Review: ‘Mad Men’s Sixth Season Risks Running In Circles

This post discusses minor plot points from Mad Men’s sixth season, though none that Matthew Weiner has requested that critics refrain from talking about.

The sixth season of Mad Men kicks with an image that’s an equivalent of a John Deere lawnmower to the foot: Don Draper reading Dante’s Inferno to himself, murmuring “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the stright road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” Don’s been in the midst of a midlife, or perhaps life-long, crisis since Mad Men’s earliest days, so it’s not as if he’s suddenly wandered off the right road. But when season five ended with the clear implication that Don would always stray from his intended route, no matter the woman along for the ride with him, it left Mad Men with a problem. If the show’s argument that Don can’t really change, what does it have left to say over the two more seasons creator Matthew Weiner has budgeted for it?

The premiere of season six offers a number of options. One potential new theme is mistaken identity. Don’s spent years concealing his birth as Dick Whitman, but he seems disconcerted by the extent to which people buy his polished image. “You some kind of astronaut?” a veteran asks him in a hotel bar. “I’m in advertising,” Don tells him, a bit rattled by the extent to which his pitch has obscured even the fake identity he’s built for himself over the years. Megan, who continues to find success as an actress, finds herself mistaken for one of her characters. “Excuse me, Corrine, I hate to bother you. I know your name isn’t really Corrine,” a woman from Minnesota approaches her. “You’re so much trimmer than you are on television…You just have a way.” Betty, who’s given much more to do this season, to the improvement of the show, even finds herself rattled by the assumption that she’s nothing but a judgmental suburban housewife.

Then, there’s the idea of flawed men reconciling themselves to their inability to transcend themselves. “They all open the same way. And they all close behind you,” Roger Sterling complains, using a metaphor that new life experiences are supposed to function like doors. “Look, life is supposed to be a path. You go along, and these things happen to you, and they’re supposed to change you. Change your direction. But it turns out that’s not true. It turns out the experiences are nothing.” Later, Mona Sterling, meeting up again with Roger, remarks “That man never tires of embarrassing himself.” When Roger assumes she means her new boyfriend, Mona corrects him, saying “I’m talking about Don.” Playing more aggressively with how Don would like to be seen, and how others see him, could broaden the emotional scope of the show in effective ways beyond the question of whether it’s possible for Don to transcend his instincts for deception. If he’s settled that question with a no, then there’s still plenty to be interested in as other people discover the extent to which he’s flawed, a dynamic that marked the end of his marriage to Betty and Peggy’s departure for his competitors.Then there’s the question of what happens to Peggy, and whether ascending to the kind of power that Don had when she first began working for him has changed her — or whether she’s capable of changing the job around her. Watching her conduct a cranky, funny, one-sided telephone episode is one of the high points of the premiere, a kind of humor Mad Men accesses all too rarely. And watching her realize that she doesn’t have the same rapport with her new colleagues as she did with the people she worked with at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is bittersweet.


But as much as it’s fun to spend time with the other characters on Mad Men, the main character of the show, and sometimes it’s biggest problem, remains Don Draper. “I used to jump off mountains, and it never occurred me that I had this invisible parachute,” Roger muses at one point. “My mother loved me in this completely pointless way…She gave me my last new experience.” The risk for Mad Men is that nothing can be new for Don anymore, while still needing to find ways to make him new for us.