Mad Men season premiere recap: Death Takes a Holiday

The two-hour season 6 opener finds Don and Megan in Hawaii, Roger in the therapist's chair, and Betty in the slums
Ep. 01 | Aired Apr 7, 2013

LEI MAN Don silently fumes in his tropical Purgatory.

AMC

The book Don reads while lounging at the Royal Hawaiian -- lent to him, it turns out, by Mrs. Rosen (played by former freak Linda Cardellini) -- is itself notably symmetrical. Dante’s Divine Comedy is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, with the rising spires of heaven echoing the sunken malebolges of the underworld. Don is reading the first book, but which one is he currently living? The closest we’ve seen him to a descent into hell is his fourth season bouts with alcoholism and depression, and this certainly isn’t as bad as that. (Unless this is only the beginning of a new katabasis, a further fall. Maybe all the show's rampant sinners will start facing their own contrapasso. Roger certainly is starting to.) It isn’t paradise either, though, despite the edenic setting. Something unpleasant is tugging on Don’s sleeve even if he doesn’t seem fully aware of what it is. So that leaves us with purgatory, which I really think is the best bet.

Don's life is in stasis. His watch has stopped. If Hawaii is perfect, then it's too perfect. He certainly seems happy with Megan, although, as he told Dow Chemical last season, happiness is only a moment before you need more happiness. Here, he describes his island time in pretty purgatorial terms: "The air, the water are all the same temperature as your body." That's not a vacation, that's suspended animation.

Hawaii has a long history with television, as far back as Brady Bunch specials and the original Hawaii Five-O. But one Hawaii-based show in particular comes to mind in relation to Mad Men, especially after all this purgatory talk: Lost. Matt Zoller Seitz traces the surprising connections between the two series in this piece, and he's right that fans tend to treat the shows in similar ways. But where Lost was about tracking down narrative Easter eggs and trying to connect the dots with plot lines, Mad Men is like a Where's Waldo for thematic content. It's the kind of show where every line of dialogue seems to be carrying six times its weight, and lingered stares transfer truckloads of meaning. Weiner is just as spoiler-obsessed as Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse ever were, even though the questions he hopes to avoid answering tend to be more "Why?" than "What?" 

So appropriately, not much technically happens in this two-hour premiere, at least not on the surface. "It's like a movie," one of the Sheraton guys exclaims upon seeing Don's transmigratory mock-up, referring specifically to James Mason's drowning death in A Star is Born. Weiner hopes viewers will have the same reaction to this episode. He's said he wants the audience to treat the premiere like a feature film and not two episodes stuck together with Scotch tape. It's not really eventful enough to truly feel like a movie, of course, but everything looks just as cinematic as it always has. I don't know whether it's a question of changing times, and loosening ties, but the visuals of this season's premiere seemed to me especially vivid. The office has more color than it's ever had, and some of the tableaux in Hawaii were pure Sirkian eye candy.

Don returns home from his vacation in time for Christmas. Megan's career is taking off with a role on To Have and to Hold as Corinne the murderous maid. She even gets stopped for an autograph in Hawaii by an older woman who recognizes her from the show and insists her niece is an enormous fan. Don, on the other hand, has an encounter that's more shaking than esteem-building: a late-night whiskey-soaked chat with the soused Private Dinkins. The exchange is both amusing and more than a little upsetting. Upon learning Dinkins, on leave, is to be married in a few hours, Don offers to buy the slurring grunt another drink, which probably isn't the best possible thing for the man at this point in time. After a discussion in which Dinkins admits he hopes to live long enough to become like Don, "the man who can't sleep and talks to strangers," Don ends up getting talked into giving away the bride while Megan laughs and takes a picture for posterity.

It's all just stuff for a story you'd tell at, say, a fondue party, but Don can't seem to shake the "experience," as he calls it. It follows him around like a balloon tied to his belt loop, not unlike Roger's post-LSD "enlightenment" from last season. The audio cuts out and we hear the ocean as he stares out of his office window, like an ad for Corona. He has Dinkins' lighter, engraved with the Niebuhr-esque (and Jagger-esque) maxim "In life we often have to do things that just are not our bag." It's a truism you would think Don would know, but really, when has he ever stuck with something that he didn't want to stick with? When has he made a decision that was better for someone else, even if it was worse for him?

He tries to ditch the lighter, but it keeps showing up like a bad penny. He's been startled by something. He drinks too much and ends up vomiting in an umbrella stand at Roger's mother's funeral in the middle of a rambling eulogy from a crazy aunt. Roger sums it up hilariously (as usual) a couple scenes later when he tells Mona, "He was just saying what everybody else was thinking." It's an especially bad insult on Don's part because apparently Sterling's mère wasn't a fan of libations. Maybe she was a Temperance rabble-rouser in her day, who knows? That's amusing to hear considering her son has ended up downing more vodka on a given workday than Boris Yeltsin on his birthday.

NEXT: Roger Sterling's latest mid-life crisis and Betty's adventures in Bohemia...

Latest Videos

Advertisement