April 8, 2013



MAD MEN:  Sunday 10PM on AMC

And still–there’s MAD MEN.  Even in an era of unparalleled TV drama, nothing else on the air is quite like Matthew Weiner’s masterwork, a TV series that simply isn’t playing the same game as all the rest.  “When you bring me something like this, it looks like cowardice,” Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) said scornfully to her junior copywriters in tonight’s Season 6 premiere, and that might as well have been Weiner talking to his fellow series creators, the ones who lean on genre and time-honored audience-pleasing techniques to tell their tales.

Mad Men has never been afraid to concern itself with the most existential of issues, and the season premiere, written by Weiner and directed by Executive Producer Scott Hornbacher, announced what appear to be the themes of this season with hard-to-miss clarity:  death, or other profound change, and what follows.  Death was everywhere in this two-hour, almost self-contained drama, which felt, with its setting in the last two weeks of 1967, like a prologue to the season proper.  We began with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) on a Hawaiian beach reading Dante’s saga of the afterlife (a book, we would discover, lent to Don by his latest mistress).  When he returned to New York, his building doorman dropped in front of him, technically dead for a moment before being revived by Don’s surgeon neighbor (the husband of Don’s mistress).  At the office, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) learns that his mother has died–when Don attends the memorial service, he throws up–and so does Roger’s shoeshine man; Roger also delivers the episode’s keynote address to his psychiatrist, about the doorways we all walk through, only to discover nothing on the other side but more doorways.  When Don has to come up with a quick proposal for the proprietors of the hotel that sponsored his Hawaiian vacation, his idea of a man shedding his clothes and heading into the ocean suggests suicide to everyone in the room except Don (for whom we know it’s more of a reference to abandoning his Dick Whitman persona).  Peggy’s Super Bowl ad for Kost headphones is derailed because its Shakespearean “Lend us your ears” is too close to the Vietnam atrocities of soldiers making ear necklaces of dead Viet Cong.  Even on the soap opera where Don’s still-wife Megan (Jessica Pare) is a minor character, the good news that she’s becoming more heavily featured comes when her character murders another.

This is, we all know, the penultimate season for Mad Men, and the struggle to find what’s next in life is much on Weiner’s mind.  Some of the characters seem to be embracing change of one sort or another.  Peggy may be a little too Don-like for the people who work for her, but any fears that she’d lose her mojo without Don as her boss were unfounded, and she appears to be doing fine.  Betty (January Jones)–well, she’s still Betty, with a bizarre semi-joking, semi-jealous rant to husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) that included her offer to hold down the arms of the 15 year-old family friend in the next room if Henry wanted to rape her.  But while she still has issues (she becomes temporarily obsessed with saving that 15-year-old–whose mother has recently died–when she runs away from home), she seems far less agonized about her weight than she did last season, and by the end of this episode, her change of hair color seemed to indicate her own shedding of skin.  Don, though, like the Carousel slide projector that returned to his life late in the episode with photos of Hawaii, is still going around in circles, cheating on his wife and seething with angst he can’t discuss with anyone, triggered here when his identity is stripped away again, this time against his will, as he ends up with the lighter of a soldier he met in Hawaii instead of the one from his (and the real Don Draper’s) time in Korea.

Mad Men goes completely against the grain of shows like Homeland, Scandal and Game of Thrones, all of which eat up plot at such a rapid rate that one wonders what they can do for an encore.  Weiner’s chosen pace has always been more measured (when the show’s budget increased and AMC insisted that only more commercials could pay for it, Weiner fought to have the running time extended beyond 60 minutes rather than lose any of the show), and even with 2+ hours to play with tonight, there was barely any involvement by Joan (Christina Hendricks), and not much more for Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka)–although it was gratifying to see Sally calmly close the bedroom door on Betty when her mother was about to interrupt a phone call.  There was less plot in this premiere than Shonda Rhimes packs into a 15-minute segment on one of her shows, and that’s one reason Mad Men has never been a blockbuster hit.

For those willing to get on its very individual wavelength, though, the show was completely in form.  As usual, there was as much information in the remarkable set design, costumes and–in this case–hairstyles as in the dialogue.  (Notably, Don seemed like the only man at Sterling Cooper whose personal style has barely changed since 1960.)  The only time the episode faltered was when Betty went to a St Marks Place hovel where the 15 year-old had stayed for a time before selling her violin and heading to the west coast–not only was the squat itself clearly a soundstage set, but Weiner’s dialogue for the hippy squatters was stilted and self-conscious (the sequence also featured, very oddly, one of the few times in the history of the show where Weiner had a character say “fuck” with the sound dropped out–odd because it seemed such an unimportant moment to draw attention to itself that way).

We don’t really know yet what this season of Mad Men will be about; apart from Don’s affair, it’s not clear what plotlines introduced here will be raised again.  But viewers are still in the same remarkably gifted hands as have guided the show for five previous seasons, and the journey through the doorways it has left are certain to be worthwhile.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."