Now that the pitch perfect “Mad Men” Season 6 premiere has aired, so many questions have been answered.
No, Don hasn’t been faithful to Megan. Yes, Peggy is kicking ass at her new job. No, the agency hasn’t dropped any part of its Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce name. Yes, Betty is still trying to “reduce.”
But so many other questions have been introduced.
Showrunner Matthew Weiner has commented that this season is about the last line Dr. Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson) says to Don: “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” In the spirit of that cryptic theme, we’re going to break down each episode to track the happiness of key characters over the course of the season.
The “Mad Men” happiness index, week one:
1) Megan: Everything appears to be working out for young Mrs. Draper. She was momentarily concerned that the soap opera she’s featured on was minimizing her role because of the Hawaii vacation, but it turned out they actually expanded her part — and making her a villain. She’s already getting recognized, and she couldn’t be happier. Of course, she seems oblivious to both Don’s feelings and his cheating. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
2) Peggy: It’s not surprising, but Peggy is a total rock star at her new job. “You’re good in a crisis,” her boss Ted (Kevin Rahm) tells her. She’s learned a lot from Don — she used his writing a letter to a friend trick to help with brainstorming, and mercilessly pushed underachieving subordinates to work harder — and finally seems to be appreciated for her skills. There are a few hints she’s working too hard, at the expense of her personal life, but this week she was entirely in her element.
3) Joan: Despite a two-hour two-episode premiere, we barely saw Joan. But she seemed content enough at the office, with no lingering trace of awkwardness after last season’s unconventional rise to partnership. (At least for now.)
4) Pete: We know Pete is never really happy, but he had his eager-to-please business face on for his handful of scenes in the premiere. And any chance he gets to take a crack at Don (“And then you take a nap”) has to make him pretty content.
5) Sally: Besides having to stay with her mom and Henry Francis for the holidays — never Sally’s favorite place to be — the budding teen’s biggest concern was whether or not she could attend a friend’s New Year’s Eve party.
6) Cosgrove: Two words: Bob Benson (James Wolk). Ken Cosgrove is normally one of the most carefree guys at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but it looks like he may have finally found someone who gets under his skin the way he’s always irritated Pete.
7) Betty: After fading into the background during Season 5, Betty rallied back to the forefront with a strong premiere arc. Her late night bonding session with young family friend Sandy (Kerris Lilla Dorsey) touched on all sorts of issues. Was Betty jealous of Sandy (as suggested by the ribbing she gave Henry Francis in bed, complete with a few stunning pre-political correctness rape jokes)? Did she want to mother her (perhaps better than she’s mothered Sally)? Or was Betty simply nostalgic for her own youth? The answer is probably some combination of all three.
Sandy’s idealized talk about the kids living in a New York City tenement represents a shift in ’60s youth culture, but also sparked something inside Betty. Long past her teenage years, Betty is still struggling to define who she is. Changing her hair color is a superficial step, but it could be one in the right direction.
8) Bobby: “I hate it. You’re ugly!” So young. So miserable.
9) Roger: Happy-go-lucky Roger Sterling jokes his way through therapy sessions and worries he’s not feeling enough when his mother dies. He’s facing his own mortality (a recurring theme in every storyline throughout the episode) and he doesn’t like it. He throws a fit at his mother’s memorial service and later complains to his therapist: “All I’m going to be doing from here on is losing everything.” It’s not until he learns about the death of his shoeshine guy — whose family considered Roger his best and only client — that Roger is finally able to externalize his feelings. We’re so used to Roger’s sarcasm, it’s a shock to see him sob.
10) Don: Last season was the closest we’ve seen Don to being truly happy. Now he’s right back where he was before. He’s not connected to Megan, to Peggy, or anyone. He idolizes his doctor neighbor — as a person who deals with life and death for a living, Don can’t imagine anyone more important — and sleeps with the man’s wife (Linda Cardellini as Sylvia Rosen). He reads Dante’s “Inferno” during a Hawaiian vacation (“a man sitting in paradise reading about hell,” as Jon Hamm put it), and goes back to New York speaking enigmatically about an “experience.”
Don is restless, Don is lost and (in the answer to the Season 5 finale’s final question) Don is alone. In a nod to his military past — and the way he acquired the Don Draper identity — he returns from Hawaii with PFC Dinkins’ lighter and can’t seem to get rid of it. And then there’s the ad he pitches for the Hawaiian resort. The idea of a man who simply disappears unnerves the clients even as it speaks directly to what Don is feeling.
“I want to stop doing this,” he tells Sylvia in bed. 1968 has just begun, and Don Draper has a long year ahead.