'Mad Men' Season 6 Episode 1 Recap: Death is in the Air

The writing is on the wall for the characters on Mad Men: as last night’s sixth season premiere made abundantly clear, the end is nigh. Death is right around the corner, as it is for the show itself, and he will not be merciful — not to Don, or to Roger, or to any of the other characters, no matter how old or young.

The episode also devoted substantial time to Peggy and Betty, but it is really a thematic pas de deux between Don and Roger, who have both become obsessed with death in their ascendant middle age, though in radically different ways. Roger has never been the more mundane — and the more amusing — of the two men, and viewers will no doubt have no trouble identifying with his deep terror at the idea of his own demise, as well as with the falsely cheery bravado with which he attempts to cover it up. Roger’s defense against all the various horrors of the world has always been humor, but humor can only get a person so far: when he tries to make a joke out of his problems in a therapy session, his therapist is having none of it.

His real problem, of which his addiction to defensive humor is only a symptom, is his fundamental inability to deal with his emotions: when he tells his ex-wife Mona that he feels nothing in the wake of his mother’s death, she is appropriately skeptical, telling him that he seems pretty emotional (an accurate assessment, given his minor meltdown shortly before this scene). When he later tells his therapist that he’s lost his mother’s “pointless” love for him — the only such love he had in the world, we’re meant to surmise — his tone of voice is detached and slightly ironic. It’s only upon receiving the shoeshine kit of the recently-deceased Giorgio — an utterly irrelevant figure in Roger’s life who, presumably, used to shine his shoes — that he retreats to his office and breaks down crying. His emotions around the death of his mother — and, by extension, his own death; “This is my funeral!” he shouts at the guests at his mother’s — are too big, too terrifying, for him to process, but that does not mean that they do not exist. They simply come out in other, less satisfying ways.

Roger may be a repressed son of a bitch sour with the miseries of life, but he is not depressed in any serious sense: that plight falls to Don, for whom death means something rather different. He is, of course, frightened of death — who isn’t? — but there’s also something tempting about it for him, an intoxicating pull that urges him to slip underwater like the absent man in his failed advertisement for Sheraton, or indeed like Don himself in “The Mountain King,” the penultimate episode of the show’s second season. That baptismal moment symbolized a hypothetical rebirth that never quite came to fruition — it was another season of philandering before Betty finally left him – but now the sea represents something else: not a rebirth of the self but an erasure of it.

I was taken back not only to “The Mountain King” (amongst other episodes — the references to the show’s past came fast and furious last night) but to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” its pilot, when a German research consultant suggested that Sterling Cooper try to market Lucky Strike cigarettes by appealing to their consumers’ Freudian “death wish.”

Don dismissed her out of hand, with a sneer — “I’m sorry,” he told her, “but I find your whole approach perverse.” But that’s exactly what he was trying to sell Sheraton: his own death wish, his own desire to escape the trappings of his life and even, possibly, his body, in which he has never seemed to take much pleasure. When his new friend (this itself is a startling revelation — has Don ever had friends before?) makes a joke about his appearance, Don doesn’t seem to know what to do, or how to react.

The fact that Don’s attempt to sell his own pain to his clients manifestly did not work bodes ill for his career and possibly for his life as a whole. Don is a very good ad man, and he has been since the beginning of the show, but his talent has always been contingent upon his ability to transmute his own traumas and difficulties into successful ad copy. Consider his pitch for the Carousel (a slide projector … just like the one he and Megan use to show off their vacation photos) in the last episode of the show’s first season: he tells the clients, “There’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”

He showed them photos of his own family, of his own memories, and his pitch wound up being the perfect marriage of personal sentiment and business acumen.

Like Roger, Don can’t deal with his own problems and pain, but where Roger redirects those emotions in the same petty ways that most people do, Don has traditionally acted out the part of the artist, albeit as something of a hack (he makes ads, not art): he’s channeled his pain into his work. It’s always worked, insofar as it’s kept him from having to consciously deal with that pain; on the other hand, it’s also cost him a marriage, healthy relationships with his children and underlings, and real peace of mind. Partly because the “art” he is making is not art at all, but commerce, this process doesn’t get valorized by the show; it’s a kind of sad avoidance tactic, but one that was thrilling for viewers to watch — as long, that is, as it succeeded.

But now it’s not: now, Don’s personal strife is no longer flowing in tandem with the business needs of his clients. We got hints of this last season, and even in the season before — Peggy long ago became the better ad man, as it were, and it’s worth noting that her last-minute save last night was an ad taken directly out of her own life – but in this episode Don’s problem and probable decline are thrown into stark relief. The very thing that made him so successful for so long is going to do him in, now, and I don’t know if he can really do anything about it.

He is not entirely without hope, as a character, but he’s proven time and again that he is just too afraid of his problems to deal with them. Most of us want to fix ourselves, whether or not that is possible; Don doesn’t want to fix himself but rather to create himself anew, out of nothing. He is a man without a self: he had no mother to love him and help him form an identity, as Roger did (the look on his face right before he throws up at her funeral, while an old friend describes the awesome love Mrs. Sterling had for her son, is truly awful to behold); his father was cruel, uncaring, and also dead too soon. Then, of course, he threw his old identity away, and took on another man’s — but that didn’t really work the way he hoped, practically or emotionally.

Every time he sleeps with another woman — or, in the case of Megan, marries her — he’s trying to reinvent himself, to make himself into a person that he might like. He’s trying with Megan in a way that we’ve never seen him try before, but it’s still not working: who is the man in that apartment, wearing Don Draper’s (or, more accurately, Dick Whitman’s) skin? We don’t recognize him, and he doesn’t recognize himself. And he’s getting tired: he’s tried and failed at reinvention so many, many times that death — in the ocean or from the sky, perhaps, falling like that blank man falls through the ephemera of Don’s world in the show’s credits — has become a more appealing alternative. His clock is ticking, after all: he’s only got 24 episodes left to live.