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This publicity photo provided by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene of Mad Men, Season 6. Series creator Matthew Weiner says he plans one more season for the 1960s drama. (Michael Yarish/AP)
This publicity photo provided by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene of Mad Men, Season 6. Series creator Matthew Weiner says he plans one more season for the 1960s drama. (Michael Yarish/AP)

Mad Men premiere recap: Dark themes for Don Draper and company in season six Add to ...

Has Don Draper lost his mojo?

The sixth-season opener of Mad Men took the conflicted ad man into paradise and showed him that the world really was his oyster, but all Don can think about is his own mortality. All men lead lives of quiet desperation, but Don’s mindset at the end of 1967 finds him in a dangerously introspective place and returning to old bad habits.

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Death, denial and general bleak imagery hung like a pall over the season premiere of Mad Men, back following an extended 10-month absence. The Emmy-winning series closed its previous season in the spring of 1967 with a glimmer of hope, with Don (Jon Hamm) launching his own agency and seemingly finding some degree of happiness with his gamine French-Canadian wife Megan (Jessica Paré).

Fast-forward to Christmas, 1967, and everything is amiss. The two-hour opener, written by series creator Matthew Weiner, places Don and Megan in the tropical paradise of Hawaii — he’s there for a fact-finding mission to create a campaign for a luxury resort –but there’s a glaring, false veneer to their happy-couple façade.

Megan seems perfectly happy to smoke Maui Wowee and grant autograph requests to fans (she’s apparently now a star on a popular soap opera), but Don’s mind is clearly a million miles away. At the hotel bar he befriends a drunken soldier on leave from Vietnam and even agrees to give away the man’s bride at their beachfront wedding.

The faux honeymoon over, Don and Megan return to their swank New York apartment and are shocked when the doorman in their building keels over and is saved only by the actions of Don’s neighbor, a surgeon named Dr. Rosen, with whom Don becomes instant friends.

Meanwhile, Don’s ex-wife Betty (January Jones) is slimmed down somewhat and still leading the suburban life with her politician husband Henry (Christopher Stanley). Betty takes an inordinate interest in daughter Sally’s new friend Sandy, a 15-year-old problem child and musical prodigy who smokes and lies to everyone about being accepted to the Juilliard music school. Betty reveals much when she asks the rebellious youth: “Are you on dope?”

The entire episode appeared devoted to catching up on major life changes in the principal players of Mad Men. The ambitious Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), formerly Don’s protégé, is now a senior-level player at a competing New York ad firm and is forced to deal with a real-life crisis when their client, a headphone company, is worried that their new campaign might be misconstrued by horrific actions by American soldiers in Vietnam. The cataclysm of Vietnam seems always in the near foreground in this new season

Don’s ad business mentor and all-around bon vivant Roger (John Slattery), meanwhile, is following up on his soul-searching ways from last season. Having survived several LSD trips, he’s now into analysis — albeit in his trademark jokey manner — and seems to be on his own search for the meaning of life.

When Roger learns of the death of his mother, he can’t shed a tear. The subsequent funeral, to which Don shows up, drunk, and promptly throws up, is a disaster, and Roger jokes his way through it. Only when Roger learns of the death of his beloved shoe-shine boy does he burst into tears. It was probably the emotional high point of the opening episode.

Also notable: Sideburns. Roger has new sideburns. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has sideburns, and even nerdy Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) has sideburns, and a shaggier 1967 semi-hippie haircut.

Betty tried to assuage her own guilt by finding her daughter’s friend, who seemed to have disappeared somewhere in New York’s East Village. But she had no luck, and instead was insulted and shunned by a group of destitute squatters in an abandoned brownstone. To make herself feel better, Bets went out and dyed her blonde locks a deep shade of black, à la Elizabeth Taylor, circa 1967. The change appears to have met with Henry’s approval.

But it was Don Draper to whom the story kept coming back, and not in the nicest way. Don’s soul-searching exemplified itself in his sales pitch for the Hawaiian resort, in which footsteps lead from the beach into the warm ocean water. The client thought it was morbid; Don admitted it was morbid, but isn’t heaven itself rather morbid? This time, the client went away dissatisfied from a meeting with Don Draper, which bodes not well for future business.

And it even got a little more morbid. Don was celebrating with his neighbours on New Year’s Eve, when Dr. Rosen was called away on a medical emergency. Since it was snowing hard in New York, Don helped the doctor find his cross-country skis and saw the man out to the street. And then Don was shown in bed with Dr. Rosen’s wife, only a few floors away from where his own wife Megan was sleeping. It was a déclassé moment for Don Draper, who looks to be living every moment like his last, and damn the consequences.

This is going to be a dark season of Mad Men.

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