Don Draper encounters what may be his most frightening moment in six years of Mad Men episodes halfway through the show's season debut tonight while facing a photographer taking his picture in the office.
Camera poised to snap an image, the photographer makes a request that sends chills down Draper's spine: "I want you to be yourself."
Within minutes, you sense Draper is no closer to answering that question — "Who am I?" — than he was when fans first found him back in 2007.
Mad Men begins its sixth season with a two-hour film, "The Doorway," which at times feels less like an open passageway than a darkly uncertain destination, especially for Jon Hamm's Draper — an Americanized James Bond working Madison Avenue instead of the French Riviera. It has loads of subtext and table-setting for longtime fans, and is a surprising, compelling journey for those who know the show well.
A suave impostor who took the identity of his commanding officer when that man was killed in Korea, the restless, driven Draper always seems on the verge of vanishing inside his own lies and bottomless need.
He's no different this year (we first see him on a beach in Hawaii, next to a beautiful woman, ignoring her to read Dante's Inferno), picking up after a season in which one partner in his advertising firm committed suicide and his wife decided to leave the business for an acting career.
"The characters are always looking over their shoulders at themselves (and asking) 'Is the problem that it's me?' " said Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, trying to explain the melancholy vision which, once again, seems to motivate every character here.
"I hate to say it like this, but a lot of the story is, 'No matter where you go, there you are,' " Weiner added, speaking specifically about Draper's quest. "Some of it is concrete things; he's a deserter. But really what it has to do with is, 'How do you feel about yourself?' It's the anxiety of being a fraud."
Co-star John Slattery, who plays Draper's work pal and partner Roger Sterling, explains the show's perspective by quoting the character himself. "What does Draper say: 'What is happiness? The moment before you want more happiness,' " Slattery said. "Roger's looking for something, how to string together moments of happiness and call it a life. At least he's still optimistic enough to keep looking."
Slattery and Weiner were typically closed-mouthed about plot details during a recent conference call, refusing to discuss anything that hasn't already aired on AMC, despite the fact that many journalists had already seen "The Doorway."
To say that Weiner displays a somewhat, um, controlling attitude about this stuff is like saying notorious philanderer Draper has a few commitment issues.
This time around the executive producer even has asked journalists not to divulge in what year the new episode occurs, always a buzzed-about question among fans. (A clue arrives when Draper picks up a newspaper on New Year's Day; the headline is from a New York Times story immortalized much later in a book by award-winning author Mark Kurlansky on this landmark time.)
Weiner will allow another nugget: This season's theme is wrapped up in a line from a new character (whom we also are asked not to describe): "People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety."
"I really try to step away from it and say, 'What is the next step in these people's lives?' " he said, describing how he finds a theme to wrap each season around. "I wasn't born until 1965. I have no memory of this period. But I feel there is a general sense of anxiety about the loss of self-esteem that we've had as a country. There was a lot of chaos (then), and I feel we're a little bit in that now."
Fans have just two more seasons of Mad Men to savor. The show ends its run after the seventh cycle, presumably next year.
And after an afternoon talking with Weiner and Slattery, here are a few things that stand out about the start of a legendary series' penultimate season.
Death is once again a major theme, but Weiner isn't bothered by it.
"I don't find it any bleaker than normal,'' the executive producer says cheerfully about an episode where Draper focuses on death so much, he unwittingly pitches an advertising campaign evoking a suicide. "I think it's cathartic. We've had a show since the pilot that starts with a guy jumping out a window."
Weiner, who wrote for HBO's classic meditation on mortality, The Sopranos, is known for salting his own creation with similar themes. Still, Draper and the other characters sometimes fixate on the issue like you'd expect people twice their age to do.
Draper and Elizabeth Moss' Peggy Olson are the show's two lead characters in Weiner's mind.
Fans wondered what might happen to ace copywriter Peggy once she left her mentor's firm last season, but the new episode finds her working clients and co-workers like a chip off the old Draper, manipulating them all to let her achieve the kind of work we all knew she was capable of creating.
"It's a tough call to make when you have an ensemble like this," Weiner said about highlighting those two characters as the show's linchpin. "But what happens to both of them is always in relation to each other."
The '70s are approaching, and some characters adapt better than others.
The first episode finds our characters steeped in the times: Vietnam, the emergence of hippie culture, more relaxed roles for women and men. The most obvious difference is the way some characters adopt the new fashions — somehow, Peggy's boyfriend winds up looking like Frank Zappa — but Weiner cautions against seeing that as an allegory for success in adapting to the changing times.
"What is more interesting is that people have some expectation that Don is going to be left behind," Weiner said when I mention that Draper seemed to have trouble understanding the appeal of the Beatles in an earlier episode. "I feel like the society is more like Don … a societal sense of insecurity. I just feel a vibe right now, which is, 'What is my relationship to the group? Do I have any control over the future?' That powerlessness creates a lot of anxiety."
This was the toughest season to write since the series' second cycle.
"Season two, I was dealing with the fact that we had completed season one and how am I ever going to do it again," Weiner said, laughing. "(This season) all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. It's getting harder and harder (to find new material). It felt really high stakes … that we treat it like it was the last season of the show."
Slattery isn't quite sure that Roger and Don are friends, but he hopes so.
"They are very different people with a deep understanding of each other," said the actor, who puts on his director's hat to helm two more episodes this season. "(Roger) really got the s--- beat out of him in many ways (last season). I think people underestimate him as someone who is being a good time Charlie. But he knows what he's doing."
Weiner sees the Don/Roger dynamic a little differently. "I always feel like Roger is kinda like Don's id," he says, describing the instinctual, impulsive part of the human psyche. "He is a pleasure seeker. 'Will Roger Sterling ever grow up?' is a more interesting question, and I think that stands apart from the times. If he were around right now, I think Roger Sterling would be going to a lot of spas and having sugar rubbed in his face."
DON'S Ex-wife Betty Francis does show up this season, and she unveils a major change in the first episode.
If I wrote anything more, Weiner would kill me.
The insecurity on Mad Men isn't reserved just for its characters.
Despite a raft of Emmys, praise for ushering in a new era of high-quality TV and credit for changing American culture (Forbes magazine recently said that more young people are gravitating toward the advertising world, thanks to Mad Men), Weiner still worries that viewers won't show up for new seasons.
"I never take the audience for granted," he said. "I love their loyalty, but I always want to earn their attention. Anyone who says they're only interested in pleasing themselves is an idiot."
Eric Deggans, email@example.com