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'Mad Men' Season 6: The Pretty and the Profane
April 6, 2013  | By Eric Gould

For its moody, underlit scenes, its adult themes and its novelistic, literary structure, AMC's Mad Men has been the closest to a cinematic experience that television can provide. One of the many achievements of Mad Men has been its craft; each episode is like a small film unto itself.

This year, to launch its sixth season, Mad Men premieres with a two-hour episode (Sunday at 9 p.m. ET), and gets even closer to that experience (as it did last year) with a sort of Mad Men, The Movie. The critically acclaimed show gets to stretch out in long form, with established characters making small side journeys to give us a richer, deeper understanding of their modern dilemmas nestled in the 1960s. And some new characters are arriving on the show as well.

And who might they be? At the behest of AMC and series creator Matthew Weiner, we're asked not to say. The internet has been rife with rants this week with TV critics hamstrung by those requests, with writers asked to refrain from revealing what year this season of the series is set in, the status of Don and Megan's relationship, the expansion or non-expansion of the advertising agency Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, and other details.

In other words, say virtually nothing.

(You can read, and hear, how our own David Bianculli chose to handle those restraints in his review of Mad Men for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.)

You could understand AMC's and Weiner's paranoia, especially on the heels of the news, earlier this year, that one of Breaking Bad's final-season scripts had been stolen out of star Bryan Cranston's car. And with hundreds of articles, online and in print, chipping away at details of one of television's most anticipated shows, the odds of a deflated premiere increase. So, in a way, good for Weiner, and good for AMC for attempting to keep things fresh for the national audience.

What we can say about the sixth season of Mad Men, we could say about any other season: The series continues to excavate the 1960s as a unique moment in America, a confluence of prosperity, style and optimism. The art direction of the show continues to mine the mod-pop sensibility of that era, and it wraps that aesthetic around some seriously troubled people trying to navigate some enormous cultural sea-changes that, for them, are just around the corner.

As with last year's foreshadowing around the unfortunate failure and demise of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), this season is steeped in similar harbingers of darker, more troubling things to come, with repetitive symbols of death all around. Consider this: each week the show open's with Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) delirious fall in silhouette from the heights of Manhattan skyscrapers, surrounded by the ghost images of advertising he created to fuel the public's desire. It's a perilous fall from grace, and TVWW has long mused that Don's character must meet some similar fate by the end of the series.

And, after all, Don's trademark smoking and drinking are still in high gear. Perhaps Weiner and the writers are asking us to consider whether that high-risk lifestyle (not to mention his philandering and deceit) will finally catch up with him.

One detail that is safe to share: The Season 6 expanded opener, "The Doorway," opens with a trip to beautiful Hawaii, but with Don on the beach reading Dante's The Inferno (top). A majestic, luxury hotel is off in the distance, across the bay. That building, perhaps, is a metaphorical peaceful destination that will never be accessible to him. It is these Weiner trademark couplings of the beautiful and the bittersweet, the pretty and the profane, that always keeps the tone a little off-balance, and make it virtually impossible to predict where the series will go next. They also continue to keep it fresh.

Don may not quite be in Dante's seventh circle of Hell just yet, but "The Doorway," as with last year's episode "Mystery Date," is all about what's on the other side of an opening for the Mad Men characters — the other side of chance, and the other side of choice. And this new episode delivers yet another surprise when Don knocks on one doorway in the closing scene.

Don continues to be the creative force at SCDP, but as his silhouette falls each week in the title sequence, we begin to see real cracks in his professional armor, and we start to see that he is not able to stick the landing at every pitch meeting. In another scene, he's absently watching a rerun of the Donna Reed Show, an old black-and-white, squeaky-clean family sitcom from earlier in the Sixties. We wonder if he is becoming as anachronistic as the show he is watching, while the times, and his business, change around him.

As we mused in our Pete Campbell casting himself fantasy earlier this year, Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) continues his love-hate relationship with Don — a money man's disdain for the artist-poet as a necessary evil that makes his business a success, but one who, in his view, is expendable and ultimately interchangeable.

In the main, Mad Men's best asset is its unique study of the tug of war between commerce and spirituality — the ruthlessness of the ad firms manufacturing desire as the characters struggle with internal happiness. The real Mad Men zen lesson is that, however appealing the product, no matter how pretty the wrapping, peace of mind isn't just an easy impulse buy.

Mad Men has been reputed to be ending after its seventh season next year, although nothing has been confirmed. If it does conclude then, it will arrive well-timed, at a point when the series will be hard up against the Seventies, when all of the vital polish and swing of the Sixties will fall away to mutton chop sideburns and leisure suits — and the economic collapses that accompanied them.

Or, as in the title sequence, is there no where to go from here but down?

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