Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is up to his old tricks, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is channeling her ex-boss at her new job, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is a bit more introspective and a tumultuous new year is about to unfold. As Mad Men's sixth season (which premiered Sunday on AMC) opens, a lot has changed for the folks in and around Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — and a lot hasn't. TV Guide Magazine caught up with series creator Matthew Weiner to dissect a few things from the season opener.
As predicted, the action takes place in 1968. In the episode, "The Doorway," it's the 1967 holiday season, and as New Year's Day 1968 approaches, a newspaper headline looks back on the violent year coming to an end. Of course, little does anyone know that 1968 will be even more tumultuous. "That's why I put that newspaper in there," Weiner says. "I know that sometimes we're seeing the world with hindsight, and that's the story we're telling, but to see the cover of the New Year's New York Times that says 'Nation Bids Adieu to Violent Year,' and to know that its not even close to what's going to happen, was fascinating to me. To put it in perspective for people."
Weiner continues to stress that he's "not doing a history lesson." But just as viewers were bracing for the Kennedy assassination during Season 3 (set in 1963), he knows fans are curious to see how the characters react to the unrest of 1968, including the growing protest over the Vietnam War and the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy.
"To me it's not a matter of hitting these cultural touchstones because some of them are not as important to the people at the time as they become later on," says Weiner. (For example, he notes that few realized the significance of the Watts Riots in 1965.) "People don't know what's important when they're experiencing it. I'm trying to tell the story of normal people, as much as these characters are normal, and seeing how I can use it to tell where they're going in their lives and what they're experiencing. So last year when we did the Richard Speck murders and the Texas Tower shootings, the fact that they happened two weeks apart is something that most people didn't remember historically. But I felt it must have been such an unnerving sensation at the time, that the world is completely random. I'm always trying to see how it comes into their lives. And 1968 definitely came into people's lives."
Peggy's work crisis is fictional but inspired by real events. A light-hearted ad for her client, Koss Headphones, seems tasteless following allegations that members of an Army task force cut off and collected ears of victims in Vietnam (which then led to a court martial). When a comedian on The Tonight Show makes light of a Vietnam scandal, Koss demands that Peggy come up with a new ad.
The Tonight Show episode that the characters reference on the episode is very real: A quick look through TV Guide Magazine's archives proves that Phyllis Diller did indeed guest host for Johnny Carson on Friday, Dec. 22, 1967. "Johnny does not host during the holidays," Weiner notes. "We actually had a line, cut for time, in which Peggy asked her co-worker if Phyllis invited the comedian to sit over on the couch." Weiner wanted to stress the cultural impact of The Tonight Show at the time and why a joke on the show would cause Peggy's client to freak out. "I can't even explain it to young people what a universal experience it was [when] people watched [Tonight]," Weiner says.
But here's the creative license: Weiner says he doesn't actually have evidence of a comedian on that Diller-hosted Tonight Show making such a joke about the war. "I hope it's not disappointing to people," Weiner says. "This is based on reality but the scenario is not real. The court martial really happened and there really was this event. And there were quite a few instances of comedians talking about the war on The Tonight Show and clients being very upset."
Koss Headphones did not participate in the storyline. Just as Jaguar was not involved in its extensive Mad Men appearance last year, the appearance of Koss — a real electronics company — did not involve any sort of product placement. "They get to reap the benefit or punishment of being on the show," Weiner says. "That's one of the things about not having [product] integration relationships with companies. We get to do the story that we want to do as long as we're true to their trademark and don't misrepresent their product. It's 50 years ago, and most of these companies are not even owned by the same people anymore."
Weiner says he enjoys walking the line between fiction and reality; obviously in real life, advertising agencies worked with these products and came up with different marketing campaigns. "We're always skirting in between there because I've inserted this fictitious agency into the real world," he says. "We straddle as much as we can."
To capture 1960s-era Waikiki, Hawaii, for Don and Megan's trip, they kept it simple. Waikiki is now built up with high-rise hotels, but the pink-hued Royal Hawaiian Hotel remains and has been restored to look much like it did in its heyday. Meanwhile, construction has mostly been prohibited in front of Oahu's iconic Diamond Head mountain, allowing for an unobstructed view today that hasn't changed over the past 50 years. With Don and Megan sticking to the Royal Hawaiian grounds, and with a few tweaks from Mad Men's design team, the show was able to channel mid-century Waikiki Beach. "Diamond Head is a sacred spot, so we didn't have to do much painting of things out," Weiner says. "Everything in that view back then is still in that view. But yes, Waikiki behind them looked a bit different, so we didn't see it."
Don's Royal Hawaiian Hotel ad — the one everyone thought looked like a suicide — is simply ahead of its time. "When you look at this ad, the audience is going to know this is a good ad, and by the 1970s there are a lot of ads like this," Weiner says. "But the agency is going to have to pitch this to the client for eight years before they do it."
As for that big reveal at the end of the episode, the news isn't that Don is having an affair with someone in his apartment building — it's that he's bored with it. "What you're seeing is that Don still has the same problem," Weiner says. "And he's aware of it. The most important part of that is not that he's with his neighbor, and that he obviously admires and has a friendship with her husband, but that he doesn't want to do it anymore. It's not satisfying whatever anxiety he has. That's what you have to take as the jumping off point for the season."
Weiner adds: "You know there's something wrong with him this whole episode, and you know he has this anxiety and you know that he is still troubled by who he is and how he is received versus how he feels about himself. And then I think you see that he is in this relationship, whatever it is, with someone very close to home and it's not doing it for him."
So, are Don and Megan doomed? Says Weiner: "You have to watch!"