Review: Mad Mad Series 6 - Don Draper and co return with the stench of death everywhere
Sixth and penultimate series screens Sky Atlantic, Wed 10 Apr, 10pm
Could Mad Men be the most subtle TV drama ever made? While fans of The Sopranos and The Wire tuned in mainly for the bold writing and brilliant characters, there was always the juicy carrot of some rat or business associate being brutally dispatched. As dramatic storyline conclusions go, shaking hands on a deal to sell brassiere advertising doesn’t quite compare to Tony Soprano blasting his cousin’s brains out on a porch. But five seasons of Matthew Weiner’s show proves that you can keep viewers nailed to their seats as long as the bold writing and brilliant characters part of the deal is solidly intact.
Which isn’t to say that Mad Men doesn’t produce its own jolt or two: the office larks which led to a disremembered foot or the discovery of Lane Pryce’s swinging corpse had a certain hand-over-mouth quality. But Mad Men’s real pleasures are locked inside more nuanced details. When the show debuted, it was set in an early 1960s which was in full denial that it had ever left the 50s. As the sixth and penultimate series kicks off (Sky Atlantic, Wed, 10pm), 1968 is being ushered in, with the fashions more techni-coloured than tastefully hued, accompanied by a dramatic sprouting of hair from full beards to Zapata moustaches and slightly longer sideburns (hello, Pete Campbell).
Only Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) seem to be clinging on to the fashions and ideals of the past. Though even their characters have acknowledged the draw of the future, hilariously in the shape of Roger’s LSD dabblings and infuriatingly with Don’s lackadaisical attitude to work, his thrusting ambition perhaps doused by a messy marriage break-up with Betty (January Jones) and his subsequent snaring of a young trophy wife in Megan (Jessica Paré).
But as the new series dawns, we have been primed to fully expect the old Don Draper to be revived. Last we saw him, he appeared on the cusp of wolfish infidelity, but the amazing opening season double-bill typically upends all expectations. For one thing, it opens with a point-of-view shot of someone being resuscitated by a doctor: we assume it to be Don given that Megan is heard screaming, but swiftly we are in Hawaii with the pair taking full advantage of another lavish business trip.
Except Don doesn’t utter a word for the first ten minutes, all polite smiles with clients and ambivalent stares towards his flirtatious wife. Perhaps he is feeling especially neutered given that Megan’s acting career is flourishing: no one ever asked Don for an autograph. He only comes to life again when bumping into a fellow military man, even if the encounter merely results in Don’s existential angst being opened up once more.
Probably indicative of the ructions that lie ahead (both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated in 1968 and protest flared across the globe) death is everywhere in this opening double-bill. Perhaps still troubled by his indirect responsibility in Lane Pryce’s decision to end it all, Don comes up with an ad to sell Hawaii which he thinks is about shedding inhibitions and losing yourself (clothes cast aside on a beach) but to the client it looks an awful lot like an image of suicide. The Vietnam War is waged in the background, a funeral is attended and there’s an end of innocence feel about the promising teenage scholar and musician who is traced to a squatter’s drug den. Even Betty kills off a significant part of her identity.
Given that we know the shows ends after season seven, with each series more or less covering a calendar year, we can say with some certainty that the end of the 60s will herald the demise of Mad Men. Quite where Don Draper will be when the bells ring in 1970 is unclear, but it can’t possibly be a good place. The next 20-plus episodes will be a slow lingering death for fans, but if this thought-provoking, hallucinatory and, yes, subtle curtain-raiser is anything to go by, it will be pain mixed with undeniable pleasure.