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Wednesday May 29, 2013

Descent of Don Draper

Only Mad Men could open a new season with an episode set in sunny Hawaii and yet somehow have its lead character seem even more grim than he did in grey Manhattan.

As the critically-acclaimed show begins its sixth season, we find Don Draper (Jon Hamm) reclining on the beach with his beautiful new wife, Megan (Jessica Pare). This being Mad Men, Don is reading Dante’s Inferno.

And of course, we remember that last scene in the season five finale: Don, recently married, sitting at a bar, contemplating a beautiful woman who asks him: “Are you alone?”

The answer, which faithful viewers of the show have known all along, is yes. Don Draper is alone. Always. Even when he’s surrounded by admiring co-workers or lusty lovers. But this season seems like the one where he starts to realise it too.

With a two-hour premiere (The Doorway) that often felt like it was setting up a season-long descent into Don’s own nine circles of hell, Mad Men proceeds to show us just exactly how alone the devilishly handsome ad man is. Megan has decided to go back to work as an actress, his protégé Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) is now working for their rival advertising agency, and even while sleeping with a neighbour’s wife, Don says, “I don’t want to be doing this.”

It’s a statement that is bigger than just that moment. When Don pitches an ad for a Hawaii hotel only to have the client say it appears to suggest suicide, Don may be surprised, but we aren’t. Instead, we know that this is what the show has been building up to: Don’s eventual self-destruction, whether literal or metaphorical.

Of course, the beauty of Mad Men is how, despite having a protagonist as complex as Don, the show still manages to introduce and explore a whole host of equally rich supporting characters – and while their development quite often complements happenings in Don’s life, they never feel contrived or shortchanged.

I’ve always thought of Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) as different versions of the Don character – the former often seems to be Don without the darkness, while the latter is a weaker, slimier model – and so far, season six seems to be mining these parallels.

So, in the premiere, while Don struggles with issues of belonging, Roger is first shown attending therapy, and then later, losing his mother. But as Don gets progressively more closed off, Roger seems to be opening up, even having heart-to-heart conversations with his daughter and ex-wife after his mother’s funeral.

Pete, on the other hand, is almost living the worst-case scenario version of Don’s life. In the season’s next episode, Collaborators, his marriage and his affair collide after some truly reprehensible behaviour on his part. This results in his wife Trudy (the perfectly cast Alison Brie) putting him in his place in a way that you almost want to cheer for.

Peggy is struggling with her own issues of faithfulness; when a friendly conversation with her former colleague Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) alerts her to the possibility of poaching a client, her current boss Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) encourages her to go ahead. And on that thread, there seems to be a simmering sexual tension between her and Ted that I suspect will boil over at some point this season (though I’d take Ted over Peggy’s lacklustre boyfriend Abe any day).

Collaborators also has some of those classic Don Draper moments we love, such as when he deftly deals with boorish Jaguar distributor Herb without him even realising he’d been played. The most powerful scenes in the episode, however, were the ones involving him and his lover (and neighbour’s wife) Sylvia (Linda Cardellini). Truly, few lines can give you a glimpse into Don’s psyche like when he tells her: “You want to feel guilty, right to the point where I take your dress off.”

With the next season being touted as the show’s last, season six looks set to tear down as many of the show’s long-established structures as it can. Longtime followers will notice that the show has become progressively grimmer as seasons go by, and this season is no exception. Even the wry moments are permeated by an undercurrent of hopelessness that can sometimes make you long for the black humour of Don’s ex-wife Betty (January Jones) shooting pigeons in season one, or season three’s bloody lawnmower scene.

That said, the tone is fitting for both the characters and the era. The Swinging Sixties are coming to an end, and with that, the era of optimism in the US. The Vietnam War is already upon them, and historically, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr isn’t very far away.

But it’s also simply that the characters’ burdens are becoming too much to bear; they’re older, more jaded, and the cracks are beginning to show. The characters’ search for their elusive happiness continues, but it is as if they are gazing at their dreams with increasingly hollow eyes.

Mad Men airs every Wednesday at midnight on FX HD (Astro Ch 726).