[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the Season 6 premiere of Mad Men. Read at your own risk.]
As the old adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mad Men's fifth season ended with a disillusioned Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sitting on a barstool pondering both his future with Megan (Jessica Paré) and his answer to an attractive young woman's question: "Are you alone?" And although Season 6 of the AMC drama picked up the action about eight months later with Don still married to (and vacationing in Hawaii with) his soap-opera-actress wife, it wasn't long before he was sneaking out of their hotel room in the middle of the night to once again find solace by himself in a bar.
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But the real kicker came in the episode's closing moments, when it was revealed that serial philanderer Don had indeed begun an affair with the wife (Linda Cardellini) of one of his neighbors. "I think it's certainly a regression," Jon Hamm tells TVGuide.com of the plot twist. "He's looking for something, whether it's security or safety or familiarity. He is a fundamentally dysfunctional and unhappy person. Don is a man who is driven by his demons and driven by his passions. Sometimes those things are seemingly different sides of the same coin, but sometimes they blend together."
Although Don's actions aren't completely shocking or unexpected, they do signal the show's return to a deeper exploration of its lead character. "This year when we started, I'm like, 'I have to really go back to the fact that where this man ended last season, he has to change," creator Matthew Weiner told reporters before the premiere. "I think the show this season is about that sentence in the [premiere]: 'People will do anything to alleviate anxiety.' A lot of the season is: How does he feel about himself and what is he going to do to alleviate the anxiety that's been created?"
What has Don so anxious? Death, for one. Months after Don dealt with the death of Lane Pryce, the Grim Reaper seemed to be everywhere: Roger's mother died, the Drapers' doorman nearly died of a heart attack right before Don's eyes, and the version of Hawaiian paradise Don tried to sell his clients read much more like suicide than he intended. "Mortality is something that is weighing on Don," Hamm says. "He's an old man in a young man's game at this point. Even with his wife, who's this young, vibrant actress who's exciting and young and new and sexy and vital. Don is rapidly becoming fewer and fewer of those things."
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But Don was also haunted by the ghost of Dick Whitman. During his midnight escape to the hotel bar, Don met a young soldier who was on leave from Vietnam in order to get married. When Don returned to New York, he realized he'd taken the young man's cigarette lighter instead of his own, which perhaps reopens the fears and anxieties of Don's deserter past and the double life he's been living ever since.
So how exactly has anything "changed" for Don? Weiner admits that this season feels cyclical with the early days of the series. "Doing the story about Don's disillusion with his fantasy of what his marriage is... puts him in a place that is very much like before the pilot. That's a challenge," he says. "I never want the show to repeat itself, but life does repeat itself. ... The answer to the question 'Are you alone?' is that Don has these dual factors in his life and some of it is a concrete thing. ... But really what it has to do with is how you feel about yourself."
And although Don is reliving his bad habits, he does express a seemingly sincere dissatisfaction with himself for once again being unfaithful. "At a certain point, you come upon these events and you start saying... 'Here I am again. What has happened? How have I not grown?' ... [This season is] very sort of internal...for all the characters. They're all saying, 'Am I the problem? Why am I like this?' It's not just asking that question: There's going to be a lot of answers. "
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As for whether Don will ever get all the answers he needs — or even the feelings he had in Hawaii — Hamm remains dubious. "I think he is seeking that peace, and that weightlessness, that sort of nirvana," he says. "I don't know if he'll ever get there, but I think he is a spiritual guy and a constant seeker of knowledge, and a questioner. I hope he finds it."
And Hamm thinks, despite Don's latest adulterous setback, the audience shouldn't give up hope either. "The more we invest in [Don] as a character, you want him to do the do right thing," he says. "Then you see him sort of backslide or fall back. We're living in a golden age of characters [who] we watch do terrible things, and still somehow we root for them, or root for their redemption. Not every character can be Coach Taylor."
What did you think of the Mad Men premiere? Mad Men airs Sundays at 10/9c on AMC.
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