04/10/2013 07:13 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

Mad Men : On the Comeback Trail in a Changing Cultural Landscape

Mad Men is back, and I'm glad. Even though the two-part premiere episode wasn't perfect, it brought some keen acting, sharp dialogue, and stunning visuals. And it brought the show fully into the beginning of the fire that consumed the late 1960s.

For a show that has often, and oddly, seemed hermetically sealed off from the history erupting around it, the start to Mad Men's Season 6 brought the biggest of the changes, the growing industrial-strength savagery of the Vietnam War, into the twin centers of the show, Don Draper's eternal existential crisis (well portrayed by the excellent Jon Hamm) and the advertising industry's eternal quest to sell America what it may very well not need.

Much more on this, with plentiful spoilers, lies ahead. Incidentally, here's an archive of my pieces on the show, The Mad Men File, beginning in 2009. (I saw the show from the beginning but didn't write about it at first.)

How was Mad Men's Season 6 premiere received? On balance, the response seems mixed, though ending up on the positive side of the seesaw. Whether that is up or down depends on your preference, of course. Viewership was strong, near a record, well above that of last season's finale, an episode which had nearly redeemed what preceded it.

Mad Men Season 6 is underway at last.

This is a crucial season for Mad Men. Season 5, as I suggested from its very beginning, was down from past seasons in quality. It took awhile for the folks who write full-time about television to stop reflexively praising everything that happened on the show, but by the end of the season -- a season marked by fairly arbitrary, hairpin plotting and a series of stunts that seemed more geared as watercooler/twitter bait than organic to the truth of the characters and their situations -- many more had come to seriously question the show.

And after winning four straight Emmy Awards as television's best dramatic series -- a record previously matched only by The West Wing and Hill Street Blues -- Mad Men lost to a new critical darling, Homeland. (L.A. Law, which hasn't worn as well, also won four Emmys as best drama, but not consecutively.) Can Mad Men regain the commanding heights it once enjoyed in its final two seasons, of which Season 6 is the penultimate?

It's not just Homeland giving Mad Men a run as the prestige drama of what many call "The Golden Age of Television." Among dramas, there's Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones. And House of Cards has certainly wedged its way into the conversation, not least because of Netflix's unique distribution model of making an entire season of 13 episodes available all at once, albeit at only one private location.

I quite like House of Cards, not least because it's about politics. But especially because it is based on one of my favorite classic British miniseries, the original House of Cards in 1990, all about a fictional power struggle for prime minister in the wake of the real Margaret Thatcher's retirement, something poignantly recalled with her death on Monday. And of course because it stars one of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey, who had his breakthrough role 25 years ago as the brilliantly psychotic arms dealer Mel Profitt on Wiseguy, in the second of that show's lengthy "arcs" which prefigured so much of today's television. Spacey's Francis Underwood, the Americanized version of Ian Richardson's more archly amusing Francis Urquhart, isn't nearly as zesty as his Mel Profitt, who unknowingly employed an undercover CIA special operator who would be very much at home on Homeland, but he isn't going to flame out, either.

Will House of Cards suffer from its distribution model, which makes it hard to discuss, much less know how to write about, two crucial factors in achieving a critical, if you will, critical mass? You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.

Much as I love Mad Men, I was rooting for Homeland to win the last Emmy as best drama. Homeland's Season 1 was that good. With former 24 writers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon at the helm, the show combined the best elements of 24 at its own Best Drama Emmy-winning peak with the best elements of Britain's brilliant Spooks, winner of the Bafta for the UK's best dramatic series. And it did so while avoiding the frequently preposterous plotting which sometimes marred both 24 and Spooks (known in the US by the more PC name of MI-5).

There was just too much firepower for Mad Men to overcome. In protagonist Carrie Mathison, the brilliant, troubled CIA officer who relentlessly tracks down her prey only to find something she did not expect, Claire Danes etched a flawed archetype for the ages. Damian Lewis was also fabulous as the hero Marine-turned-Al Qaeda agent, inviting empathy for a terrorist agenda while suggesting something fundamentally untrustworthy within whichever guise he affected. Small wonder that he won his own best actor award to match hers.

If Homeland continued like that as, in my view, the finest intelligence series ever in an era of intelligence, it would be very difficult for Mad Men to reclaim its throne. But Homeland's Season 2 opened the door for Mad Men's return. Though wildly entertaining, it was also frequently preposterous, veering into some of the most outlandish territory occupied by Spooks and 24. Great performances, and I fully expect Claire Danes to continue to dominate the best actress awards, but Homeland, though still terrific, has fallen off its high-wire.

Homeland's driven Carrie Mathison, brilliantly played by Claire Danes, is one of television's most compelling characters.

Which is only good news for the hopes of Mad Men's brilliant control freak creator, Matt Weiner.

Chronologically, the show has only moved ahead from April 1967 at the end of Season 5 to Christmas 1967/New Year's 1968 at the beginning of Season 6. But there are some big changes in addition to the dramatic presence of Vietnam, mostly affecting the leading women characters.

The men, frequently unknowing pigs that they are, are disproportionately suffering in comparison to the women of Mad Men, who are increasingly coming into their own.

Megan Calvet Draper is a TV starlet, with some actual fans who ask for her autograph. Don having her cast in that commercial at the end of Season 5 has resulted in a much more relaxed and confident Megan, who again shows her knack for doing the right thing in an emergency, as well as a charming approach to her budding fame.

Peggy Olson is a commanding and resourceful creative chief at a rival agency to Sterling Cooper Draper. She turns out to be great in a crisis around a client's Super Bowl ad, calm, analytical, incisive, and ultimately very creative.

Betty Draper Francis, to whom daughter Sally Draper somewhat surprisingly turned when she had her first period late in Season 5, has an easier relationship with her daughter and with husband Henry Francis. She even exhibits interest in and compassion for a friend of Sally's with a secret problem. But she could definitely use some work in the humor department.

We don't see much of Joan Holloway, but she finally became a partner in the agency late last season, albeit in a rather sad way, having to have sex with the piggish head of the independent Jaguar car dealers association who made it a condition of his vote for the agency's bid for the Jaguar account. Which does not seem to have affected her authority at the agency in the least.

Roger Sterling, of all people, ever witty, has turned to introspection. Through analysis and therapy, which he once dismissed as just the latest fad for bored housewives, "this year's candy pink stove." Wouldn't it be ironic if this supremely surface-oriented guy, wont as he is to recalling the smell of gardenias in 1943, still nursing grievances against the Japanese, turned out to be the man who embraces change. He's certainly bright enough.

The unkempt hirsute styles of the late '60s are suddenly upon us, affecting everyone but Don, though Roger and Pete Campbell's adaptations, mercifully, are limited to sideburns.

And the savagery of the Vietnam War is beginning to permeate the culture. For a show and a set of characters that has often seemed oddly hermetically sealed from the history erupting around them, the change is striking.

I found myself greatly enjoying Part I, before focusing on all the darkness in Part II. For one thing, the show looked gorgeous. For another, I looked beyond Don.

I was very well aware of Don's somewhat dour mood beneath the dazzle -- he was, after all the veteran who couldn't sleep in paradise, as the Vietnam War soldier whose bride Don agreed to give away in the following morning's wedding ceremony put it -- but it didn't bother me, as I realized I was identifying more with Megan's happy perspective than that of her predictable husband.

Don's existential crisis is the same as it ever was. His character is contained in the great pilot episode, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," which apparently was Weiner's writing sample that got him on to The Sopranos.

Don is not a hero, he's an anti-hero. He is not a man of faith, he is not even an agnostic or an atheist, he is a nihilist. His default mode is libertine. The family man thing is something he does because he thinks he should, not because it's something that interests him intrinsically.

House of Cards is an intriguing new wild card in the discussion about the best drama on television.

And he is a man with fundamental secrets, much more so than most people, the most fundamental of which is revealed later in Season 1, that he isn't really "Don Draper" at all.

That doesn't mean he's a sociopath, though it does mean he can be major bad news. He tries to be decent to people and usually succeeds. He genuinely likes and loves Megan and wants her to do well -- which I'm not sure was ever true with Betty, who seemed more a trophy he kept stashed away out in the suburbs, to her grave displeasure and psychic injury -- but his ultimate turn to cheating on her was more than foreshadowed at the end of Season 5 when he repaired to that darkened bar where the blonde asked him if he was alone.

Don represents the apex of selling the American Dream at the point at which the 1950s became the 1960s. (That was also the apex of Mad Men, at least so far, and I've long wondered how the show would fare outside its uniquely rendered early '60s wheelhouse.) We're well past that in the arc of history at this point, and Don is struggling as a result.

Yet he is talented, smart, and a survivor. We've certainly seem him much worse than this. Don is not drowning. He didn't drown all the other times many imagined he was. Weiner must know that some of the audience revels in his impending doom. I laughed uproariously when I saw Don's pitch for Royal Hawaiian -- "Hawaii. The jumping off point." -- and his obliviousness about its suicidal implications made it all the more amusing.

Of course, he sees the idea of shedding the old costume and disappearing into the cleansing waves -- which we saw him do at the end of that curious Season 2 episode "The Jet Set," near Anna Draper's Southern California home -- as key to his idea of paradise.

But because Don is not a terrifically introspective person, and his life is still going well enough on the surface of things, he turns out not to be the one who is searching for the truth about himself. Perhaps because he already knows it.

That would be Roger Sterling, of all people. All the new insights tell him, he complains to his shrink, who notes that he can't allow himself to laugh at Roger's jokes, is that life is all doorways and windows and bridges and gates leading not to a new reality but just more experiences, like pennies picked up along the way. Well, maybe so.

Peggy, at last, has become what some of her greatest fans claimed she was before she truly was: A real advertising maven. She is massively impressive in what we see of her in this episode. (Though a bit harsh with her subordinates, probably channeling Don.)

We also see, and this has been hinted at before in the show, that her boss -- Don's despised rival Ted Chaough -- isn't at all a bad guy. In fact, he just might be quite a good guy, within the advertising milieu. Which is certainly a change of perspective.

Until you recall the perverse genius of the pilot, which tips us off from the very beginning that Sterling Cooper are not "the good guys." They work for Big Tobacco and are trying to distract from legitimate health risks from smoking. And of course there is Roger Sterling's priceless line about Sterling Coo's prospective work in the 1960 presidential campaign, which turns the JFK-oriented historical perspective of today on its head: "He's young, handsome, a Navy hero. Honestly, it shouldn't be too difficult to convince America that Dick Nixon is a winner."

Mad Men is certainly no longer stuck in the insular existentialism that sometimes plagues it. Vietnam was all over this one, and I suspect will loom ever larger. (Joan may never be a divorcee, instead ending up a war widow.) We've not heard the last of PFC Dinkins, whom Don's black secretary Dawn Chambers (she has a last name now!) is tracking down in Nam to finally return the lighter which Don just couldn't get rid of, no matter how he tried.

The recurring motif of the Zippo (I've had those), the looming shadow of Vietnam, the paradoxical role of Hawaii in the interaction between America and Asia, all point to deeper developments to come in the show.

The answer to most questions about the future of Mad Men is suggested by Francis Urquhart's catch phrase in the original House of Cards.

In the midst of Season 5, the teenage girl whom Pete tried so lamely to pick up in his drivers ed class said something very telling about the time, and the show in that time.

"Things seem so random all of a sudden," she noted. "And time feels like it's speeding up."

As Season 6 begins, time is still speeding up. But things seem less random.

I think that Don's doctor neighbor either already knows or strongly suspects that Don is having an affair with his wife.

The good doctor told Don very late in the premiere that "people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety." (Notice how his gaze is very studying of Don throughout. Recall his little crack that he had hoped that head of Don's was empty.)

Don's affair has virtually nothing to do with Megan. (It will really only have to do with her when/if she finds out.) It's about him and his fundamental anxiety. Sex is a way to alleviate anxiety. (It's also fun, but we clearly shouldn't talk about that.) The affair is another of Don's compartments, one which he seems about to close off.

Who knows where Don is when this novel for television ends? It may simply be a freeze frame of his life at the end of the '60s.

Don asked his doctor friend, husband of his girlfriend: "What does it feel like to have someone's life in your hands?"

This after endlessly handling and fruitlessly trying to discard the Zippo he had mistakenly exchanged with the young soldier in Hawaii.

Emblazoned on that lighter is this legend: "In life we often have to do things that just are not our bag."

Don, of course, has spent an inordinate amount of energy constructing a life that in decided counterpoint to that sentiment. Will he keep that life, or be stuck with the one described on the Zippo?

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