'Mad Men' Season 6 Premiere Recap: Is Don Draper Back to His Old Ways?
'Mad Men' Season 6 Premiere Recap: Is Don Draper Back to His Old Ways?
Morgan Glennon
Morgan Glennon
Contributing Writer, BuddyTV
Welcome back to the never-ending party that is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It's been quite a while since we've checked back in with our Mad Men favorites and time has soldiered on. The times, they are a-changing, and the facial hair, it is a-growing. 

The premiere of the season 6 is all about death and decay. Death symbolism is everywhere, from the unconscious suicide metaphor of Don's Hawaiian hotel pitch right down to his pose in bed as Megan comes to wake him -- the director taking pains to make Don look as corpse-like as possible. Will all this death symbolism add up to a major death this season?

Certainly, SCDP has seen more death in the office than most ad agencies. With Don's "jumping off point" pitch to the Hawaiian hotel execs, all I can think about is the silhouette tumbling down the skyscraper in the opening credits. Is that a premonition of what's to come? 

Death Symbolism is All Around

Last season, critics and fans noticed Mad Men was somewhat less subtle with some of the show's themes, underlining where the show had previously only italicized. If that's true, tonight's season opener is underlined in red marker and then highlighted in neon colors. It's impossible not to notice the sense of doom, of death and decay that permeates nearly every interaction. 

When talking to his therapist, Roger notes that every door is just like all the others. Later, he says that with his mother's death, it feels like he's had his last new experience. Roger is obsessed with death in the same way that Don is, as he almost belligerently pesters the doorman about what he saw on the other side. Heaven might not be a place on earth (not even Hawaii, where you can get molested at a luau!) but to get there, as Don notes, "something terrible has to happen."

Will something terrible need to happen to Don for him to break his cycle? Or will he ever be able to? As the episode ends, Megan wishes Don a happy new year. But like Roger notes, what exactly is new about it? Moments before, Don was shacking up with the wife of his doctor neighbor, telling her he wants to stop doing this but seemingly powerless to stop himself.  

Like the rumpled business suit in his pitch, Don tries to leave his baggage behind and walk into a new beginning. He married Megan, he moved to a swanky new apartment, he listened to the Beatles that one time. But Don is incapable of breaking free from his old patterns. 

After all, the vacation ends and you end up back in your old life eventually. Aloha means both hello and goodbye. So let's say Aloha to the old/new Don Draper. I think we all knew he'd be back eventually. Vacations don't last forever, not even ones in paradise. 

Cheating Don

"People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety," the doctor tells Don before skiing out into the snowstorm to go save a life, allowing Don to go bone his wife. That off-hand remark can sum up many of the characters on Mad Men, and especially taps into Don's womanizing ways. Don, and Roger to an extent, are always looking for some form of salvation in their relationships. 

Roger had that invisible parachute that was his mother's unwavering, unquestioning love. Now he's surrounded by a bunch of women who want something, like his daughter, or aren't willing to coddle him, like his ex-wife. 

While Don, who never had a mother make him the star of her universe like Roger, is desperately seeking that kind of blind and all-consuming affection. In the season 5 finale, as Megan excitedly got ready for her first commercial shoot, Don headed off to the bar where he was approached by a woman. In the shot, Don is walking away as Megan fades into the distance. But in Don's mind, it's Megan who's doing the leaving by pursuing her goals. 

It's when Megan leaves to go shoot To Have and To Hold that Don gets sauced to attend the funeral. Don needs constant affection and attention from the women in his life, while he simultaneously tends to pursue women who are at least somewhat driven and independent. 

So Don reverts back to his cheating ways, sleeping with the doctor's wife while Megan waits upstairs. It's not at all shocking that Don is cheating again, or that he was reading Dante's Inferno for his new mistress. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

On Mad Men, it's possible to keep stepping through new doors, but eventually you end up right back in the same place. No new mistress, new job or new hair color is going to change your essential DNA. You are who you are in the Mad Men universe. You can change your name, but you can't ever really change your identity. 

You've Ruined My Funeral

Some of the darkest and funniest moments of the premiere come during the funeral for Roger's mother. As always, Roger Sterling's wit is at its razor-sharp best, whether trying to crack up his therapist or awkwardly placating his secretary with his hands full of liquor. 

As Ms. Hazel goes on and on about how much the 91-year-old Mama Sterling loved cut-up Roger, a drunk Don violently vomits into a corner of the apartment. It's a moment so shocking and gross it is also simultaneously laugh-out-loud hilarious. On Mad Men, humor is often dark and this is a great example of the show undercutting a serious moment. 

(Can "Don Draper Vomits in Awkward Situations" please become a new Internet meme?)

To honor his mother, who no doubt coddled him if he was indeed the light of her life, Roger throws an epic temper tantrum. It's like something Michelle Tanner would throw on Full House. There are slamming doors and everything. His ex-wife comes in to tell him he's being ridiculous. "No matter what you do, everyone loves you," she says. Which is probably why Roger is the way he is. 

Roger and Don might be traveling very similar paths, but the journey to end up walking side by side into drunken, death-obsessed debauchery couldn't have been more different. The show highlights that when Ken asks Don if his mother is still alive. Roger is selfish because his mother loved him too much, Don because his mother loved him too little.

Peggy's the Boss

Meanwhile, Peggy might be the head honcho at a new firm, but she's repeating old patterns by working ridiculous hours, including New Year's Eve. She really is much more powerful now, a force to be reckoned with and good in a crisis. But she's repeating the old patterns set before her by Don, berating the other copywriters and making them work on holidays. 

The reason everyone is in an uproar is because the headphone commercial they had planned has been derailed by an off-color joke told on The Tonight Show about soldiers in Vietnam taking ears as trophies. 

This storyline, and the solider Don meets at the bar, are some of the biggest indications of what's happening in the world outside the walls and halls of the ad agencies. There aren't many allusions to what's happening historically, but Vietnam is in full swing and the joke has turned the former "lend me your ears" ad into a potential political minefield. 

Peggy, because she's Peggy, is awesome and eventually figures out a good solution to the problem. It's fun to see that Peggy is still pals with Stan, who is rocking some kind of weird Grizzly Adams look now. I find it hilarious that you can tell time has passed not by the hairstyles of the women, which are pretty much unchanged, but by the growing facial hair on all the guys.

Stan seems to think that Peggy's new boss Ted is into her, and it does seem like he might be admiring something more than her work ethic. Shouldn't Peggy know by now that office romances are a bad idea?

Bonkers Betty

Betty is, as usual, pretty crazy. Her storyline, which is basically that she hangs out with a bunch of beatniks and then dyes her hair, is also not terribly interesting. 

What is shocking is the crazy rape joke she tells her husband regarding Sally's 15-year-old violin prodigy friend. What's up with that? Not only does Betty cross the line with that joke, she basically runs the line over, backs up and then runs it over again. 

Later, she goes looking for Sally's friend Sandy in St. Mark's Place and ends up befriending the cast of Rent. Listen, Betty, it's great that you care about Sandy so much. But nothing is worth hanging out with a bunch of dirty beatniks in an abandoned building. Do you hear the people sing, Betty? They're telling you to get the hell out of there. 

After an altercation with the leader of their merry gang of misfits, Betty rips her coat and ultimately leaves Sandy's violin where she pawned it for money to get to California. Then she gets a new Liz Taylor-ish look. 

"I hate it! You're ugly!" yells Bobby. From the mouths of babes...

Elsewhere in SCDP...

- Harry continues to be really sleazy. In an episode where most of the supporting guys on the show look like they've been living on a desert island for the past few months, it takes a special kind of guy to be the weirdest looking person in the room. So congrats, Harry.

- There's a new guy in the building and his name is Bob Benson. He's played by the delightful James Wolk and he is a super suck-up. I have a feeling we should keep an eye on him.

- Joan gets her very own partner portrait, which doesn't at all make up for the fact that she doesn't really get her very own lines. Megan complains about getting two lines in her script, but poor Christina Hendricks gets about zero in the premiere. There better be more Joan this season!

What did you think of the Mad Men season 6 premiere? Were you happy to have the show back or did you think the two-parter was too slow? Sound off in the comments! 

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(Image courtesy of AMC)