The last season of Mad Men left us witness to Don Draper’s moral relapse after a relatively long period of good behavior starting with his second marriage to Megan. And what better way to begin the next season, to remind the viewers of the angst that is Don Draper, than with a voiceover of Jon Hamm reading the first passage from Dante’s Inferno (as he lounges on Waikiki Beach, mind you): “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
So, I guess, everything’s not too peachy between Don and Megan, especially since that is the only thing Don says for the first seven minutes of the show. Beginning with a tortured quote and leading with Don’s silence and lack of communication, Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s creator and writer, deftly portrays Don’s sinner’s guilt, made all the more obvious as Don drinks mojitos on a beautifully seductive Hawaiian coast while his gorgeous French wife, blissfully unaware, lounges happily next to him. Indeed themes of sin, of inner turmoil, of lust, and of complacency pervaded the season premiere in typical Mad Men sophistication, beginning with the fact that, as Megan and Don lounge on Waikiki Beach, the war in Vietnam rages on. Yet Don is not the only character wrestling demons; in fact, it seemed that everyone had something torturing them this time around.
So you’ve heard of Mad Men but never got around to watching it? Well, here it is in a nutshell: Mad Men is a period drama that follows the stories of employees at New York’s most prestigious advertisement agencies in the 1960s, focusing mainly on Don Draper, a handsome, talented, yet elusive ad exec. Important characters include Megan, Don’s new, smoking hot wife; Betty, Don’s noticeably fatter (prosthetics) ex-wife; Roger Sterling, the notorious womanizer of the firm; Peggy Olsen, an ambitious copywriter from Brooklyn; Pete Campbell, tool; and everyone’s favorite, Joan Harris, the sassy, red-headed secretary-turned-firm partner.
The season premiere brought in a New Year for the characters, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like 1967 will be very happy for any of the Mad Men, so what about the women? Things are looking up for Peggy Olsen. Last time we saw her, she had just quit her job at Don’s firm, having articulated that Don, and all the other men for that matter, were condescending and not taking her seriously at all. Now, she’s a big shot at a new ad agency, and we’re liking the transformation Peggy embodies with all her newfound power. Calm, confident, and coolly persuasive—just like Don—Peggy is a star at her job and keeps her head when emergency strikes.
On a different note, WTF is wrong with Betty? She’s straight-up going nuts. Or is she? If we look back on Betty’s life, we see that long before she married Don, she earned a degree from Bryn Mawr at a time just before society might ask her to use it; being beautiful, especially for Don, was her only logical path to success. But now, after gaining quite a bit of weight, Betty has to readjust her priorities and find a new meaning for her existence outside the sphere of being aesthetically pleasing to men. This rediscovery makes for great television as shocked viewers wonder what the hell Betty is doing: dying her hair Liz Taylor brown, mockingly asking her husband to rape a 15-year old girl, going to a Grey Gardens-esque building in New York City just to check up on a past houseguest.
This leads right into the motif I found most prominent: In Hawaii, Don tries to help a younger version of himself (by giving away the young man’s bride at his beach wedding), only to discard him by discarding the young man’s lighter. Betty tries to help a younger version of herself, the houseguest, but abandons the cause after a few hours. Roger tries to help his daughter and realizes that all she wants is start-up money for her husband’s company. Ironically, perplexingly, beautifully, Mad Men’s season premiere, one so full of despondency and lost causes, opens viewers up to a season full of potential and great storytelling. Don’t miss Mad Men, Sunday nights on AMC.