If you look at Mad Men as pure entertainment, it simply isn’t. Well, maybe if you’re an art director or costume designer it is. If you look at it from an intellectual point of view, then season six is kicking off as hands-down the most philosophical series on TV. Not that there’s much competition, except for perhaps Breaking Bad, but even that has too many gangsta moments to match the metaphysical meditation that Mad Men has become.
The new season opens with Don Draper on the beach in Hawaii (i.e., paradise) reading the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno: “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself again in a dark forest, for the direct path had been lost.” This is my own rather clunky, prosaic translation — most English versions don’t compensate for the fact that ritrovai means more “found myself again,” which is an omission of minor importance: the statement could imply that Dante has been there before. (The usual translation is simply “I found myself in a dark forest.”)
It becomes a more important detail in relation to Mad Men because Don is once again in the forest of his relentless existential introspection, a quagmire with which I’m pleased that someone so handsome, creative and, as we know from recent weeks, so well endowed is also burdened along with the rest of us lesser mortals.
So the scene is set: If the previous seasons were some sort of purgatory, we’re now going to hell, represented by the disintegration of New York in the late 60s, which is when my family moved from there to Rome.
For those who haven’t been following my writing over the past couple of years, my parents were also characters straight out of Mad Men, my dad a senior exec at one of the larger firms occasionally mentioned on the show, my mother an interior decorator. They were über-conservative versions of the more jet-setting Steve and Suzie Frankfurt, something I always somewhat resented about their kids, my longtime friends Peter and Jamie: their family always seemed so much cooler.
Frankfurt is generally considered one of the primary role models for Don Draper, but Suzie had little in common with either of Don’s wives, Betty and Megan, even though, like Megan, Suzie met Steve when she was working at Young & Rubicam. Suzie was more of a swinging socialite, part of Tribe Warhol, which might have loaned Megan more of an edge and given us a glimpse of another side of New York blossoming during that era. As it is, the show has completely skipped the Summer of Love, although it is implied in the changed looks among the younger cast members: longer locks, more creative facial hair. And flagrant pot smoking in the art department.
I don’t think New York’s slide into hell had much to do with my family’s move; there were internal issues in the form of infidelity, and there was a Cold War for my father to fight covertly in Italy to prevent the takeover of communism. Like Don, my father has always been deeply introspective, particularly about his relationship with advertising, which he pretty much abandoned in the late 80s. There is something about that profession that can provoke a Death of a Salesman despair, and the reasons for that are exhaustively detailed in Mad Men. Also like Don, my father was fascinated by The Divine Comedy, and counted among his friends one of the foremost American scholars on the book.
And just as my father did (he has been sober for more years now than he was drunk), and as I still do, Don battles the demons flitting about his personal hell with alcohol. Booze has always been an important, comical supporting character in Mad Men (“They drink during the day! And chain smoke in the office!”), but now it is getting the better of Don, as evidenced during the scene when he shows up slaughtered to the unusual at-home memorial ‘service’ for Roger Sterling’s late mother and pukes all over the marble floor, “Thankfully missing the Aubusson carpet,” as I can hear my mother say.
My least favorite character on the show has always been Betty, not because she’s such an ice queen, but because I don’t engage with January Jones as a performer. Even her ex, Ashton Kutcher, hardly Lawrence Olivier himself, apparently once told her she couldn’t act. I was convinced she’d be sidelined again this season, as she was in the last, but it appears she’s also on her own journey into the dark forest. Both she and Don are given mysterious tokens to contemplate along the way: Don a brass Zippo lighter he accidentally exchanges with a drunk soldier during an all-night bender in Hawaii; Betty the violin of a runaway friend of their daughter, a failed prodigy who vanishes into the perilous, anarchic shadowlands of the Lower East Side, who Betty tries to find.
My first reaction was it is too improbable for an upper-middle-class woman like Betty to go on that particular journey, which leads her to a squat for heroin addicts on St. Mark’s Place. She even helps the stoned lost children who live in the tenement to prepare goulash — I’m sure it’s no accident that it’s a dish that evokes the word “ghoulish,” rather than just having them make a stew. But on reflection, it might be something my mother would have done under the circumstances when she was that age, although it’s not likely. And it was set up in the beginning of the episode, when Betty is pulled over for reckless driving, that she is, well, more reckless than ever.
Like Inferno, so far season six is meandering, contemplative. No jolts, just whimpers and lots of Don’s dazed expressions that are meant to convey his relentless existential crisis. In that respect, the show is boldly going where no show has gone before, and with good reason: Having the lead character stumbling around in a stupor, lost in a dark inner forest, isn’t exactly Walter White from Breaking Bad cooking vast quantities of meth in plain sight in the middle of a suburb, or blowing Gus’ head in half. Not that Mad Men has ever aspired to have that sort of nail-biting, I-can’t-look action, but frankly this is wading so far into torpid I’m not sure I see the point.
Conveying someone else’s existential crisis on film is rather like trying to capture an LSD trip, or the full glory of a sunset in a photograph. It’s tricky, and doesn’t work very often — actually, the sunset photo never works. It takes more cinematic technique than just Jon Hamm staring at a Zippo unblinkingly, mouth slightly agape. We’ve only seen the first couple of episodes, and no doubt the groundwork is being laid for something more dramatic later on, but so far it seems like it’s same old, different year. Indeed, Mad Men has found itself again in that stylish dark forest, which as a denizen of the real thing I have to say isn’t far from what it actually was… except, to be honest, it was even darker. Way darker.