Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 6–For Immediate Release

“Just once, I’d like to hear you use the word ‘we’. Because we’re all rooting from the sidelines, hoping that you’ll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.”


After last week’s thoughtful tussle with history, it was back to business with a vengeance for this week’s Mad Men. With Matthew Weiner scripting solo for the first time since the season premiere, this week saw the fortunes of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on some kind of insane rollercoaster, as Big Decisions were made by sub-cliques among the partners who surely should have checked with the others before making them. As ever, it turned out to be (by a very lucky combination of circumstances), Don and Roger who came up smelling of roses, while the ever-unlucky Pete Campbell saw his stock both at work and at home go plunging.

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Mad Men: Season 6, Episodes 1 & 2 – The Doorway

“Midway through life’s journey, I went astray on a straight road – and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”


It’s time to rejoin the existential angst of the unhappy folk at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as Mad Men returns for its sixth, apparently penultimate season. After the tumultuous events of last year – Joan whoring herself to a sweaty exec for a partnership, Peggy heading off to a rival agency, and Lane Pryce hanging himself in his office – our heroes are unhappy. For this show, this is not unusual.

The season premiere, appropriately enough, was all about death. We opened with a POV shot of some unknown person being resuscitated from a heart attack. Oh no! Is it Don? Roger? Bert, even?

Since Matthew Weiner’s script immediately cut straight to a Hawaiian beach, that was a mystery to be eked out for a short while. It lent a hallucinatory air to the proceedings, as I began to wonder whether Don and Megan’s idyllic holiday was actually one of the dream sequences the show occasionally does; it’s often so thickly portentous even when it isn’t a dream, it can be hard to tell. Let’s face it, Mad Men is so heavy with portents, the folk from Frank Herbert’s Dune look uncomplicated by comparison.

Don Draper must be the only person whose choice of beach reading is Dante’s Inferno, another portent that made me wonder if this was a near-death experience. But no, as we began seeing things from Megan’s perspective too, that clearly wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, the Drapers’ vacation had a surreal quality to it.

Don, unable to sleep, met a drunken soldier at the hotel bar. As they chatted about their respective combat experiences, Don found himself agreeing to be best man for the clearly doomed PFC Dinkins at his wedding the next morning, before heading back to Vietnam. The whole sequence had such a dreamlike quality, it was hard to tell if it was imaginary until Megan found her husband giving away a bride on the beach the next morning, taking a snapshot of the occasion.


Mention of Vietnam got me wondering exactly when the new season was set. Mad Men never does anything as easy as telling the viewer; you have to work it out from hints in the dialogue, the fashions, the cars etc. Last year, the elapsed time between seasons was easy to work out from Joan’s pregnancy. This year, there was no such easy clue, but the Christmas trees, and the repeated references to Dr Christiaan Barnard’s first heart transplant, gave it away – we were in December 1967.

So, the characters have just been through the Summer of Love, though in typical Mad Men fashion, it’s a very cold winter when we catch up with them. Don, increasingly out of touch with the young, was dismissive of the trivialisation of the word ‘love’, being used to pepper conversations and ad campaigns – “Why are we contributing to the trivialization of the word? It doesn’t belong in the kitchen. We’re wearing it out.”

In keeping with the times, absolutely everyone’s now smoking weed – the creative team at SCDP even sparking up in the office, to very little reaction from Don (“I smell creativity”). Vietnam would now be in full swing, and the horror of the combat starting to come through to the American public – as Peggy discovered to her annoyance.


In keeping with what I’d expected at the end of last year, we spent a deal of time here catching up with Peggy and how she was doing at rival firm Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Not unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of Don Draper in her work style – she’s confident and thoroughly in charge of her rather timid creative team. She’s also now living with longtime boyfriend Abe, and walking all over him too, which he seems perfectly content with; he too seems permanently stoned.

Still, Peggy obviously misses the SCDP crew; working all night at the office, she spends ages on the phone to old buddy Stan. So it was that Stan happened to overhear everything that passed between her and her boss – Don’s old rival – Ted Chaough. Trouble a-brewing?

Roger, meanwhile, appeared to have got his acid-fuelled serenity out of his system and was spending time with a therapist. John Slattery was as wryly amusing as ever; he manages to keep Roger deep enough to avoid him being just a comical buffoon. We saw both sides in these two episodes, as he too got to reflect on death, in this case his mother’s.

This was announced to him by his tearful secretary Caroline, who he awkwardly comforted while balancing two glasses of gin. The comedy was heightened even more at a supremely awkward wake. In Mad Men, no social occasion ever goes well, and this was no exception. Having to deal with fawning elderly relatives, two ex-wives and his grasping daughter, it was a relief for Roger when the unexpectedly sloshed Don turned up, staggered about a bit and vomited into the umbrella stand, mercifully cutting short his wheelchair-bound aunt’s saccharine eulogy.


It felt strangely out of character (presumably intentionally) for Don to be so out of control on booze. Yes, he’s had his problems there before, but he seemed to get over them. This time, there was little forewarning; after Megan (now a minor soap opera star) left for some filming, he was seen silently sipping whisky while the maid vacuumed. Next minute he was turning up at Roger’s, barely able to stand up.

Don being Don, he was lost in introspection half the time, staring at things with a troubled expression in that way he has. In one of the show’s examples of portentous symbolism, he’d discovered that, while in Hawaii, he’d accidentally switched his Zippo lighter with that of Private Dinkins, and he can’t get rid of it. He tried throwing it in the trash, only for Megan to hand it back to him after the maid found it. Later, he asked his secretary Dawn to get the Army to return it to Dinkins; given this opener’s obsession with death, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the young man is already on his way home in a body bag.

Don seems obsessed with death. Perhaps he’s still haunted by guilt over Lane’s suicide, which itself reawakened his guilt over his brother’s. We discovered fairly early on (in a joltingly timeslipped sequence) that the victim of the heart attack seen at the outset was the seemingly insignificant doorman at Don’s apartment, Jonesy. As the drunken Don was manhandled home by Pete and Ken, he stopped to slurringly and insistently press Jonesy for details of what he’d seen when he ‘died’ – as it turned out, the old standby of ‘a white light’.


Perhaps this was what inspired Don to come up with an ill-advised pitch to the Sheraton honchos, showing an abandoned set of clothes on a Hawaiian beach. He thought it was an image of freedom; to everyone else, it suggested suicide. An interesting juxtaposition of ideas, if a little obvious by this show’s standards.


Betty at least didn’t seem morbidly obsessed with death, as we caught up with her and Sally watching Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. But she too was acting very oddly. With Sally’s friend Sandy staying over for Christmas, she was obviously none too keen on husband Henry apparently perving at her – but it was a bit out of the blue when she acidly suggested that he should rape her. And that she should watch. Joke it may have been, but this is not the prim Betty we remember – is middle age taking a toll on her sexual tastes along with her waistline?

Taking her unusual behaviour further, she seemed to be forging a maternal bond with Sandy in the way she never has with Sally. Tracking the errant teenager to a filthy commune in Greenwich Village, she then took on the role of den mother to the straggly hippy boys trying ineptly to cook goulash while stoned. She didn’t find Sandy, though – and what was the heavily telegraphed significance of her ripping her coat?


And while Roger may have taken the death of his mother with a sanguine, almost exasperated air, death came back to hit him hard as he was handed the cleaning tools of his just-deceased shoeshine guy – and collapsed in a weeping heap. Of course, this would usually just be a delayed reaction to the death that really should affect him; but it would be quite in keeping for Roger Sterling to be more attached to his shoeshine boy than his mother.

Not many clues here about where the season’s going to go. Everything seems pretty stable at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (nice that they kept Lane’s name on the ticket). Don’s full of introspective angst and middle-aged obsolescence, but when isn’t he? Black secretary Dawn is still the sole representative of non-white ethnicities in the office. And Peggy seems to be doing just fine at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, despite the unfortunate problem with the Koss headphones account.

Yes, on the surface, everything seemed fine. But then, in this show, that’s often the way. This episode had a doom-laden, ominous tone deriving from nothing out of the ordinary at all; Dinkins’ lighter, Don’s rearranged office and so forth. And the noticeable fixation with death – and what happens after – may be some tonal indicator of what’s to come. For now though, while this was a good season opener and certainly very watchable, it lacked the compelling tone of last year. A low key start, even for a show this low key – let’s see where it goes from here.

Historical events

As mentioned above, the first successful heart transplant – achieved by Dr Christiaan Barnard on 3 December 1967 – got a lot of shout outs. It was also perfectly accurate that Phyllis Diller was fronting the Tonight Show at that point – Matthew Weiner pointed out that Johnny Carson routinely took the holidays off. Not sure who the comedian guest was that made the unfortunate gag about GIs having necklaces made from human ears, but that certainly did become a scandal at about this point.

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

As we’ve moved on from 1966, apparently the Hideous Checked Sports Coats so prominent last year are no longer In. What is In, after the Summer of Love made hippies trendy, is flamboyant facial hair. Ginsberg was sporting a fulsome moustache:


While Stan had gone the whole hog with a massive full-on beard:


Even Peggy’s beau Abe is no longer the clean-cut beatnik we remember, but has morphed into a Frank Zappa lookalike:


No wonder he seemed so stoned.

Roger, for his part, was sporting a style new to him – a none-too-subtle pastel blazer, with two rows of conspicuous buttons:


Tune in next week to see what other atrocities the looming end of the decade will force our characters to wear…

Mad Men: Season 5, Episodes 1 & 2–A Little Kiss

“Something always happens. Things are different.”

Mad Men (Season 5)


Rejoice, for finally Mad Men is back! After 17 months of alleged behind the scenes wrangling at AMC TV, thankfully everything was settled in terms of writers, producers, cast and budget (that latter at the expense of The Walking Dead, reportedly). The men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce showed up for business on Sunday night in the US, and straight away we were immersed in the show’s trademark subtle vision of the 60s.

So subtle in fact that, as usual, I couldn’t immediately tell what year they’d moved on to this time. Mad Men is like that; it doesn’t do exposition. You have to work at it as a viewer, because none of the answers are spelled out in dialogue. This is never more true than in a season premiere, where the timescale between seasons can range from months to years, with the concomitant change in the characters’ circumstances. Part of the fun is working it out, and the show doesn’t give an inch. After all, why have a line of dialogue when meaning can be conveyed by Don Draper staring moodily into the middle distance through a haze of cigarette smoke?

Anyway, it’s 1966 (I eventually discovered), and I guess it’s about nine months after the end of the previous season. I know this because Joan has actually gone ahead and had the baby fathered by Roger after their illicit post-mugging liaison in an alley. As she was a couple of months pregnant last time, and her baby looks a couple of months old here, I think an intervening time of about 9 months is the right area.

Thankfully Don has moved on from the dark place in which he spent most of last season, when he lived in a tiny apartment and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Initially he seemed quite happy with new French-Canadian wife Megan, who seemed to have an inhuman level of tolerance with his grumpiness. Said grumpiness was brought on by her staging of a surprise birthday party for his fortieth in their swanky new pad, a surprise that was (typically) blown by Roger turning up with a bottle of champagne just as Don and Megan reached their door.

This season premiere was basically two episodes glued together, and the first concerned itself largely with the party. Don doesn’t like birthdays; he never celebrated them when he was Dick Whitman and he doesn’t want to now. Megan can’t grasp that, and Don ends up fidgeting uncomfortably through what looks like rather a good party.

As the centrepiece of the episode, the party was staged very well. All the major characters were there, together with a lot of young people who were presumably friends of Megan’s. Straight away, Don’s obvious discomfort pointed up what his problem was – he’s getting old. Or at least he feels he is, particularly when surrounded by modern, with-it people almost twenty years his junior, like his new wife. I think this is a theme we’re going to be returning to quite a bit this year.

Meanwhile, we got a flavour of the times as people at the party discussed current events, a good way of setting the scene. Vietnam is just getting into full swing, and already Bert Cooper and Peggy’s beatnik boyfriend Abe are discussing it as an unnecessary war run for profit which maims and kills young men (much to the discomfort of the young sailor standing next to them; “I thought there’d be women here,” he muttered).

Vietnam is presumably going to be a recurring theme this year. Joan’s abusive doctor husband is at Fort Dixie, presumably about to be transferred there. As a result, an unusually flustered Joan is being helped by her acid-tongued mother with caring for the baby. Their bitchy bickering is hugely entertaining, and hopefully we’ll see more of her.

Joan is actually stuck there with no certain knowledge she can go back to her job, as the limited women’s rights of the 60s didn’t include maternity leave. Indeed, the challenge for women’s rights was implicit throughout, catching up with the struggle Peggy’s had since the outset of the show. Don still expects his new young wife to be obedient and submissive, which she’s having none of. He’s plainly forgotten that attitude was instrumental in losing him his last wife (well, that and the constant infidelity and lying). And Joan’s mother is startled that Joan might defy her husband and return to work rather than care for her child full time. Peggy might have got in early, but by 1966 Women’s Lib was getting into full swing, and I imagine it’s a theme the show will return to frequently.

I suspect another driving theme of the times is going to be the Civil Rights movement. We were plunged into this straight away, as some foolish young execs from rival ad firm Y & R got into racial trouble by water bombing a protest march from their office window. This led to an amusing sniping war, as Roger took out a gloating ad for SCDP in the paper calling them an “equal opportunity” firm. The joke backfired towards the end of the episode, as it had been misinterpreted as a vacancy ad, and suddenly the all-white Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was besieged with eager black job applicants. “Why is the office full of Negroes?” enquired a flustered Roger.

Indeed, Roger’s racial attitude summed up the time period. When it was suggested they take one of the black girls on as a receptionist, he snapped, “we don’t want one of them out there!” The all-pervading racism of the 60s has been an ongoing subtle theme in the series, and it looks like this year it’s going to be pushed more to the front. It even hangs over little moments; why else would Lane, having discovered a lost wallet in a taxi, not trust the (black) driver to return it to its owner?

The wallet, in fact, led to another amusing subplot that may or may not be continued. Discovering a picture of a beautiful young lady in it, Lane called her to enquire about returning the wallet (which belonged to her boyfriend), and ended up flirting outrageously with her on the phone. It was a funny scene, well-played by Jared Harris. But it might spin out into something more serious. Plainly Lane’s marriage is not going that well; beneath their English reserve, you can tell that neither he nor his wife are happy. He was disappointed when it was the wallet’s owner who turned up at the office to collect it rather than the beautiful Dolores. But since the wallet’s owner had an Italian surname and was almost a stereotypical Mob hood, Lane may be getting himself into trouble if he goes after Dolores.

Elsewhere, the ever-uptight Pete is as unhappy as ever, and the script chose to emphasise that he has dandruff and is starting to go bald. I’m glad the dialogue spelled that one out, as actor Vincent Kartheiser seems to have a perfectly full head of hair. But he was as excellent as ever as the perpetually unsuccessful Pete, whose rivalry with Roger has been stepped up a notch for some more humorous scenes. Roger has taken to sneaking glances at his calendar to steal his leads; so Pete responds by setting up a fake meeting with a big client at 6am, which Roger gullibly goes off to.

Harry Crane is unhappy too, having expressed his lust for Don’s wife while the lady was actually standing right behind him. This led to one of the funniest scenes in the episode, as Harry was carpeted by Roger and immediately assumed he was being fired for the incident. But all Roger wanted to do was convince him to trade offices with Pete, whose tiny cupboard of an office had a big post in the middle of it that Pete managed to walk into hard enough to make his nose bleed. Pete had made a fuss about wanting a better office, but he was still furious; as Roger had correctly worked out, it was Roger’s office he really wanted.

All this, as usual, moved at a pretty leisurely pace. In terms of actual plot, not a great deal happened. But then, in Mad Men, plot has a way of creeping up on you incrementally. At the end of the day, even with a period setting, it’s basically a very classy soap opera, which depends on you being invested with the fates of its characters. This opening instalment set out its stall very well for the coming year in that regard. Interestingly, while watching I tried to imagine what it would be like if this was the first episode I’d seen, with no knowledge of the characters’ tortuous back stories. And I was surprised to decide that it was actually still just as accessible as a jumping in point. Only the business about Don’s former identity, knowledge of which he’s entrusted to his new wife, might have confused fresh viewers.

Again as usual, it looked great; it’s almost worth the frustration of The Walking Dead being stuck on a farm all year to justify the expense in bringing this to the screen. Don and Megan’s new apartment is the height of 60s chic (though its white carpet can’t stand up to an eventful birthday party). The clothes, too, are as well observed as ever. Don, Roger and the old guard remain as impeccably suited as ever, but the younger guys are wearing casual clothes in the office; and Pete turns up at Don’s party sporting a jacket that’s surely a crime against the eyes of humanity.

Pete's Jacket

So, the stage is set. We know where most of the characters are, and where they’re trying to go. No sign of Don’s cold ex-wife Betty yet, but I’m guessing she’ll show up next week. On the evidence of this opener, it was worth the 17 month wait to have the show back. Creator Matthew Weiner’s writing is as sharp, subtle and humorous as ever, and the top notch cast are still superb at the subtle acting style the show demands (though my absolute favourite is John Slattery as Roger, who’s often far from subtle). Over the next few months, I’m fully expecting Mad Men to be as compelling a drama as it always has been.