The sixth season of “Mad Men” kicked off last night with an unsubtle theme: death.
Welcome to 1968, a time of social and cultural shifts and the continuing defeat of the Vietnam War. Death is something the characters cannot seem to escape. Don knows it all too well, from the suicide of his younger brother Adam in Season One, to his own military service in Korea, to the suicide of his co-worker Lane Pryce. Death comes to chase Don down in this episode as he faces an existential crisis, trying to find out why he is so unhappy.
The season opens with Don and Megan seemingly in paradise, as they lie on a beach in Hawaii — but it’s apparent that Don is not enjoying himself. He broods as he reads Dante’s “Inferno, ” a tale of death and crime, the beautiful scenery around him contrasting with his facial expressions.
The camera is sure to give an extra few seconds to Megan, who has landed herself a role on a soap opera and is now a small-time celebrity, getting stopped for autographs in the hotel. Don clearly is unhappy with Megan’s success and makes it clear that she no longer satisfies him. She may be a pretty face, but Don seems to be searching for a deeper connection. The camera seems to purposely focus on Megan’s bottom as Don’s voice-over reads from his book, “Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
Death follows Don back to New York from Hawaii as he witnesses his doorman have a heart attack. Don is visibly shaken, and later in the episode, after having too many drinks, finds his doorman to ask, “What did you see when you died? I want to know: what did you see when you died?” Don’s creative capabilities are also distracted by death: themes of suicide jump out in an ad he creates for a luxury hotel in Hawaii and even his creative team and client notice that something is eating at him.
Meanwhile, death taunts Roger Sterling, the show’s silver fox. Roger must face the passing of his beloved 91-year-old mother. A usually cool, calm and collected character on the show, Roger’s persona seems to unravel in this episode: he starts ranting at his mother’s funeral, eventually shouting, “This is my funeral!” Roger is not the only one who embarrasses himself. Don, after having too much to drink vomits and must be taken home, making it apparent the two partners are out of control.
Somehow, Roger ends up in therapy. Back in Season One, when Don’s ex-wife, Betty, is seeing a therapist, Roger scoffed at the idea, referring to psychology as another “pink stove.” Yet Roger finds himself in a counseling session in this episode, telling his therapist his life consists of traveling through doorways and over bridges to find new experiences, when “they all open the same way and they all close behind you.”
Roger and Don seem to find themselves alone. Though they are rich, powerful, and undefeated in the advertising world, beautiful women and children do not seem to satisfy the hunger that drives these men. Roger tells his therapist he’s going to spend the rest of his time “losing everything,” but we can expect him to continue to search for some sort of happiness as the episodes go on, whether through a new car or a younger woman. Roger Sterling is someone who will always find something to keep him occupied, even momentarily. Don, on the other hand, might not realize there can be a new path to happiness — he’s already reverted back to his old ways, drinking too much and cheating on Megan, who’se far back in his mind.
As troubled and lost as Mad Men’s characters seem to be, the show’s women seem to be thriving. Peggy is rocking her new position, sporting a fashionable bob as she heads a new firm, working late hours with a capable and levelheaded smirk. Megan gains some extra time on her TV show, “To Have and to Hold.” Even Betty, the miserable mother of three who seemingly doesn’t have a thought process more mature than that of a 12-year-old girl, seems happier than she ever was in this show’s history. She musters the confidence to talk dirty to her husband in bed, and later sports a new, brown hair color. And she takes a trip to Greenwich Village to help a friend of Sally’s.
Perhaps Matthew Weiner’s morbid portrayal of the male characters is supposed to coincide with the success of the women of “Mad Men,” to show the once confident are now downtrodden? We’ll find out more as the season goes on, but expect to see more of Don’s life unravel in contrast with the success of Peggy and Megan.
Watch a preview for ‘Mad Men Season Six’: