'Mad Men' Contemplates Its Own Death
If The Sopranos was about the death of the American dream, then Mad Men is about the beginning of its illness. And there's some definite soul coughing going on in the season-six premiere. It's not so much morbid as vaguely spiritual, but it's right there on the surface this Sunday, for all to see.
It's hard to talk about Mad Men. Yes, because it's such a complex and mysterious show, as withholding as it is profound. But also because, well, we critics have been asked very kindly not to reveal certain details of Sunday night's two-hour premiere. It's a request I can respect — Mad Men season premieres are all about the surprise of finding our old friends in a new time and place — but it makes my job a little harder. So if you'll bear with me, I will now try to share my reactions to these first two hours of the sixth season of this American masterpiece without giving away the essential goods. Of course, if you want to go into Sunday night completely (or relatively) in the dark, here's your off ramp.
As Mad Men faces its demise — this is the penultimate season, if creator Matthew Weiner is to be believed — it's only natural that the show would begin to really delve into matters of mortality, of the sweet, fleeting pains of life and the mystical mysteries of death. To that end, we first glimpse our hero Don Draper as he's reading a copy of Dante's Inferno, his face fixed with a look halfway between wonder and despair. Don has always had a complicated relationship with the notion of leading a life in this world — raging against both his limitations and his possibilities. But now the idea that all this struggle will someday end has truly begun to trouble him, to fill him with the kind of existential worry that, in some ways, we always knew he was headed towards. For that reason, this new, particular philosophical inquiry into oblivion feels a bit obvious, though of course the inevitable always does.
Don isn't the only character contemplating life and its inexorable conclusion. Roger, now a devoted therapy-goer gushing out dorm-room questions about what it all means, is directly confronted by death, sending him into a quiet fit of regret that erupts beautifully by episode's end. Betty once again goes on one of her jags of wishing for a radically different life, all the while blithely unaware that it's total reinvention she's looking for. Toward the beginning of the episode, she gets pulled over while driving home from the ballet. Later on, she says that she thought she was pulled over for speeding, only to find out it was actually for reckless driving. It's another of Weiner's signature allegorical flourishes, the clever parallels and allusions that make Mad Men such a wise and witty delight. Betty the obliviously reckless driver, thinking she's merely going too fast, when in truth she's all over the road.
I've always held that if The Sopranos was about the death of the American dream, then Mad Men is about the beginning of its illness. And there's some definite soul coughing (to borrow from a '90s band) going on in these first two hours. But it's not so much morbid as it is vaguely spiritual. I'm not sure I can really see Mad Men ending on an uplifting note, and there is certainly a despondency hanging heavy in the air in the premiere. But there is something healthy, positive, possibly even hopeful in all of this pondering, isn't there? Don's reactions to staring into the abyss — remember the empty elevator shaft from last season! — may often be rash and destructive, but that might simply be the growing pains of a soul in flux. Don now seems more conscious in the reaching than he has before; he might not find ultimate enlightenment, but he's perhaps at least gaining clarity of purpose. Or enough clarity to find purpose? See, these issues get easily muddied. Though, Mad Men always handles these questions so wisely and carefully, with such assured restraint, that it finds aching beauty in that muddiness. In that regard, these first two hours of season six rapturously deliver.
But a Mad Men season is a tricky thing, mercurial and idiosyncratically paced. So who really knows if these first two episodes tell us anything about what's to come? Obviously the ultimate end is unavoidable, but the details of it remain anyone's guess. I imagine most of you will be pleased with Sunday's premiere, gorgeous and thoughtful as it is, though I wonder if some of the themes might be a little too urgent, not quite buried enough. I've become so inured to being made to dig dig dig through the show's layers of metaphor and subtext to get to the theoretical heart of the matter, that seeing it rest pretty plainly on the surface as it does in these first two hours was admittedly a little jarring. But maybe a little openness is a good thing for a show that is winding toward the end. All the elusiveness of the seduction done, Mad Men can now bear its true self to us, before it's gone forever.