Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Barkhorn: Don's cheating on Megan. Don's cheating on Megan. Don's cheating on Megan.
Whenever I thought about Mad Men in the 10 months since the Season Five finale aired, the first thing that came to mind was, "I really hope they don't have Don cheat on Megan." An overarching question that Mad Men has posed throughout its run is, Can a person change? Don's fifth-season transformation from miserable, lying, cheating husband of Betty to happy, forthright, faithful husband of Megan seemed to maybe, possibly answer this question in the affirmative. But the season's closing scene—Don at a bar, "You Only Live Twice" playing in the background, about to answer a pretty blonde who's asked if he's alone—was a reminder of just how fragile Don's transformation is. One word, and he's back to the old Don.
I wanted season six to show us Don hadn't said yes, that he remained committed to his reformed self. Mad Men has already demonstrated how low Don can go. How much more interesting would it be to see what it takes for him to be happy long-term? So many shows right now are obsessed with the depths of human darkness—Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Game of Thrones—that happy Don seemed like a compelling way to break the mold.
But but but, as we find out toward the end of the season six premiere, Don is back to his old ways. He's having an affair with a neighbor. Who's also married. To the really nice doctor Don has become friends with. Such good friends that both the mistress and the doctor husband celebrated New Year's Eve with Don and Megan. Sigh.
But he's not the old Don—not entirely, anyway. He expresses guilt for his transgressions, something he never did when he cheated on Betty. When his mistress asks what his New Year's resolution is, he responds, "I want to stop doing this." She says, "I know," implying that he's expressed the desire to cut off the affair before. This guilt-wracked Don is different from first-season Don, who was so in denial about the fact that he already had a wife, he tells his mistress, "We should get married." Don's guilt shows he sees Megan as a person who's capable of being hurt. He never got there with Betty. So, progress?
Otherwise, Don seems in even worse shape than he was in the pre-Megan era. The season opens with the two of them on a trip to Hawaii, and as the episode follows them from the beach to the bedroom to the dinner table, Megan does all the talking and Don is silent. The first words we hear him speak (other than a voiceover of him reading Dante's Inferno at the very beginning) is at the hotel bar, where he's gone to escape in the middle of the night. It's not quite clear why Don's shutting Megan out. Maybe it's guilt over the affair, or perhaps he's jealous of her professional quasi-success. She has a minor but growing role on a soap opera, and one day she unexpectedly gets called in to work, leaving Don to his own devices. He gets so drunk he throws up at Roger's mother's funeral, in front of an aghast (and entirely sober) group of mourners.
The most dramatic sign of his unhappiness is the ad campaign he pitches to the Hawaiian resort: the image of a man who's leapt out of his clothes, with the tagline "Hawaii—the jumping-off point." It makes everyone in the room think of suicide. The baffled client stammers, "I think, and I think people might think, that he died."
Are we viewers supposed to think Don is headed for a similar fate? It seems too obvious, and yet... Ashley, what did you think of Don's lapse back into cheating and darkness? And what about the other parts of the episode?
Fetters: Yep, Don's cheating on Megan. I wish I were surprised.
Andy Greenwald at Grantland wrote a terrific piece this week asserting that what makes Mad Men great is its sense of dread, of tragic inevitability. Its drama doesn't come from will-they-or-won't-they arcs, he wrote, but rather from the agonizing wait for the other shoe to drop; in other words, Mad Men is a show about when, not a show about if.
I couldn't agree with Greenwald more, especially on the sad topic of Don's aborted change of heart. For me, his stint as a loyal husband felt like the prelude to an inevitable relapse into his trademark Don Draper ways.
But let's not pretend that phase was a complete transformation on Don's part, either. Just because Don's refrained from sleeping around doesn't mean he and Megan have a good marriage—they're kinda dysfunctional even without Don cheating. And their union, let's remember, resulted from a rash decision that smelled like disaster from the start. (You're sexy and free-spirited and a good babysitter who taught my kids to sing in French! Let's get married! ... No.) The last season's worth of things working out surprisingly OK for Don and Megan has felt to me like a long-drawn-out honeymoon phase before the real consequences materialize: the consequences for Megan of marrying a closed-off, controlling guy like Don who doesn't think the rules apply to him, and the consequences for Don of impulsively marrying a younger, more forward-thinking woman he never knew that well in the first place.
Out in Westchester County, meanwhile, Betty remains awful. Not in the deliciously hateable way of seasons past, though: If last season brought us Fat Betty, thus far it looks like this season's incarnation might be Lonesome and/or Weird Betty.
Without her prized good looks, Don's ex-wife has become a more melancholy figure overall—almost to the point where, when she makes misguided attempts to reach out and be a caring mother to someone (not to her own children, naturally, but to her daughter's friend Sandy and then to a couple of teenage urban squatters), it almost tugs on a sympathetic heartstring or two. When she makes an equally misguided, off-color remark to her husband about willingly assisting him if he ever wants to rape Sandy, of course, it's tougher to feel sorry for her. But that remark, coupled with Henry's troubled reaction to it and her odd guerrilla mothering elsewhere in the episode, also hints that Betty's interpersonal-relations calibration might be off—seriously, alarmingly off.
One relationship I'm thrilled to see has survived, though, is the unemphasized, totally delightful rapport between Peggy and Stan. (Did that scene on the phone remind you guys of that scene from the third season of The Office where Jim and Pam stay late into the night in their respective offices chatting on the phone about what Jim's missed since transferring to Stamford?) The bickering "work-spouse" dynamic they've enjoyed ever since that pivotal "Let's get liberated" naked brainstorm in the fourth season is a refreshingly uncomplicated man-woman relationship by Mad Men standards, and in an episode full of heavy-duty symbolism (but what did that soldier's lighter resurrecting from the trash mean?) and multi-layered subtext ("jumping-off point"?!), their telephone banter was a cute, funny palate cleanse.
Amy, what's your takeaway on this moody season premiere? How do you feel about the newly sorta-sad twist on Betty Francis's awfulness? And are Megan and Don doomed?
Sullivan: Can we agree that Matthew Weiner was most likely deeply traumatized as a child by a Mean Girl named Betty? At this point, the character really only makes sense if she is the product of some elaborate, protracted revenge fantasy. Yes, Ashley, we've gone from Awful Betty to Fat Betty to WTF Betty. (I think Henry Francis spoke for all of us when he responded to the world's worst attempt at dirty talk with, "Betty! What the hell?!")
I'm with Maureen Ryan: Enough. We get it. Betty is and always will be a spoiled yet desperately sad adolescent with a few misfiring synapses. When Betty encourages Sally's friend Sandy to play a song for the family, her phrasing is typically awkward: "I love to hear you play the violin. It makes me feel so much." I was immediately reminded of her weird comment at the Thanksgiving table last season: "I'm thankful that I have everything I want and no one else has anything better." So untrue and also so weird.
Is it too much to hope that the scene in which Betty gets pulled over for reckless driving is foreshadowing for some deadly, fiery crash several episodes hence? It's not that her character deserves such a fate, but I'm tired of watching her manipulated into a bizarre figure who doesn't fit in the Mad Men universe. Also, I think I may be permanently scarred by that bedroom scene. I want to wash my ears out with soap.
Betty did, however, give us the first of several fun callbacks in this episode. During the late-night talk with Sandy in the kitchen, when the girl admits that she didn't get into Juilliard, Betty immediately suggests she elide the truth by telling people she wanted to finish high school first. Even the jaded teenager is surprised by how easily Betty supplies the response. "It's incredible how fast some people come up with lies," she says, which is almost exactly what Betty said to Don in season two when he came up with a cover story on the fly for her to give their kids to hide the fact that she had asked him to move out.
- Don running the slideshow of his Hawaiian vacation with Megan—a very different set of memories than the one he presented at the end of the first season for the Kodak "carousel" presentation.
- Don tossing his cookies at Roger's mother's funeral brought back memories of Roger hurling in the old Sterling Cooper offices after the famous oysters and martini lunch.
- Don's pitch for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel campaign had to have been at least somewhat inspired by that walk into the Pacific Ocean he took in season two after going AWOL from work and family for a few days. Some early reviews of this episode suggested that the underwhelming hotel ad pitch was a sign that Don's talent is slipping. I suspect that it was more an honest instance of the cracks showing between how normal people think and who Don is. This is a man who believes he killed off his earlier self and started over, who craves being able to do that again and again. And he doesn't truly understand that most people don't want that.
Overall, although I enjoyed the episode, it felt like one of Weiner's more heavy-handed outings—an episode that will make more sense only after we've watched the next four or five. There was PFC Dinkins's line to Don: "I believe that what goes around comes around." (Don had better hope that's not true.) And Don's completely unhelpful report back to his colleagues on the Royal Hawaiian experience: "I don't know how to put it into words." (Unfortunately, as that's precisely what he's paid to do.) The photographer's instructions to Don were hardly subtle: "I just want you to be yourself." And Don's protest about the oven cleaner campaign—"Why are we contributing to the trivialization of the word ['love']?"—is rich coming from the man sleeping with his friend's wife.
For my money, that was the episode's biggest revelation: Don has a friend! At least until the good Dr. Rosen gets out of another surgery early and finds his neighbor in his bed.
Are you both as eager as I am for an appearance by young master Harris? If I'm calculating the dates correctly, this season starts not quite two years after the previous one ended, which means Joan and Roger's son is a toddler now. With that lineage, I expect this kid to be the most dashing, wise-cracking preschooler on the eastern seaboard.