"Mad Men": The men spiral, and the women come out on top

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in a scene from "Mad Men." AMC

So we gave you a sneak preview of the season 6 premiere of "Mad Men" -- but now that everyone has (hopefully) seen the episode, we can really delve deep into the episode (titled "The Doorway"), and spill the whiskey.

The two-hour episode starts on a seemingly happy note (minus the brief flash of a man going toward the proverbial light). Megan and Don appear happy, looking tanned and beautiful together on the beaches of Hawaii. They're enjoying pig roasts and swinging their hips. But things are not always what they seem, as we soon find out.

Once they return to the snowy Christmas season of 1960s New York, the smell of the ocean is gone, and there's the distinct scent of death in the air. I guess we should have known right away as Don was reading a copy of Dante's "Inferno" while lounging on the beach -- not light reading, and a not-so-subtle metaphor for what was to come. Death certainly overshadowed this entire episode, from the near-death experience of Don's doorman, to the actual death of Roger Sterling's mother, to the metaphorical and theorized death discussed and dissected throughout the episode and in Don's "happy" Hawaii ads. His idea of selling an upscale Hawaiian beach resort was to leave the outline of a man's clothing. He thought it meant the man was free, while everyone else thought the man was dead.

Another prominent theme that "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner drives home is that we're now in the middle of the '60s, and everything that comes with that time period -- from Megan's run for reefer in Hawaii, to the Vietnam War, to the overzealous use of sideburns (all except for Don, of course; he's too cool for burns), to the hippie free-love living conditions in St. Mark's Place.

Given the confusing hints that Weiner so sparingly gave us leading up to the premiere, we knew that this season was going to be a time of introspection for Don. The doppelganger poster leads us to believe that he will try to find his true self -- or have trouble keeping the two sides of his current self together. But all of the men seem to be looking inside themselves and unraveling -- Roger Sterling most of all. His whiny therapy sessions are both amusing and somewhat annoying, but his breakdown over the gift of his deceased shoe shiner's kit was touching. It was his way of finally releasing his feelings over his mother's death. Let's just never see Roger cry again; I prefer him sarcastic and arrogant.

I think most of all this season, we're going to see Don's loss of control over his faux identity. He is going to struggle to keep his two selves as one. What he's always done best is maintained total control over himself and his secrets, though already in the premiere we're seeing him come undone. He comes close to losing his composure during The Royal Hawaiian resort meeting. He vomits at a funeral (amazing), and most importantly, he's having a very careless affair with a woman who lives in his building (Linda Cardellini, for those who didn't recognize her under her wig), who is not only friends with his wife, but with whose husband he seems to be friendly. It's becoming apparent that Don's weaknesses are going to shine through this season, and his emotions, which are normally under such a tight wrap, may get the better of him.

And while the men are spiraling, whining and losing themselves, the women are finding themselves. Peggy saves the day when she takes charge at her new firm and solves the "lend me your ear" earphones problem. And it's obvious that she learned from the best, having no problems barking orders and speaking her mind. But what we're all dying to know is when will she bring her brilliance back to the thriving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and reunite with her mentor? Betty, while still slightly large, is definitely in charge. She isn't afraid to stand up to her family, and she's not afraid of adventure or change. At one point she finds herself hanging out with a bunch of free-loving hippies in a rundown downtown New York commune of sorts, teaching them how to cook. And at the end, she dyes her hair a very shocking dark brown, to which her husband compares to that of Elizabeth Taylor. And while we don't delve into Joan's personal life, she is definitely more comfortable in her role as partner at the firm, and her presence is always known -- how could you miss them, I mean, her? And last, but not least, there's Megan. While her husband may be cheating on her, she is finally making her dreams come true and becoming a somewhat successful actress. Albeit on a soap, but she's famous enough to get recognized and asked for autographs. And is it me, or does she look prettier this season?

A couple things did baffle me -- for one, who is this girl living with Betty? I mean, I know who she is, but where did she come from? And what was with Betty's slightly too serious suggestion that her husband go "rape" her to spice things up a bit? Even hearing her say the word "rape" was disturbing. And who is this random, good-looking account guy who is kissing everyone's butts at Sterling Cooper? And what was the meaning behind the lighter that Don received?

My favorite moments from the premiere were the one's that could easily be overlooked -- Don giving away the bride of a Vietnam soldier he just met; Betty teaching the New York downtown "hippies" how to make goulash; the return of Roger Sterling's ex-wife, who is the actor's (John Slattery) real-life wife; the fact that Don's black secretary actually speaks and takes charge now; Peggy correcting her boss on the difference between DEFCON 4 and DEFCON 3; oh, and of course Don booting at Roger's mother's funeral -- not that anyone missed that, I just wanted to bring it up one more time -- timing really is everything.

As I mentioned in Saturday's preview, the first episode of the new seasons are always used to catch us up on where everyone is. So as a result, they are often slow and potentially boring, which at times I found this episode to be, but it certainly laid a solid foundation for what is sure to be a fantastic and revealing season, and if "The Door Way" proved anything, it's that we're not exiting any time soon.

Tell us: What did you think of the "Mad Men" premiere? Was it everything that you hoped and more?

  • Lesley Savage

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