Sunday's "Mad Men" Season 6 premiere wasn't just a little morbid, to borrow a phrase used by the episode's Sheraton executives. It was mortality on parade, with heart attacks, the "Inferno" and dead mothers reminding Don and the gang that there is no escaping their fates. The fresh starts of season 5 have molded over.
"Life is supposed to be a path and you go along and these things happen to you and they're supposed to change you, change your direction, but it turns out that's not true." Roger tells his therapist, in a rare candid moment that sums up both his and Don's condition. "It turns out experiences are nothing. They're pennies you pick up off the floor, stick into your pocket. And you're just going in a straight line to 'you know where.'"
We meet Don in a Hawaiian paradise, but Dante tells us where Don really is, "alone, in a dark wood," Don reads. When he puts his Hawaiian vision into ad form, everyone reads it as suicide. And chasing Don into the abyss is his former identity, which he traded with a fellow soldier killed in the Korean War so many years ago. Now he has traded a lighter with a Vietnam soldier, and he can't ditch that either.
His second wife, Megan, couldn't save him from his struggles with his identity nor can she ward off is infidelity. By the final sequence it is revealed old Don is back, bedding his neighbor's wife.
You may have heard of "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner's list of what critics were not allowed to reveal in their reviews—the Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan griped about it last week. Don and Sylvia Rosen's affair—which I presume fits under the umbrella of "the status of Megan and Don's relationship," a demand redacted in Ryan's report—was best left a surprise. Season 5 ended with a pretty girl asking a married Don if he was alone. It took Season 6 two hours to answer that question.
A disorienting feeling accompanied the countless allusions to "the whole life and death thing," to borrow from Dr. Rosen, the Jewish doctor living in Don's building. Who is the man on his back in the opening scene? Why is a vacationer calling Megan "Corinne"? Who is the young violinist Betty has taken under her wing? The confusion—some of it cleared up in a few minutes, some remains ever after the episode—turned the viewer into the familiar falling man, unable to make sense of the images rushing by him. Weiner also requested that critics not reveal "new characters," "new relationships or partnerships"—most frustrating to Ryan or any critic, though I can see why he worried what would be lost if a review answered any of the questions.
He also asked critics not say what year it is—which is never truly answered by the episode, but Christmas of 1967 seems to be a reasonable guess. Private Dinkins, the solider Don meets in Hawaii, refers to "the s--t that went on last summer stateside," which at best guess, is an allusion to the anti-war protests of that year.
And as to Weiner's forbiddance of revealing "whether the agency has expanded to an additional floor," Season 5 was already hinting such as Joan scoped out other floors. But yes, business is booming for Sterling Cooper Draper Price. The agency has expanded along with its staff, as a handsome, overeager accounts man ruffles the feathers of the old guard.
The times are changing around Don. Everyone from his wife to his subordinates are enthusiastically smoking the reefer. The fashions are getting brighter. Betty has gone brunette. ("I hate it. You're ugly!"–Bobby Draper finally gets a memorable line.) Even Don's office furniture has been moved around on him.
But not everyone's stuck in the cement, to borrow a line from Sandy, whose connection to Betty and Henry Francis is still unclear. Ugly duckling Peggy has turned into a brilliant Madison Avenue swan, bossing her underlings around, employing Don's brainstorming techniques, saving her ad agency in a creative crisis and putting the importance of advertisement in classic Draperian eloquence:
"It's about making a great ad–the association being not with Vietnam but with a laugh, a smile, that all comes from your headphones," she tells her client, whose campaign must be reworked after it becomes the butt of a Vietnam War joke.
Joan has finally weaned herself from Roger; she is notably absent from the fallout over his mother's death. And Megan—ever the exhibitionist as she dances with her Hawaiian host—has regained her self-confidence as her television career takes off. (She is a long way from the crying episodes after Don wouldn't feature her in his ads).
"Mad Men" tells the story of the 1960s, or as the Atlantic's Richard Lawson said in his review, when the American dream got ill. If this is the decade that put us to the path of "The End of the Men," it is fitting then, that in its penultimate season (at least as Weiner claims), "Mad Men's" ad men are stuck, staring down their demise. "We sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? We ignored it," Roger tells Don.
They aren't ignoring it any longer.