This is my first new season as one of the “Mad Man” obsessed – I started watching it at the top of season five — so I have no idea if past season openers were as unsettling to long-time viewers as the season six premiere was to me.
There were plenty of storyline surprises, despite multiple semi-spoilers that had trickled out in the days leading up to the season six two-hour premiere. So, before the show aired, many of us knew that Don and Megan were in Hawaii for one of the firm’s new clients (the storied Royal Hawaiian Hotel), Megan’s acting career had taken off to the point that she was being recognized in public, and Don’s assumed identity had resurfaced in a cigarette lighter switch with a Vietnam soldier, the groom in the beach wedding.
What we didn’t know, and what to me is the biggest shock, is the depths to which Don has descended. In past seasons, his pathos always seemed contained and manageable, no matter how many drinks he belted back or women he bedded. In “The Doorway,” the season six opener, Don has moved into an acute state of dysfunction and disconnect. He doesn’t speak for the first eight minutes, not to his wife on the beach and, even more striking, not to his client and host, presumably the Royal Hawaiian’s General Manager, and his wife, at what is clearly a business dinner.
Back in New York, Don gets so drunk that he vomits at the memorial service for Roger’s mother, and his colleagues have to escort him home to recuperate. In the lobby of his building, accompanied by Pete and Ken, a clearly inebriated Don asks Jonesy the doorman (Ray Abruzzo of “The Sopranos”), who nearly died of a heart attack several months earlier, what he’d seen when he died.
This public display, which was triggered by alcohol but no doubt exacerbated by unresolved upset of his own mother’s death, is new territory for Don. Yes, he’s tossed his cookies before, but more privately, like in season four’s “The Suitcase,” when he gets sick back in the office with only Peggy to know.
Peggy, too, was the one who went to get him out of jail, when he crashed the car with paramour Bobbie Barrett in season two’s “The New Girl.” Again, the misdeed was confined to a small universe of Peggy and the two infidels. Up until “The Doorway,” Don was the highest of highly functioning alcoholics, one whose charm and discretion masked that extent of the illness and despair.
Don’s amorous risks are reaching new levels, too. I wasn’t surprised that he was back to sleeping around again, though I thought it might take a few episodes to get that. The stunner was that he’s chosen to carry on with a woman who lives in the same building as Don and Megan – Sylvia, played by Linda Cardellini of “Freaks and Geeks” and “ER” – and who socializes in their home, with her cardiologist husband who happens to work in the same office building as Don.
Don seems, in another first, to like this man, or at least respect him intellectually. If this isn’t playing with extramarital fire, I don’t know what is. Don has, with one exception — his relationship with Sally’s former school teacher in season three — kept his extramarital affairs far from the home front. And he surely cannot have forgotten that Jimmy Buffett, the husband of his mistress Bobbie Barrett, informed Betty of their affair.
So, yes, I’m worried about Don, more than anyone else in the show, and wonder if he might just crack. That he’s gone symptomatic with clients, concocting an ad for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel that unwittingly evokes suicide, suggests he’s losing his professional bearings, to the point of arguing that “Heaven’s a little morbid. How do you get to heaven? Something terrible has to happen.” (The writing on this show just slays me.)
That his clients don’t rebuff him suggests he’s still got his ad man mojo. But why do we viewers put up with this crap? Even before season six started, I’d been mulling why I continue to buy into the Don Draper buy-in. I was in the camp that thought he should have given Lane a second chance when Lane co-signed Don’s name to the $5,000 check, considering that Lane had forged the name of an identity thief. Don Draper can’t trust Lane Pryce anymore? Isn’t that absurd?
But viewers didn’t protest. They hated to see Lane go, but accepted Don’s firing as legit. But why? Lane was responsible for spinning off the firm and keeping it afloat with a $50,000 investment (more than $240,000 in today’s dollars) and would surely have paid back the firm. This was just plain cruel, considering he had a school-age son and was an expat. It was far worse than Don not wanting to let his brother back into his life.
Yet through the grace of the show’s writing and Jon Hamm’s understated acting, we don’t reject the character. After all, he’s not all bad. There’ve even been flashes of virtue and chivalry, like his letter to the New York Time regarding cigarettes in season four’s “Blowing Smoke” and his attempt to talk Joan out of sleeping with the head of the car dealer’s association for the Jaguar account in season five’s “The Other Woman.”
There was a flicker of hope towards the end of “The Doorway” that Don might eventually re-find his footing. He’s self-aware enough to tell Sylvia, when, while they’re still together in bed on New Year’s Eve, she asks what he wants for the New Year. He responds, “I want to stop doing this.” Meaning sleeping around. It felt sincere, but it wasn’t clear if this self-awareness didn’t also contain tinges of helplessness or surrender. That subtle dramatic tension will, I have to assume, carry into upcoming shows.
Besides Don, I’m worried about how the show is going to pull off the increasingly complex narrative structure. Matthew Weiner has for five seasons kept the storyline on two tracks, the firm and Don’s household, with forays into some of his colleague’s homes, Sal and Pete and Lane and Roger. (In fact, watching episodes from seasons one and two reminded me just how Draper-household-centric the show had once been.)
In season five, the Francis household made short guest appearances as context for events in and around Don and Megan. In “The Doorway,” Weiner’s effectively doubled the story mix, with two workplaces (Cooper Sterling Pryce and Draper and Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, Peggy’s firm ) and two households (Don and Megan’s, Betty and Dick’s). He’s also introduced new characters, to what is already a densely populated stage, at the expense of, at least in “The Doorway,” Joan and Pete, who had negligible roles in the season six opener.
It will be interesting to see how the writers pull this off in future episodes. I have abundant faith in Weiner, but this complex structure carries the risk of the show losing its core. Wherever the show goes, we’ll be along for the ride.