When we last saw Don Draper, he was looking adultery dead in the face, cocking an eyebrow and leaving us hanging after a woman at a bar posed the question whose answer has plagued him for years: “Are you alone?”
Now, less than 30 seconds into Mad Men’s sixth season premiere (after a jarring point-of-view shot where we, the audience, are being resuscitated after a brush with death), Don’s lying on a beach in Hawaii with Megan and Dante’s Inferno. “I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in the dark wood,” he reads.
Oh. Well, that clears that up.
Except he’s got his wife by his side, the sun is shining and there’s not a tree in sight. All signs point to paradise, but Don’s nose-deep in hell. He can’t sleep—probably doesn’t want to slip out of that lovely Hawaii dream world and back into the lonely darkness—so he heads down to the well-lit hotel bar, where he meets a drunk GI who’s getting married in the morning. “You some kind of astronaut?” he asks Don. It’s a thinly veiled callback to Bert Cooper’s eulogy to Miss Blankenship in season four (“She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.”), and we know that symbolically, yes, Don is absolutely an astronaut—only lift-off was a long time ago, and now he’s just kind of floating around in space.
The metaphors don’t end there (c’mon. This is Mad Men). After the young soldier gleefully declares “One day I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers,” Don agrees to walk his bride down the aisle. It’s a beach wedding, of course, with Don in an angelic-looking cream-colored ensemble, and it sets up the idea (which, admittedly, starts to feel a little heavy-handed about halfway through the episode) that the light is where he thrives. He’s talking to strangers, taking part in their special day. It’s just like California, where he was able to open up and be so close to Anna. No wonder he doesn’t want to close his eyes and go to sleep.
We then shift quickly to the frigid Francis residence around Christmastime. Betty gets a speeding ticket on the way home, and Pauline whines “I can’t imagine it getting any darker than this” before Sally’s friend Sandy offers up that her mother is dead. Hope that ankle’s all healed up from last season, Pauline, because you’re gonna need it to be nice and limber to put your foot in your mouth.
Back at the Draper residence, we meet Jonesy the elevator operator and learn through flashback that he was the one who keeled over and almost died a few months ago—he’s chummy with Don and Megan now, but when he was lying on the cold floor earlier, neither of them knew his name. Meanwhile, Betty finds Sandy, a violin prodigy who’s just been rejected by Juilliard, sitting alone in her dark kitchen. She flips on the light switch as she tries to reach out to the girl (hey, I warned you that light/dark imagery was a little less than subtle). Sandy wants to go to New York anyway. She’s trying to launch herself into the stratosphere, but she’s concerned that her “feet are already in wet cement.”
When Sally (who’s now a full-blown teenager, a pro at rolling her eyes and talking back to her mother) reports that Sandy left for “Juilliard” early, Betty journeys to the Village to try and find her. The closest she comes is a dingy, waterless apartment full of bohemians who she teaches how to make goulash. It’s dark, and it’s cold, and when she meets the particularly confrontational guy who claims to have bought Sandy’s violin from her (who makes a crack about her being a bottle blonde), he tells her Sandy was trying to get enough money to go to California because it’s too cold in New York. What poor Sandy’s too young (and perhaps too Draperlike?) to know is that paradise can be cold too; the temperature’s just a lot higher. Betty eventually gives up, returning to her own wintery house, which feels a lot warmer compared to the dive she’d just visited. The next day, however, she shows up a little darker herself: she’s decided to become a brunette.
It’s a change, however small it may seem—a shift from summer to autumn, or perhaps an attempt to move past love with Henry and recapture Eros, that “electric jolt to the body” Don describes this episode. Change can be good, and Betty’s not the only one in need of it. Roger seems to have replaced his LSD trips with time on a therapist’s couch, and in the first session we see, he talks about doors, paths and changes in direction. Again, the symbolism isn’t always subtle here, but it sets up the episode’s second act nicely.
Don returns from vacation a little darker—go ahead and count how many times his tan is mentioned—and has a little trouble adjusting to SCDP’s fluorescent glow. His pitch to Sheraton doesn’t go according to plan: after claiming that Hawaii is “an experience” where “you are different. You don’t miss anything” and describing the soul leaving the body and slipping into the waves, he reveals a mockup of discarded clothes on a pristine beach with the tagline “The jumping-off point.” He sees heaven on earth, but all anyone else can see is James Mason committing suicide at the end of A Star is Born. “We sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike, ” Roger says. “You know how we did it? We ignored it.”
Ignoring it is no longer an option for Roger, however, as his loving mother passes away, giving him what he perceives to be the last real change in his life. We get our first glaring indication that Don is up to his old ways when he shows up to the funeral drunk and interrupts the proceedings with a well-timed barf. As he’s being led home, ushered into the elevator by Pete, Ken and Harry, he badgers Jonesy with questions about what he saw when he died. The elevator operator is hesitant at first, before revealing he saw “a light.” “Like a beach?” Don asks before being dragged away to sleep it off in his apartment.
That elevator’s important. Last season, Don stared down an empty shaft, but now he’s back to bobbing up and down, rising and falling. It’s not quite a door or a path either—he’s traveling vertically, in limbo, no forward motion. The elevator’s also where we first discover Don’s got a new friend, Dr. Arnold Rosen. At first it’s nice, watching Don interact with someone whose company he seems to enjoy, but when a blizzard rolls in on New Year’s Eve and Dr. Rosen gets called in to the hospital, it’s revealed that Don is sleeping with his wife (played by Linda Cardellini, Lindsay Weir from Freaks and Geeks!). We find out she’s the one who gave him that copy of Dante’s Inferno, and suddenly it all becomes clear: Don’s in purgatory. As we ring in 1968, she asks him what he wants for the new year, and he responds “I want to stop doing this.” As he returns to his place, he picks up a newspaper whose headlines mention the snowstorm and bidding farewell to an extremely bloody year. It’s supposed to be an ending of one chapter, a bon voyage to Don’s tropical escape, a fresh start, but we all know that things only get worse in 1968—plenty of high-profile bloodshed lies ahead.
The problem with Don—and really, any character on Mad Men—is that he doesn’t realize when you live in the light year-round, you eventually stop feeling its warmth. Your body adjusts; you get a tan. We need the dark spots in life to have something to compare it to, to truly experience the light. Those changing seasons are crucial—it’s why most people vacation in Hawaii but don’t move there. Matthew Weiner and company sort of beat us over the head with that this week, but they didn’t really have much of a choice; ultimately, it comes down to what Mad Men is truly about—these characters’ inability to realize that happiness isn’t some blissful, permanent state. It’s not an endless beach or something you reach when you buy enough stuff and fill your garage with the right kind of expensive cars. Those dark moments everyone on the show is running from are part of the deal; you can’t ignore or escape them if you want to really bask in the light.
-Betty seems to have mellowed. At one point (when making fun of her speeding ticket) Sally calls her by her first name. That definitely wouldn’t have flown in previous seasons.
-”People are naturally democratic.” “Are you on dope?”
-Bob Benson, the new accounts guy, seems poised to be Pete Campbell 2.0. Oddly enough, though, it’s Ken who feels threatened by him.
-SO MUCH NEW FACIAL HAIR THIS SEASON.
-Don and Megan using the Carousel to show their friends slides from their Hawaii trip was a nice callback to Don’s big “nostalgia” pitch to Kodak from season one. That should’ve been our first big clue he was sleeping around again.
-Peggy’s already working on a Super Bowl ad. Not too shabby.
-It looks like Don had to hire two people to replace Peggy—one of whom’s another woman. The times, they are a-changin’.
-More miscellaneous light/dark imagery: Don’s inability to escape the GI’s lighter he accidentally picked up, the photographer in his office telling him he’s backlit, Bob Benson working in the lobby to “enjoy the light.”
-Peggy and Stan are friends now? Their phone conversation was unexpected but a nice touch.
-”The whole life and death thing? It doesn’t bother me.” It’s no coincidence that every meaningful conversation Don has with this guy takes place in an elevator or a doorway.