?
Season five was about death, sure; Lane was one of my favorite characters—and don’t forget about Miss Blankenship, she was an astronaut, after all. But it was really about fracturing that core, and we witnessed that collective separation beginning to unravel. By the end of the season, either by virtue of ambition (Peggy, Ken), unhappiness (uh, take your pick of the litter), maturation (Sally), immaturity (Megan?) or entitlement (Roger), there was a sea change across the board. How everyone deals with that inner shift seems to be where season six opens up. And hair/facial hair.
Season Six: It’s not about flash. What Megan calls a vacation is hotel experience number three for Don (lest we forget the sherbet-tainted Howard Johnson road trip or the Roman getaway courtesy Conrad Hilton), and while the location of Hawaii is exotic, his professional interest appears the most aloof compared to other excursions. He doesn’t speak for the first handful of scenes, he doesn’t doodle ideas on a napkin. He is merely present. When he finally talks on screen, he’s not really talking as Don, but from his Dick Whitman experiences in Korea.
While Don started off season five adrift at SCDP (he was in luvvv, after all), the thrill of the hunt returned in his pursuit of the Jaguar account and a desire to gain business from Dow. Where is that drive and interest? He appears lost in a sea of horrible floral print shirts and ugly sports jackets in these opening two hours, lacks his ability to exude coolness. And from such, his sense of control. His pitch to Sheridan, the hotel that sponsored his stay, echoes such; leaving Don unable to verbalize his experience. Pete proves all the more punch-able in every interaction with Don, who has no response or retort to Fivehead McSideburns (it will not prove difficult to discern which characters I like and which I loathe, if you were worried).
Is Don as we know him a relic, a figment left behind in this season? I personally fell in love with reliquaries upon learning what they were, especially during a trip to the Cloisters in NY. “Wait…so that is a piece of a person? A finger of a saint? Cool!”
It’s not so simple a distinction, though. When reduced to his mortal coil, Don is Dick Whitman, through and through—something that seems to be rising to the surface or entering conversation more and more. Don and his façade of cool is doomed to become an artifact either by force or by choice; not a piece or part of a person, but something manufactured and made by man. Which is the very thing he does for a living, mind you.
Time will tell what fragment of Don emerges triumphant, if at all. Returning to his philandering ways is probably the easiest thing, but not the best thing for someone losing their sense of self.
While the artifacts of the episode were interesting — the jar of holy water, Pfc. Dinkins lighter, the sly callback to Don’s Kodak pitch when Megan wanted to show off Hawaii photos—there were all sorts of relics of time gone by on display throughout. Burt Peterson returning the fray (where’s Freddy Rumsen? Even better — is this the season Sal emerges from the shamed darkness, especially over with Peggy at Ted Chough’s firm? ), young overstepping account executives, a pile of Roger’s ex-wives.
Speaking of Roger, I found the lack of a reaction shot after his Freudian slip of “this is my funeral!” from anyone present at the service surprising. Did no one catch it, or did no one acknowledge his words? Despite having the best one-liners, he has diminished in stature within his own firm (and social existence) with every passing season. Something worth pondering going forward.
The office setup, despite a second floor addition, didn’t feel new and have that bright optimistic feel of yesteryear. Betty remains a fat harpy.
The only piece of the episode that truly felt new and fresh, amidst a sea of relics and artifacts was Peggy. In control and in command of her ship. Able to talk from across the table to a client. Aware of sports, a change from her stated disinterest in “The Suitcase”. Open to friendships; her call with Stan was a delightful piece of character growth, given how they nakedly started off together two seasons ago. Also, the last two people we’ve seen her on the phone with were 1) her wormy ex-boyfriend (aka the kid from LOST) and…2) Duck. Consider me digitally retching over the mere thought of him resurfacing. I’m starting to watch Game of Thrones and am crossing streams here, but if Chauncey came back for vengeance dire-wolf style, I’d be cool with that.
I’m really hoping that season six isn’t about death and decline, but with so few characters looking ahead at this point, too much seems rooted in a bygone era. I don’t know how I’d feel if the show transformed into a Faulknerian Southern Gothic piece. Spanish moss doesn’t really work on Madison Avenue.
Given that the “next on” previews reveal absolutely nothing of purpose whatsoever, I’ll just look forward to the emergence of Trudy and try this again next week.