My friend and I were bubbling with anticipation as we cozied up on my couch to watch the double episode kick off to Mad Men season 6. As avid fans since day one, we were both prepared for some awkward interactions, strange dream-like sequences heavy on symbolism, sudden time jumps, the introduction of a random new character or two, lines of dialogue that seem to pop out of nowhere and even some major WTF moments … After all, these are the defining qualities that have made Man Men such an interesting journey to be on. As we watched, the furrows in our brows deepened, and we exchanged raised-eyebrow glances and exaggerated shoulder shrugs. Here are a few of the things that incited those glances and shrugs.
I’ll start with Betty. While Betty’s instability has been enhanced through the years with her seesawing back and forth between coldness and warmth, her alternating desire to fit into ‘the mold’ and to break it, when she turns to Henry in bed and playfully suggests that he go into the next room, stick a gag in Sally’s new friend’s mouth and “rape” her (“I’ll hold her arms down”), not only did I instantly grow more uncomfortable (not in a good way) than I have ever been watching this show, but A. No matter how flip-floppy Betty’s character has been, this was completely out of character. B. Henry’s momentarily horrified reaction did not nearly match the new level of psychosis from his wife. C. The dialogue totally undermines the storyline of care and concern that Betty displays for this young girl and D. Why the fuck is this Sandy even there? Sure, it’s reasonable to believe that in the time that has seemingly passed since the season 5 finale, Sally would make a new, close friend. But there is absolutely no indication as to why she has become part of the Frances ‘inner circle; – Sally doesn’t even seem to like her.
When Don and Megan return from their blissful Hawaiian holiday (which I’ll address in a moment) to witness their doorman, Jonesy collapsing in some unexplained medical emergency, time suddenly jumps forward to after his recovery. Did the script supervisor somehow not notice that Megan wearing the same exact outfit would confuse the hell out of the audience?
Then, there’s the new agency employee, Bob – a hanger-on-er seemingly desperate find an ‘in’ with the agency’s creatives. Perhaps the time spent on this Bob character is simply a way to establish that the company has expanded, or a way to show that Cosgrove has turned into a complete dick or maybe even just set-up for storylines to come, but it felt forced, almost as if the show’s writers felt like the show needed a ‘new Pete’ – the guy in the office willing to sacrifice his dignity to be noticed. And speaking of Cosgrove, what the hell was with his questions at Roger’s mother’s funeral. “Is your mother still alive?… Is yours?… What about you Don?” This is a character who found his way into my heart because of his writerly wisdom and here he is acting like a brain dead robot.
On to the time jump. It’s no surprise that a year or two has passed since season 5’s end. And there are a few successful ways in which the passing of time are represented – Megan’s acting career has taken off, SCDP’s expansion (though why still the “P”?), Peggy’s increased confidence in her new position. I have always found Mad Men’s ability to evoke a strong sense of time and place with it’s costuming, subtle mention of current events and references to celebrities representative of a particular year. But many of the tools used to establish time in this episode – the ever-present reefer, the shaggy appearances of most of the male characters, the St. Marks squatters – were so generic and over the top, that they felt obligatory and almost condescending to the audience’s intelligence.
Peggy’s storyline is the only one I found truly interesting, and the only one that displayed any consistency with the show. The shining moment of this episode had to be Peggy’s one-sided phone conversation with the pastor. The highlights of the episode, for me, all surrounded Peggy’s creative process and problem-solving prowess. The inside look at the beginnings of one of the most powerful modern industries has always been a huge part of the Mad Men experience for me. Without Peggy’s storyline, this component of the show would have been almost absent. And her channeling of Don’s client management abilities with the headphone CEO made me wonder, ‘is Peggy the new Don?’
Don. Oh, Don. In my experience, there are two kinds of roller coasters. The first are the ones that have you squealing with joy, clenching the safety bar with nervous anticipation for that next dip and turn, exiting the ride only to get right back on the end of the two hour line to ride again. And then there are the sort that have you doubled over, green faced, praying for it to end and put you out of your misery and, when it’s over, making a beeline for the nearest toilet to puke in. Draper’s character arc in this episode was the latter. At first, during the Hawaii sequences, it seemed as if Don had simply reverted back to his old ways – walls up, determined to keep his emotional (and verbal) responses to his surroundings in check to save face. Then, however, Don tells the execs from The Royal Hawaiian how Hawaii changed him. This, to me, broke the golden cinematic rule, ‘show don’t tell.’ Nothing about the Hawaii scenes at the beginning of the show, nor any of the scenes that follow indicate that Don has had some major epiphany. Is he just bullshitting the execs to try to sell his idea? An idea which, not only came out of nowhere but which he is so attached to that he actually breaks his own golden rule – never let ‘em see you sweat.
When the double episode had finished, we looked at each other, bewildered, both shaking our heads from side to side. “Does the show have new writers?” I asked. I mean, it wasn’t terrible, it was just… different. It was like seeing an old, close friend after an extended absence only to discover that the friend had developed new habits and philosophies that didn’t seem congruent with the things about their personality that drew me to them in the first place. Do I still see hints that the person I have come to know and love still exists? Certainly. Do I still love the friend? Yeah. I mean, it would take a lot more than a few new character quirks to undo my deep-seated feelings for them. But should those new quirks overtake the traits that I find endearing, I might find myself much less enthused about spending time in their company.