My Mad Men recap: Finally critics can dish on new season's date, surprising co-stars and morbid obsession with death
You could feel the relief spill across social media Sunday, as critics nationwide offered up detailed analyses of Mad Men’s two-hour Season 6 return, freed from promises made to hold back details which might spoil the action for fans. (if it needs to be said, this post is filled with spoilers, for those who haven't yet seen the episode.)
The episode itself drew viewership about even with last year's season debut, attracting 3.4 million viewers, according to AMC (in contrast, the previous Sunday's Season 3 finale of Walking Dead drew 12.4 million viewers). Even many critics who love the show scratched their head at the stuff creator Matt Weiner wanted to keep out of advance reviews, including whether or not the firm moved to an additional floor (SPOILER ALERT: They did.)
Still, tinally, we could reveal that much of the action in the episode, dubbed “The Doorway,” took place at the end of 1967 and the beginning of 1968 (the only clue I saw; a New York Times headline that hero Don Draper glanced at near the episode’s end. I had to Google the headline to come up with a Mark Kurlansky book based on that year).
We could also note that ER alum Linda Cardellini surfaced as the wife of a cardiologist living in the same building as Draper and his wife. Though another neighbor’s wife spent New Year’s Eve practically throwing herself at our adman supreme, its Cardellini's Sylvia who Draper winds up bedding by the episode’s end. (See her dish about the role here to Entertainment Weekly)
And we can specifically note how so many of the characters were directly obsessed with death, from Draper’s fascination and obvious admiration for the man who he is cuckholding (is sleeping with the doctor’s wife a way of getting closer to the power he holds over life and death?) to Roger Sterling’s blithe insistence that he’s not affected by his mother’s death.
Sterling's facade lasts until Roger learns his favorite shoe shine guy also died, prompting him to break down in tears over the guy’s dilapidated shoeshine box. It’s as if Weiner saw how many fans picked at subtle allusions to death in the show’s past episodes and decided to go all in this season.
Weiner told me weeks ago that one theme for this episode is key characters realizing that they may not have changed as much as they (or we) thought they have.
Jon Hamm's Don Draper stands as Exhibit A; he avoided temptation throughout last season as fans waited for him to break young wife Megan’s heart, only to stray now, when many of us had begun to accept he might be smart enough not to go there yet again.
My favorite scenes were smaller ones: Draper trading quips at the bar with a G.I. about to be married in Hawaii who seems disturbingly like a young version of his office pal Roger Sterling; Draper getting a look of cold fear over his face when an office photographer asks him to just “be yourself”; ex-wife Betty Francis (Draper) revealing how bizarrely twisted her outlook could be, crossing all kinds of lines while joking with her current husband about helping him rape a young friend of her daughter’s; Betty looking past everyone else in her home to see if her current husband approves of her decision to go brunette, a desperate attempt to discard her old life and play the dutiful housewife.
For longtime viewers, the episode was a treasure trove of new character moments; still, I couldn’t imagine being a new viewer and trying to understand half of it. There even seemed to be a message in how the characters responded to the fashion of the times, with more superficial figures adopting more trendy, ‘70s-style looks as the Me Decade approaches.
Critics hoping the show might turn to deal with civil rights issues got few indications that might happen Sunday. The only sign of change in that area was characters’ ready acceptance of Draper’s African American secretary; a sign that some kind of social change may be taking place far offscreen (also, as a friend reminds me, the young soldier who enlists Draper for his wedding is marrying a Latina, another sign of changing times at the show's periphery).
Given that the characters are entering a year where the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy are both assassinated, as segregation in housing is outlawed by the Fair Housing Act, there’s still plenty of opportunity to tackle these stories. But I’m not holding my breath.
I found Sunday’s episode magnificently compelling, setting the table with lots of important shifts for major characters. Still, it was ultimately quite depressing, but not for all the barely explicable obsessing on death by people still young enough to qualify as middle aged.
Because if somebody as smart, cool-looking, effective, wealthy and successful as Don Draper can’t reach a point where he’s satisfied with everything he has – returning from a Hawaii vacation to propose an ad campaign that is a thinly-veiled meditation on suicide -- what chance do the rest of us have?