Let’s take a trip back to the final scene of Mad Men’s fifth season.
As Don walks away from Megan as she is about to begin the acting career that he finally enabled, take a look at his face (picture above). You can’t see it. It’s shrouded in darkness. As Don moves closer and closer to what seems like an interminable abyss, Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of “You Only Live Twice” broodily revs up as Megan’s image continues to shrink into the background. Finally, the scene shifts to a familiar setting: a bustling bar. Don leans into the bar, orders a “neat old-fashioned” and lights a cigarette like he’s done hundreds of times over 5+ seasons. Home at last. No longer faking it like the actor Megan pretends to be. And of course no Don bar scene would be complete without a female prowler, who left us pondering the question, “Are you alone?”
After watching the sixth season’s two-hour premiere episode, it’s clear Don is as alone as he’s ever been.
Oh, on the surface he’s never been more successful. The firm has expanded on the heels of Jaguar, Don is once again getting his hands dirty in the creative process, he’s on a luxurious Hawaiian vacation (reading Dante’s Inferno—light reading), and Megan is happily plugging away at her still-nascent soap acting career. Life is seemingly perfect. Yet it doesn’t take long to strip away that paper-thin veneer.
Even while on vacation in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Don can’t shake the loneliness. What we saw last season was Don facing his diminishing vim and vigor and backing down—to a point. If Don is outwardly back in control, it’s clear his inner demons continue to pull the puppet strings. He can’t help who he is. As Steely Dan so pithily puts it, “You can run but you can’t hide from what’s inside of you.” It’s as if Don is continuing to lose himself piece by piece.
What’s more, death and dying dominate the episode. Roger loses someone and also ponders the meaning of it all through a newfound outlet. Don infuses a potential ad campaign with a little too much fatal imagery. A new character has a near-death experience and struggles with the aftermath. Another new character, a surgeon, talks about the honor and privilege of holding people’s life in his hands. All in all, the episode had a harder, darker edge than most in the series. But again if you look at last season’s ending, the theme should come as no surprise. If next season is in fact the final season, then this episode might establish a story arc that may ultimately stretch across the next 25 episodes or so. The prospects fascinate me and my “schadenfreude-ian” leanings.
So what does the rest of the season behold? Will Sally (who is now calling her mother “Betty”) continue her evolution into the most badass character on TV? Will Roger go totally soft on us? Will Don and Megan make it to the season finale married? Will Joan start kicking asses and taking numbers as a new partner? Will Pete’s sideburns get their own episode? Will Peggy start becoming Don in more ways than one? Will Fat Betty finally become half-likable? Will Bert finally lift the ban in shoes in his office?