Welcome to Mad Men Season 6 and 1968 in the world of the show! As I did last season, rather than try to recap each and every scene, I’m going to focus more on general arcs and themes within the show and the characters that I found worth discussing. I’ll read all the comments so if there’s something (or someone) you don’t think I’m paying enough attention to, let me know!
The first thing I have to say about this episode is that the theme of “death” was so aggressively telegraphed that the only thing we were missing was a Grim Reaper strolling into the SCDP offices with a “Don Draper” (or, I guess “Dick Whitman”) name tag on.
Don and Megan start the episode in Hawaii, on a free trip Don was given in exchange for his advertising genius. Megan enjoys the beach, brightly colored cocktails, a couple of joints, and getting recognized by fans for her new role in a soap opera. Don seems to enjoy absolutely none of it; reading Dante’s Inferno on the beach, remaining silent while the hotel owner tries to schmooze with him, attending a luau, and not sleeping. Even when a young PFC persuades Don to attend his wedding and give his bride away, Don only cracks a small smile once or twice. He barely even speaks.
Back at the office Don struggles with coming up with a campaign for the Sheraton, his feelings over Megan’s career, and his new obsession with death. This manifests in different ways; when Megan gets called into work all week he responds by drinking the entire bar and stumbling off to Roger’s mother’s funeral to throw up into an umbrella stand. When he returns, he interrogates his doorman about what the poor guy saw when he died, and finally he presents an ad to the Sheraton people that is unequivocally morbid and claims to not understand why a man’s discarded suit on the sand and footprints leading into the ocean and the tag line “the jumping-off point” might be read as “suicide” rather than “relaxing vacation spot!”
As the episode ends, we see that Don is sleeping with his friend’s wife which answers the question Season 5 ended with. I’m not super enthralled by Don Draper so far this season; it feels like a lot of the same for him. Don’s depressed, Don’s obsessed with death, Don is losing his touch at work, blah blah blah. Maybe that’s the point? The world and everyone around him is moving forward, but Don’s stuck in a quagmire of his own making?
Roger is in therapy, which I think has less to do with Roger actually thinking he needs therapy (which he does) and more to do with the fact that since he and Jane divorced he doesn’t have someone he can babble at on his own time. Roger Sterling has always struck me as a man who is deeply uncomfortable with his own company, and his attempts to joke with and charm his therapist aren’t doing much to change that perception. He does, though, talk about how life is supposed to change you but that that’s not happening to him. We also learn that his mother has died, which Roger seems to take news remarkable well at first. He holds her funeral, or at least a memorial service. As one of her friends is discussing how Roger was the sunshine of his mother’s life, Don noisily gets sick into an umbrella stand providing a nice segue into Roger berating his ex-wife Mona for bringing her new husband to the funeral, ordering everyone out, and then stomping off like a petulant child when they won’t leave.
Alone with Mona, Roger admits that he doesn’t feel anything even though he clearly does. He admits he feels guilty for not spending more time with his mother. He comes onto Mona, but she swats his hand away (not unkindly) and leaves him to his own contemplation. He comes downstairs to find his daughter still there, and she asks him for a favor for her husband; to listen to his pitch about an investment opportunity in refrigerated trucks. He holds it together pretty well through all of this, aside from the one outburst, but later admits to his therapist that he knows he’s lost the “parachute” of his mother’s unconditional love. And when he hears that his favorite shoe-shiner has died, he breaks down in his office.
Peggy is doing well at Ted’s agency, although she has to scramble to re-do a Super Bowl ad for a headphone company because their tagline “lend me your ears” suddenly seems grim after news of certain Vietnam related war atrocities hits the states. She works her team hard, and shows that she’s an unflinching leader, and also able to finesse clients while adapting to challenging situations. So, she’s thriving, although her team probably isn’t thrilled that she made them stay late on New Year’s Eve so she could come up with a concept built around some outtakes from the commercial shoot.
Betty Francis has slimmed down some from last season, but isn’t quite back to the slender former model who pouted through the first several seasons. We’re introduced to a friend of Sally’s, a girl named Sandy who lost her mother and is spending some time with the Francis family over the holidays. She’s a violin player, and Sally says she’s been accepted to Juilliard. Her playing has quite an effect on Henry and Bobby, and Betty teases Henry a little aggressively about it. Because Betty doesn’t actually know how to tease and is a little crazy, it goes something like, “I can hold her down and stuff a rag in her mouth while you rape her so she won’t wake the boys,” but when Henry blanches, Betty backs off. And when Betty finds the girl in the kitchen in the middle of the night, she actually has a sweet conversation with her. Sandy admits that she wasn’t admitted to Juilliard but wants to go to the city to start her own life anyway. Betty tries to persuade her that it won’t hurt to wait, but her words evidently didn’t make an impression as Sally later tells her mother that Sandy left for “Juilliard” early.
Betty ends up in the city, visiting an abandoned apartment building Sandy had mentioned to try and track the girl down. The building’s residents are unhelpful, and give Betty some shit about how they’re the “garbage” of the kind of life Betty wants. Betty rightfully stands up to them and says obviously not, since she’s there to find someone she does want in her life. Long story short, it looks like Sandy has set out for California after selling her violin and Betty heads home disappointed. As the episode ends, she reveals that she’s dyed her hair black.
I feel like they made Betty overweight last season to try and show us Betty changing, but that was something that seemed to happen to her rather than something she did deliberately. Betty deliberately dying her hair black is a far more interesting decision for the character. Between this, how calm she was with both teenage girls in this episode, and her efforts to find Sandy, it seems like the writers are committed to showing actual character growth for Betty this season, instead of make-up and wardrobe tricks showing Betty’s character “growth.” Her teasing of Henry over his innocent crush on Sandy was harsh, but even being able to joke about her husband’s attraction to another person is sort of a step forward. In her conversations with Sandy and Sally, both teenagers definitely threw sass at Betty but she responded calmly rather than with spite or anger.
Other notes: The SCDP supporting players continue to be excellent, particularly Stan (“Did that make you think of suicide?” “Of course! That’s what so great about it!”) and Ken. The new accounts guy who’s aggressively kissing ass, Benson, is interesting. Ken’s dressing down of him seemed harsh, but probably better for him in the long run if he listens. If not, I guess we get to see what happens with TWO Pete Campbells in the office. Also, I’m not sold on any of what happened needing two hours and ten minutes to get through. This double episode dragged in a lot of places. They’ve been teasing Don Draper’s breakdown for a long time now, and yet he always seems to turn it around just in time to start losing it again as the season ends or begins. I guess it doesn’t make good narrative sense for your ostensible main character to go off the rails and need to take some time to himself, but it’s also not great story-telling to keep bringing him back up to the same line for the same reasons only to pull him back every time.
Honestly, at this point I’m sort of excited and hopeful for Betty’s storyline this season, seeing if Roger will be shaken out of his particular rut, and watching Peggy kick ass. Don’s nowhere on my list of things I’m interested in seeing more of after this first episode. Hopefully that will change.