‘Mad Men’ returns as advertised

Two-hour premiere on AMC is worth watching more than once

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in Mad Men, Season 6. (Frank Ockenfels/AMC)

Mad Men, still one of my favorite shows, is back for its sixth season with a two-hour premiere at 9 p.m. Sunday on AMC. Once again, this is a dilemma for critics.

Matthew Weiner, the creator and driving force on the series, hates for any plot points to be given away ahead of time, including what year the show is now taking place. He prefers that the program unfold for you in pristine form, without even a hint of a spoiler. So here I sit, having watched the premiere — twice, in fact — and anxious to discuss all sorts of things, but also wanting to respect Weiner’s wishes.

Of course, one solution would be to not write about the show at all. But it needs to be written about: to encourage you to watch, to acknowledge the work done by the cast led by Jon Hamm, to note the richness of the visuals and the music, and the boldness of the characterizations — to say that the premiere is indeed worth watching more than once, if only to be ready for the arguments it will almost certainly inspire.

But, for something resembling details, let’s turn instead to Weiner’s own words, as reported by Zap2it.com. Weiner noted “anxiety that is created by all of these characters wondering why they are the way they are. Maybe you’re a fraud. Maybe you’re facing all the bad things you’ve ever done in your life. But you are back in a place where you are the issue. In the first episode when someone says, ‘People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety,’ that’s what this season is about.

“I feel like more than ever it’s in line with where we are right now,” Weiner added. “[We live in] a very different economic time and different political time than when the show takes place, but we’re talking about a period of powerlessness. [There was] a huge boom in technology that might be more alienating than we like to believe. The society is having an identity crisis just like Don is. Can you change?”

In fact, Mad Men has been asking about the nature of change — personal, professional and cultural — over its first five seasons. Don Draper (played by Hamm) is a creature of change. He adopted another man’s identity. His advertising profession is about anticipating people’s changing needs and desires. He has tried to overcome a drinking problem. Last season, he tried to be a better husband than he had ever been before — although the season ended on a question of whether his trying would continue to be successful.

And, as Weiner said, Don is not the only one wrestling with his identity. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) tried LSD, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) went from sexual plaything to business force — but, briefly last season, turned back to sex for success. Don’s ex Betty (January Jones) entered a new and supposedly better marriage and still felt anguish over Don’s new bride. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) moved professionally away from Don.

But has any one of them really changed? Has any claiming of power been accurate? Have they found a secure place in a shifting world?

It’s those questions — so strongly and often beautifully addressed — that keep me watching. You should, too.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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