After watching the two-hour season premiere of season six of Mad Men on Sunday night, I was struck by the aggressive presentation of death in the very first episode. Don Draper, Betty Francis, and Roger Sterling, as the protagonists of the episode, all confront death in their own ways.
This is not the first time the show has confronted the topic of mortality. At the end of season five, for example, Lane Price, partner and accountant for Sterling Draper Cooper Price, committed suicide by hanging.
Yet this is the first time that writer Matthew Weiner displays death at the very beginning of the season, rather than in the middle or the end. Don unintentionally writes a suicidal ad for the Sheraton Royal Hawaiian (“Hawaii: The Jumping Off Point”), Betty loses a surrogate daughter named Sandy after she runs away from home, and Roger loses both his mother and his shoe shiner to the natural confines of life.
The “jumping off” point represents Don’s life of drifting from woman to woman and from personality to personality; he finally considers the prospect of the ultimate life change. This “jump” is an option for all three characters.
With these experiences, each character displays an uncommon vulnerability. Betty dyes her hair brown, her first intentional physical change in the series. Don becomes drunkenly sick at Roger’s mother’s funeral, and Roger cries after the loss of his shoe shiner.
For me, after five seasons of the show, I am ready for these characters, especially the men, to stand to do their duty as mothers, fathers, and spouses. With the somber overtone of the first episode, perhaps this foreshadows a definitive decision in one of the final seasons: jump or fulfill.
At the end of the episode, Don attempts to fulfill his duty as a husband, albeit for a third time: he ends his relationship with his new mistress. While this gives me hope, he has failed in the past.
Betty dyes her hair brown to remember the loss of 15-year old Sandy, yet has failed to stabilize the relationship with her own daughter, Sally. Bobby, Don and Betty’s son, runs out of the scene after seeing the new hairdo, saying he hates it. Betty is still seeking satisfaction; perhaps she’ll find it by the end of the season.
As for Roger, he has decided to jump at every opportunity. The man has been divorced twice, is a habitual philanderer, and he is a deadbeat father. Thus, I am most interested in his future duties. With no mother to coddle him and the loss of a glorified shoe shiner, Roger may realize the limits of his spoiled lifestyle. His main duty is to his first wife and daughter, Margaret. By helping Margaret invest in a new project, Roger seemingly has chosen to fulfill his duty–for now.
Again, this season will be about “jumping” vs. fulfilling one’s duty in the face of mortality.
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