There were two fake outs in the opening moments of last night's premiere of Mad Men's sixth season. First, we were meant to believe that Don had suffered from some kind of life-threatening incident. But that was merely the setup for the bigger ruse in which the Drapers' happy vacation in sunny Hawaii indicated that—after a very dark fifth season full of dread that ultimately led to a suicide—things would be a little happier, a little more hopeful, a little lighter. Of course, that's not the case. Everything is the same, because, as Roger says, life's experiences are supposed to change you, but the experiences are "nothing." And nothing can change your path in life, which is just a straight line to your grave.
If death was a lingering threat lurking in the shadows throughout all of last season, it's now taken the spotlight. Of course this season would be all about death and we were foolish to think that once it happened to Lane last season, that the show would go on to another topic. Death doesn't go away after it happens. It just continues to happen.
And it seems as though this season might be trying to explore what happens after death. We get our first clue when we see Don's idea of some beach reading: Dante's Inferno. Hell is the first of three the realms of the afterlife (followed by purgatory and paradise) featured in the Divine Comedy. So there you have it. Don is in hell, and according to his broken watch, time has stopped. But everything seems OK for the moment. Right? He and Megan are getting along and she's enjoying some success as a rising soap star.
But like the two fake outs already mentioned, this episode was thick with ideas of illusion. There were multiple mentions of bottle-blondes (more on Betty in a minute!), but there was a particular emphasis on our own illusions of "forever," the tricks we utilize to try to extend a moment (like the camera he gave to his neighbor, Megan's vacation slides, and the company's promotional photo shoots), or the tricks we utilize to convince ourselves that our lives have some permanence (like the wedding vows on the beach). But in reality, our lives are super temporary. Life is actually just a vacation we take from the rest of eternity. Life's a beach for real! No wonder why Don, who's been entrenched in an existential crisis since at least 1960, had such disdain for his Hawaiian vacation. It only reminded him of his life, which he believes that he's fucking up, particularly considering the voiced-over passage from Inferno:
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.
He's middle-aged and he's still a shitty person. He hasn't changed. His story arc on last night's episode was like the bookend to the very first episode of Mad Men, in which Don is drinking and dicking his way around Manhattan, like he's a carefree single man, and then the shocker: He's a married, suburban father.
This time, though, we see his conflict-free, supportive marriage and a burgeoning bromance with his neighbor, Dr. Arnold Rosen. But then the shocker: He's fucking the doctor's wife. He's stabbing both his friend and his wife in the back. Et tu Brute?
Speaking of Julius Caesar, Peggy is doing well at her new job, despite her whole "lend me your ears" crisis. She's moved up the ladder, is highly respected, and basically just killing it. She's even doing better than Don, professionally (and probably in every single other respect, in life), with an upcoming Super Bowl commercial that's likely to be iconic and a game-changer for her. The apprentice has become the master.
Meanwhile, Don isn't experiencing the kind of creative upswing that Peggy is. Maybe because he's being such a bummer, pitching ideas for vacation ads that resemble suicidal ideations. He's always been a dark creature. Ironically, it's something that he and Betty have in common but were never able to put to good use, as a way to connect. (And it runs in the family. Did you notice that Bobby Draper said that he liked the violin case because it looks like a coffin?)
And here we go with Betty, in a slightly thinner fat suit, still developing inappropriate personal relationships with her daughter's friends, who happen to always possess more emotional maturity than Mrs. Francis nee Draper. First it was Glen, now it's Sandy, the 15-year-old girl violinist who seemed very well-aware of the limitations that would be presented to her if she played by the rules assigned to her gender, describing her current feeling as having her feet in "wet cement." She only had a brief window of time to escape before she got locked into this life she didn't like.
After Sandy finally gets away to experience life in downtown Manhattan, Betty goes looking for her. She finds herself in a flop house and stays to hang out. She declines the joint that is offered to her, put politely shows interest ("Is marijuana expensive?") while giving the squatters pointers on how to prepare goulash. There's an element of danger the entire time, a sort of threat that she might get hurt. Betty's eyes kept glancing at that knife in the pork butt. But the only thing that happened to her was that she ripped her coat.
It was reminiscent of her cancer scare—it was frightening, but also exciting, mostly because it was a total deviation from the disappointment of her current life. It seemed deliberate that Betty got in bed with her coat on, so that Henry could see her sleeve. It flaunted her secret in his face, and she likely got a kick out of it.
But even though Betty didn't die in the Village, she dyed in Rye—her hair, of course. Both Sandy and the squatters referenced Betty's bleached hair as an indication that she isn't her authentic self. But it's doubtful that she colored her hair as a form of self-actualization. Instead, it was probably her attempt at trying to change. Something that is not possible, according to Roger Sterling, anyway.
Having Roger in therapy is the best thing to happen to Mad Men since that John Deere lawn mower sprayed gore all over everyone at the office Christmas party. It's gives big, chunks of perfect, hilarious Roger-isms. Weirdly, though, he says really insightful things, like his monologue about doors (why are we always trying to escape where we are just to land back in a place with more doors and windows and bridges and options for leaving?).
And while it was kind of cliched that he had no emotional reaction to his mother's death, only to finally have his flood gates opened from a lesser event (the death of his shoe-shiner) it wasn't that bothersome. Because his one-liners make everything else so forgivable. For example: When a wasted Don puked during his mother's eulogy, which was all about Roger. ("He was just saying what everybody else was thinking.")
Don's visceral reaction to the eulogy was all about his own terror, not really of death, but of life. He's squandering it. His ethos was encapsulated perfectly in that quote that was engraved on that soldier's Zippo:
"In life we often have to do things that are just not our bag."
None of what he's been doing is Don's bag. He got swept up in a life that was never his to begin with, and has been acting out because of his unhappiness, drinking alone in bars and fucking women he's not married to. It's the same shit, different marriage. When his new mistress asks what he wanted for this new year he says, "I want to stop doing this."
But can he change, though? That seems to be the question of the season. He's at least cognizant of the fact that he's a total fucking despicable asshole. And that's such a characteristic of an alcoholic: He doesn't think much of himself, and he does it often.
So yeah, he sucks and we need more Joan.