[US Premiere 7 April 2013]
Directed by Scott Hornbacher
Written by Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, January Jones, Jessica Pare, John Slattery, Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks
The sixth (and second to last, sadly) season of Mad Men is well underway, and those of us who follow the drama over at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) are delighted that time has yet again been moving in the Mad Men universe and things are as turbulent as ever. We are now in 1968, which means eight full years (in the world of the show) have gone by since we first met Don Draper and his worker bees over at what was then just Sterling Cooper. In the span of this time we have seen marriages, divorces, two Kennedys assassinated, the Civil Right movement bring in SCDP’s first black employees, and the Vietnam War escalate exponentially. Things have definitely not been all quiet on the western front, for sure.
At the end of season five we saw Don being propositioned at a bar, leaving us to wonder if the old Don was re-emerging from his cocoon of newlywed bliss with secretary-turned-copywriter Megan. Fans hoped Don wouldn’t revert to his former cheating ways, because seeing a non-miserable Don was perhaps a glimmer of hope that someone’s marriage could actually work out. The season premiere’s two episode block definitely answers this question, harshly beating us over the head for believing in the power of good and the transformative nature of love.
Don Draper is back, but somehow we are less excited to see him. Meanwhile, Megan is now a working actor, having a small yet memorable role on a soap opera, and Peggy is still getting used to her new found authority at her new job, but it appears to suit her. Pete continues his transformation into miserable drone and Don Draper wannabe, while Roger further spirals into devilishly sarcastic, yet sad alcoholism. Joan is a voting partner in the firm and doing well without Greg, her rapist ex-husband. Betty is still overweight, and judging by her comments to a friend of Sally (who is now a full blown teenager with an attitude to match), this problem is not going away anytime soon. Betty appears to have joined the ranks of moms who are lifetime Weight Watchers members, a condition that simultaneously humbles her, makes us feel bad, yet also gives us some evil satisfaction because the ice queen is slowly melting away and becoming average. Is her character a metaphor for all heterosexual women and the processes of bodily transformation they go through as they constantly negotiate their sexual capital at different points in their lives? Has Sally replaced Betty as the sexually viable woman in the household? Engagement with these ideas makes Matthew Weiner a risky and exciting writer to me. In promotional art for this season, Don is surrounded by the women of his life – not a surprise choice given the show’s focus – but now Sally is included; a sharp nod to her increasing reproductive and sexual availability. I can’t wait see what happens next in this regard, especially given the scene Sally witnessed between Roger and Megan’s mother late in season five.
[Season 6 promotional art. L to R: Betty, Sally, Megan, Don]
As most other critics have already noted, Mad Men is keenly self aware that it is on its way out, and the dark tone of the season opener is no exception. Subsequent episodes reflect this changing tide of America, a place where Don will no longer fit in and feminism gives Peggy the chance to escape the fate of a character like Betty, who is trapped in her own rendition of “the problem that has no name” (the crushing depression of being an over-educated and bored housewife as articulated by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique). Even Trudy Campbell has been surprising us recently with her confidence, grace, and assertiveness, further showing that the times, they are a-changin’, even if one does not work outside the home.
It not 1960. This is 1968, and Mad Men keeps painfully keeps reminding us of this shift despite how much we want to stay in the nostalgic and magical mode of earlier seasons. Things are less glamorous yet somehow more curious and urgent. I keep getting the feeling we (along with the characters) are sprinting towards an America we can recognize as more of our own, good and bad, beautiful or horrifying.