A little over a year has passed since season five of Mad Men premiered on AMC. At the time, I had just finished revising my dissertation draft for my defense and had just started watching the cult hit show. I remember watching the last premiere and not really understanding what was going on because I had just started season one a few weeks before.
A year later, I am caught up, and ready for season six. However, as I watched last Sunday's episode, I could sense this was not your typical Mad Men season premiere. In fact, I found the episode dark and a tad unsettling (and I was not alone, as this review by Slate writer Seth Stevenson attests). Whereas season five’s premiere revolved around Don’s (Jon Hamm) surprise birthday celebration, this one went in the opposite direction. In fact, the "celebration" in this episode is in fact a funeral for Roger's (John Slattery_ mother, which brings together the partners of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price and which ends with Roger screaming at the guests to leave "his" funeral. As I pondered season six's premiere, I considered how the creative team behind Mad Men constructed the murky, dark tones that permeated the episode.
Firstly, I must address the obvious: the major theme of the episode was death. The premiere starts with a jarring image of someone applying chest compressions toward the bottom of the screen, and it is left in the air whom this person might be. It is not until later in the episode that we find out that the person getting the chest compressions was actually Don's doorman, Jonesy (Ray Abruzzo). It may seem obvious to start out the episode with a death (or questionable death) to establish that it will be one of the major themes in this episode, but what worked well was the question marks it left: the viewers do not know who dies, when they die, or even if this person actually dies. The mystery sets the tone, and even if the mystery of who died is resolved shortly after, the episode is already building upon that momentum: by Bobby's (Jared Gilmore) mention of a violin case looking like a coffin, Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka) friend Sandy (Kerris Lilla Dorsey) being a recent orphan, and later Roger's mother's funeral at the heart of the episode.
The theme wasn't the only thing that set the dark tone of the episode. To the point, right after the cardiac arrest scene at the beginning, viewers are introduced to Don Draper, a vision of a tourist on a bright beach. Introducing side characters who bring tragedy with them drapes a layer of darkness over the episode. Firstly, there's Sandy, Sally's friend from school, who has just lost her parents and who dreams of escaping to New York City after the disappointment of being rejected from Julliard. There is also the drunk soldier, Private Dinkins (Patrick Mapel), whom Don meets at the Royal Hawaiian hotel and is hours away from marrying his girlfriend. Although Private Dinkins is alive, their conversation on war and Vietnam seems to suggest that his story may not end well. For example, he mentions to Don how married men have more chances of surviving the war. I will add Dr. Rosen (Brian Markinson), Don and Megan’s neighbor who, although not dealing with a personal tragedy, deals with life and death on a regular basis in his line of work—not to mention, Don's obsession with what he does for a living. The side characters may or may not return in future episodes, but that's not important: what matters is that their presence helps lay down the shroud of gloom over the episode.
However, the tone is also cultivated by the details of the episode. Mad Men is detail-oriented, as Phillip Maciak pointed out in his review of the season premiere. In this case, the grey haze of gloom permeates the episode through the little things: the violin case that looks like a coffin, the paperback copy of Dante's Inferno, New York City streets covered in snow on New Year’s Eve, a late-night telephone call to the heart surgeon to come to the aid of a patient. The show’s creative team not only invests its energy in the plot and in the setting, but also in the objects with which the characters interact. The details radiate a certain energy, from that first scene with the person dying to Don lying in bed with Dr. Rosen’s wife.
Where does all of this lead viewers? It leads viewers to Don cheating on his wife with the heart surgeon’s wife and making a lukewarm claim that things will no longer be the same. We find out that she is the one who has given him the book. Suddenly, the tone of the episode changes: while viewers are looking for the death of someone, what actually died was something: Don's conscience. The theme of death was a little heavy-handed, but the plot twist in the last minute of the show, when we're all getting ready to go to bed and turn the TV off, make it all worthwhile. It makes you want to go back and rethink everything that just happened.