Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mad Men (Season 6)

Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, Jessica Paré, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Kiernan Shipka, Kevin Rahm, Christopher Stanley, Jay R. Ferguson, Ben Feldman, Robert Morse, James Wolk, Linda Cardellini, Harry Hamlin
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A while back there was this wild rumor circulating that Mad Men would conclude in the present day. It came from an interview conducted with showrunner Matt Weiner, who eventually clarified himself, even as the notion was dismissed by many as simply too far-fetched and preposterous to be true. The initial reasoning was that if this is a series about where we've come from and where we're going,  it's only fair we eventually find out where we've ended up. That's an interesting way to look at it, offset only by the improbability of an alcoholic, chain smoking Don Draper living to see the iphone and the fact that the series hasn't had a time jump much greater than even a year. But it's only in this sixth season that you could actually start to envision such a scenario. If not that, then perhaps something as equally mystifying or insane. Weiner wrote for The Sopranos and we all know how that ended so maybe it's time to prepare ourselves. All signposts point to the show hurling toward one of those polarizing conclusions and that's kind of exciting. And given how the series specializes in long term, novelistic storytelling, the groundwork for something like that would have been mapped out since the pilot.

A vacationing Don reads Dante's "Inferno" (Ep. 6.1, "The Doorway, Part I")
When I first started watching Mad Men I struggled to make it past the first season, finding it too slow and complaining nothing ever "happens." But a lot was happening. I just couldn't see it yet. The show's a slow burn. Slow enough that it's only now that we're fully reaping the rewards, knowing what the characters are thinking and feeling and being able to relate it to previous events. That's why it's so perplexing some have expressed displeasure with quite possibly its greatest season. And how could it not be? It's 1968. Putting these characters in that tumultuous year with the culture at a turning point is like capturing lightning in a bottle and Weiner wasn't likely to drop the ball. Many of our favorites are rapidly approaching (if not already at) middle age and time's speeding them by, leaving them as holdovers of an earlier era.

Slick ad man Don Draper's inner battle with his true identity of Dick Whitman (symbolically illustrated on the season's promotional poster) reaches a fever pitch, potentially claiming its most helpless victim yet: His own daughter. This might mark the first season we feel genuine sympathy for Dick, realizing that the true extent of his upbringing insured he'd never have a chance at becoming "Don Draper" for real. He had to adopt that persona, playing it to perfection up to this point. But now the cracks are showing. It's caught up with him, with the only glimmer of hope being that he now may finally be realizing it.

1968 finds not only Don (Jon Hamm), but the now two-floor ad agency of SCDP, at a crossroads. With Vietnam raging and the counterculture movement in full swing, all the characters are having difficulty adjusting to the times, both at the office and in the their personal lives, with the line between the two as invisible as ever. Everyone seems engaged in behavior that's cyclical, calling back to the first few seasons enough to make you wonder if any of them are truly capable of any kind of change or growth. Much how Don's affairs eroded and eventually destroyed his marriage with Betty (January Jones), the two-hour premiere ("The Doorway Parts I and II") reveals he's similarly grown tired of second wife Megan (Jessica Paré), just as her career as a soap actress is taking off.

Guest star Linda Cardellini as Sylvia Rosen
The timing of these marital issues isn't a coincidence since Don immediately loses interest in any woman he can't control, with the emotional abuse even extending to new mistress Sylvia Rosen ( Emmy-nominated guest star Linda Cardellini), the terms and conditions of their affair firmly in his grasp. Flashbacks to a young Dick Whitman growing up in a whorehouse set the stage for his toxic adult relationships with the opposite sex, viewing them as property, fit to discard whenever he's through. Not exactly the strongest foundation on which to build a life as a devoted husband and father, yet it's a lie he's still obsessively clinging to.

The scariest thing about Don's actions this season is how he can so casually compartmentalize the facets of his life to absolve himself the guilt of sleeping with his friend's wife. It's a new low, even for him. Don's cheated before, but never this brazenly, and certainly not without considering the ramifications that could eventually come from it. It's almost like he's testing fate and daring anyone to catch him. The days of Don walking into a room and winning over every man and woman in it with his confident swagger are slowly drawing to a close. And while he still shows flashes of brilliance, some of his pitches to clients now border on embarrassing, emblematic of a man who's given up lying to himself and others.

Don's legendary first season Kodak Carousel pitch (itself a beautiful pile of lies) has never seemed further away, as he's now centering a campaign for Sheraton Hawaii Resorts around death, discussing the politics of Vietnam over dinner with Chevy executives and sabotaging a Hershey account. This season truly is his "jumping-off point" and in season full of latent symbolism and conspiracy theories it's hard not to think that this Sheraton pitch about a man shedding his suit and disappearing gives only more credence to the wildest and most ambitious prediction yet regarding Don's final destination in the series. His reading of Dante's Inferno on the beach in the premiere suggests he's stuck in his own nine circles of hell, repeating previous sins like infidelity, while senselessly hoping for different results.

Roger mourns the death of...his shoe shine guy
Also trying to claw out of his own personal hell is Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who's been going through the motions for a while at work and discovering last season's mind opening LSD trip has done little to clean up the mess that's his life. As if coming to terms with his mother's death (and his shoe shiner) wasn't enough, he's essentially being blackmailed by his own daughter and son-in-law so he can see his grandson. Worse yet, Joan (Christina Hendricks) cuts him off from their love child, justifiably worried about his track record of sticking around. Slattery (who also directs standout episodes, "Man With a Plan" and a Tale of Two Cities") is, as usual, gold as Sterling, providing great comic relief while conveying the underlying tragedy of a character still refusing to grow up as he enters the Burt Cooper stage of his career, while wrestling with his own mortality. Roger's been phoning it in for a while now at work but there are points during the season where he actually seems rejuvenated and motivated to get new business, at least compared to Don, who's the laziest he's ever been.

Despite her promotion to partner last season, Joan is still viewed by her colleagues as somewhat of a joke, a partner in title only and treated as little more than a glorified secretary. Some of this is her fault for sleeping her way to the top, but more of it lies at the feet of the firm and the times. What choice did she have other than to offer herself up to the fat, sweaty Jaguar executive?  It's sad, but true, and Hendricks has always been skilled at depicting the fire inside Joan. The desire to be wanted yet respected, though this season her desires heavily tilt toward the latter. Trying to make major strides in being taken seriously for her intellect rather than her body, she finds an unexpected ally in former nemesis Peggy (Elisabeth Moss).

Having jumped ship to rival firm Cutler, Gleason and Chaough last season, a major merger ("For Immediate Release") drags Peggy back into the fold, while also introducing a dynamic new character who completely changes the game. Just when Peggy thinks she's done with Don, she's pulled back in and shoved right in the middle of a power struggle between her old boss and a new one, Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) of Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Ted joins an increasingly short list of characters who can actually be considered a good guy, though less of one as the season progresses. Whereas Don never appreciated Peggy (or refused to show it), Ted appreciates her a little too much, to the point that it's clouding his judgment in both business and personal matters. Joining him is partner Jim Cutler, magnificently underplayed by guest star Harry Hamlin as a bizarro version of Roger, only far sleazier.

Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) reading copy
Peggy's emergence as the new Don has been in the works for a while, but this is the season where it starts to come to fruition, as she earns both the fear and respect of her employees. And now she's doing it under a boss who's actually promoting and fostering her creativity. It's common knowledge how good Elisabeth Moss is in the role, but this season Weiner gives her better material to work with than maybe any other previous season barring the first two. James Spader lookalike Rahm makes an Emmy-worthy debut as Ted, perhaps the only formidable adversary Don's had in the office precisely because of his polar opposite personality and management style. They rarely seem like partners at all, each trying to one up the other at every turn, their competition for accounts causing a war within the newly christened Sterling Cooper and Partners, just as a real one is ripping the country apart.  

If Peggy is evolving into the female version of Don Draper, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has always been the poor man's version of Dick Whitman. Unlike Don, when trying tries to wear a smooth, confident mask to hide his insecurities he comes off as a bumbling fool. In some ways his actions seem slimier and more pitiful because he's just so bad at it, using everything and everyone to get his way and rarely succeeding. Throughout the series he's raped a maid, serial cheated on his wife, tried to pick up an underage girl at driver's ed and taken a mistress who forgets who he is after electroshock therapy treatments. That all this pales in comparison to the hijinx he finds himself in this season speaks volumes. It also speaks for Karthesiser's pitifully comical performance that we still somehow feel sorry for him, emerging in these 13 episodes as something other than a Don wannabe.

Having finally attained what he thought would be the perfect life with a wife, baby, and home in Westchester, he's slowly come to the realization that none of that is him at all. The now balding Pete just wants to look and feel important and those are all just a means to an end. But unlike Don, he can't even successfully fake it as his savvy wife Trudy (Alison Brie) sees right through him  Having already torpedoed his marriage and rapidly losing traction at work, Weiner throws Pete into what's easily his funniest storyline since the show's inception involving his mother and a bizarre feud with the show's best new character. Pete finally meets his manipulative match, but the opponent carries an advantage he never will: Charm and likability.

"How are you?"
No one knows quite what to make of brown-nosing accounts man Bob Benson (James Wolk), but trying to find out exactly who he is and his motivations turn into one of the season's biggest mysteries and fodder for even more conspiracy theories. Since it seems impossible anyone could be so nice on this series without some kind of ulterior motive, red flags go up the second he arrives. As the clingy office climber, Wolk's performance is pitch perfect in how it's just disingenuous enough to generate intrigue that something's seriously off with this guy. FBI agent investigating Don? Time traveler? Murderer? The speculation is endless, despite this not even being that kind of a show. When we do eventually find out some major information on him, it still doesn't explain all of his bizarre behavior or begin to scratch the surface of what he's about. That Weiner has yet to do that is very good news heading into the final stretch, as the directions the character can go seem endless. Or it could all mean nothing. This series is famous for making us guess which.

More than perhaps any other previous season, historical events play an indispensable role in shaping the characters who are active participants in the social upheaval of the times rather than spectators on the sidelines. Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, civil rights and the counterculture movement are all front and center in 1968 and it never feels as though the series is checking boxes, instead integrating them into the character's lives and showing how the changing landscape is affecting everyone. New York City is changing as well, entering an era of crime it won't fully recover from until the 90's. And as usual, it's also the impressively accurate retro production and costume design, and the music choices that seem as important to the series as its characters. With the 60's ranking as arguably the strongest decade for music in American history, there's much to draw from as we get Janis Joplin, The Monkees, and Joni Mitchell among others, along with some key integration of pop culture with that year's popular film, the Planet of the Apes playing a small, but crucial role.

Target practice with Stan Rizzo (Ep. 6.8, "The Crash")
In what should rank as one the finest episodes, "The Crash," takes full advantage of the craziness of the time, as a "Dr. Feelgood" like physician injects the entire creative staff with a powerful stimulant on the eve of a major Chevy pitch. The result is an episode that unconventionally toys with time, contains much dark humor and results in new personal revelations for a sick and exhausted Don.  There's also a downright scary event involving daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and her little brother that works on a number of different levels.  It also maximizes colorful supporting characters like bearded stoner Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), nerdy head of TV Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and neurotic free-thinker Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman).

Ironically, it's the extremely likable, sometimes author Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) who not only makes the biggest impression in the episode, but takes the most amount of abuse (physical and otherwise) throughout the season for his role in the Chevy account. He joins Ted, Megan and Betty's politician husband Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) as the only somewhat moral and responsible characters, with the latter stepping up to assume the responsibilities of husband and father that Don skirted. That Betty now emerges as the preferable parent--physically and emotionally returning to early season one form not long after an eye-opening visit to Greenwich Village in the premiere-- is a testament to just how far Don is falling and failing as a dad.

Betty, even at worst, has at least tried to give their kids a stable home, but this season Don may have permanently traumatized one of them in much the same way he was in that whorehouse growing up. It's nearly impossible to discuss the season without referencing the major event that occurs toward the end of it ("Favors"). It's here where everything Sally thought she knew about her dad is torn to shreds in one moment and Don's cyclical behavior throughout this season is given the ultimate payoff. In this moment is possibly the best acting the somehow still Emmy-less Jon Hamm has ever done on the show, staggering aimlessly through Don's penthouse lobby in a wordless panic, the character legitimately shaken for the first time. Mr. Cool finally has no idea what to do.

Sally makes a shocking discovery (Ep. 6.11, "Favors")
Since it hasn't been front and center on the series until now, it's been easy to overlook just how messed up Sally's life could potentially turn out having parents like this. If Weiner's end game is to bridge the gap between our past and present, she's the only character capable of doing it, observing these people's actions through the same shocked, impressionable eyes we've had since the show's pilot. She's also sharper than so many of the dysfunctional adults she's surrounded by, offering up one-liners and words of wisdom that make them look immature by comparison.

Sally's stay at a boarding school where she uses her friendship with the infamous Glen (Marten Weiner) to manipulate a pair of mean girls ("The Quality of Mercy") shows just how far she's come. Finally seeing her father for what he really is, it'll be fascinating to see what happens as Sally enters her rebellious teen phase, of which we've already gotten a preview. And how fortunate they've been to have an actress as good as Shipka playing her and not just reaching, but far exceeding, the lofty expectations of a constantly changing part. A good case can be made that Sally's the series' true protagonist, and when we do reach that highly anticipated final scene, it's a safe bet she'll be in it. Let's just hope she's not shaking a snow globe.

If there's a rockbottom, Don hits it at the end of this season, having seemingly lost everything. Or has he? The season finale ("In Care Of") shows a man who may have finally shed the skin of Don Draper, possibly ready to accept his past as Dick Whitman, if not fully integrate him into his current life. But we've teases of that before, only to have him slip back into his selfish, emotionally destructive ways. The idea of Don starting a new life with Megan in California is exactly what it first came to him as: A dream. While the agency briefly returns to California for business this season, Don's desire to escape to the west coast reaches as far back as the Season 2 classic, "The Jet Set," when he crashed at the pad of some wild bohemians. What he really wants to do is run away, not with Megan, but from her, since he can never return her feelings with the baggage he's carrying. There's also concern just how long she'll be around, as many have speculated that the Sharon Tate t-shirt she wore in Ep. 6.9 "The Better Half" marks her for death. I wouldn't be quite so sure, but as we know, even wardrobe details on this show are rarely unintentional.

Megan Draper wearing Sharon Tate's iconic t-shirt
A public breakdown and a sacrifice he makes for a co-worker suggests that while Don may be too late to salvage his own mess, he can help someone else from repeating his mistakes. This is the season everything comes full circle and Weiner throws all his cards on the table. Proof comes in the last image, which is strong and enduring enough to double as the series closer. But somehow there's more, and it feels like there should be. Contrary to popular belief, Mad Men is a much better now than when it started because we've gone through so much with the characters that we've reached kind of a shorthand with them, knowing their motivations before even they realize it, yet shocked by their actions just the same. The show isn't only about Don Draper anymore. It's grown bigger than that, with the complete picture coming into sharper focus with each passing episode.                       

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