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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Wednesday, May 25, 2022

‘Mad Men’ returns for its sixth season

There’s an odd stench in the air at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. No, it’s not the billow of reefer stemming from Don’s creative team. No, that my friends is the debilitating odor of death. The office is no stranger to death, but this season seems a more macabre meditation on mortality.

A dreary opening transitions to sunnier skies as Don and Megan relax in the heat of Hawaii. One of my favorite elements of “Mad Men” is how events happen naturally between episodes, with viewers expected to catch up through the show’s conversations. In this vein, it appears Megan has become a soap opera star since her last gig as Beauty in her fairytale TV commercial.

Creator Matthew Weiner has stated change is a primary theme this season. Yet early on Don remains static as he mirrors last season’s closing shot, alone at a clouded bar. His blackened silhouette clashes with the pastel paintings while a serviceman, private first class Dinkins, strikes up a conversation. Don indulges him, but there’s an unnerving realization of isolation on his face as the soldier talks of one day being “the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.”

Betty remains a child. Her regression has become almost uncomfortable. Delighting in the sounds of a violin like a newborn babe, making casual rape references to “spice” things up with her husband, dying her hair on a whim, every action Betty makes seems childish and petulant. I recognize that’s her character, but Betty’s storyline is less palatable than the homeless men’s makeshift goulash.

Luckily, Peggy is handling success well across town at her new agency, but her stubborn adherence to Don’s antiquated practices is holding her back from rolling with the times. The consummate professional, she solves her agency’s crisis, but exudes Don’s negativity.

Meanwhile, Roger contemplates life’s inevitabilities with a psychiatrist as the creeping smell of death filters into his barren office. Roger’s mother has died, but he can’t bring himself to cry. Roger wished for life experiences to change him. It’s strange how fulfilled wishes can so easily end in disappointment.

As Don leaves Grandma Sterling’s funeral after providing the maid with an ever-refreshing pile of vomit, drunken Don interrogates his building’s doorman while Ken and Pete help him to his room.

Earlier in the episode, Don nearly saw the man die and sat in a state of utter shock while his new friend, Dr. Rosen, saved his life. He merely wants to know what the man saw when he died. What remains for man when he is entirely alone? When he has reached the pinnacle of existentialism? Don assumes tropical beaches; in reality, it’s probably the darkness of the empty elevator shaft he stared down last season.

Don also mistakenly acquired Pfc. Dinkins’ lighter. Every time he tries to dispose of the flame, it winds up back at his side. Don has already stolen one soldier’s identity and he doesn’t want another lingering in his back pocket. The lighter exudes contemplation, but he’d prefer Dinkins remain a drunken soldier rather than a catalyst for reflection.

At the office, Don enters the pitch for the Hawaiian hotel he visited, with his “experience” driving the narrative. The ad says Hawaii is the jumping off point, as a man leaves behind his clothes and enters the sea. It’s suicide, yet Don remains blind to its meaning. He’s still lost amidst the rolling sea as Lumberjack Stan explains the suicide is what makes it so great.

Don describes how the word “love” has lost its electricity. Hawaii is a jumping off point, a simple search for the spark Megan’s love once provided. Don didn’t start sleeping with Dr. Rosen’s wife because he stopped loving Megan, but because their love stopped meaning as much.

Dr. Faye was right; Don only loves the beginning of things. Don gave up the wife he wanted for the life she coveted, and it cheapened their love. Megan’s proclamation of love in costume during last season’s finale now seems as much a fairy tale as any. Happy endings are a fool’s revisionist history; the original tales were grim.

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What did you think about the new “Mad Men?” Let Adam know at aparis@wisc.edu

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