Megan’s sun-bronzed stomach and bikini bottom versus Dante’s “The Inferno.”
Guess which one Don Draper is locked in on at the opening of Sunday night’s “Mad Men” on AMC.
If you guessed the midsection of the divine Mrs. Draper, you would be wrong, because Season 6 of this even more divine drama opens with the return of the guy I think of as Existential Don. That’s the dangerous and lost Don Draper — the guy who haunts late-night bars hoping to find something in the way of alcohol or companionship to ease his cosmic loneliness.
And for all the other literary and pop-culture bells and whistles that morning-after bloggers love to dissect ad infinitum in “Mad Men,” this is the central story, the heartbeat that drives this series to greatness. It’s what I love about “Mad Men,” anyway.
As the camera takes a long, slow, lascivious look at Megan’s flesh, viewers hear the words in voiceover that Don is reading: “Midway in our life’s travel, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
A few scenes later, as his wife sleeps alone upstairs after a round of marijuana and sex, Don is sitting alone in a bar late at night in a luxury Hawaiian hotel. A very drunk American G.I. on leave from Vietnam starts to chat him up.
“What do you say we get in some trouble?” the young man suggests.
“You don’t even know me,” Don says in words that work on at least two levels: They provide a direct answer to the G.I. even as they state the deeper uncertainty Don has about his own identity and the secrets he keeps.
But this being a dark wood late at night, creatures encountered have special powers. And the drunken warrior from Vietnam does know something about Don and the way he will one day share some of the same psychic space.
“One day, I’ll be a veteran in paradise,” he says after learning that Don served in Korea. “One day, I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.”
How’s that for a Don Draper epitaph: The man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers?
The G.I. asks a favor of Don, which the ad man grants. A remembrance of the encounter haunts him back in New York through the rest of Sunday’s two-hour opening (actual run-time is 92 minutes, but this is advertising-supported basic cable).
There are a lot of Vietnam notes played in the season opener. I can’t be too specific because of what is essentially a letter of agreement from Weiner that AMC sends out with the screening DVD. This year’s letter asks those who preview Sundays show to not reveal: “The year the season begins, the status of Don and Megan’s relationship, whether the agency has expanded to an additional floor, new characters, new relationships or partners.”
So, if this column leaves you feeling like you have had less than a fully satisfying critical meal, blame it on Weiner — and my belief that in screening the DVD I am ethically bound to acquiesce to Weiner’s request.
But those restrictions still allow a reviewer to talk about the episode as it relates to the larger themes of this splendid series, and that’s more than OK by me. I’d much rather go there anyway.
The context that Vietnam provides for the series — and the way that war actually bent the arc of American history toward oppression and away from liberation in the 1960s — is brilliantly explored in Sunday’s episode. The touch is light but emotionally and intellectually powerful.
Through the G.I. whom Don meets in the bar, viewers get a sense of what that misguided militaristic adventure did to those young Americans unlucky enough to have been thrown into it.
And Vietnam keeps popping up through the two hours. In her new job, Peggy launches an ad campaign for Koss headphones that is focused on the human ear. Meanwhile, late-night comedians are joking about atrocities committed by American soldiers — atrocities involving the ears of dead Vietnamese.
Exploring such dark contradictions in American popular culture is something Weiner does better than perhaps any other TV auteur. And it is one of the reasons serious viewers so savor this show.
Weiner is also better than anyone else in television at creating objects of desire. Last year, I wrote my preview of the opening episode of Season 5 in near awe at the way Team Weiner made the screen sizzle every time Jessica Pare appeared as Don’s new wife, Megan.
The centerpiece was Pare’s saucy performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” and it was inspired. But that was only part of the story. The camera made love to her, and the script showed her to us through not only Don’s eyes of lust, but those of every man in the room as she performed that song.
In this year’s opener, watch and be dazzled at the way Weiner deconstructs Megan as an image of desire. It’s subtle and gradual, but by the end of the episode ask yourself if the thrill isn’t gone to a large extent when it comes to this character. It is almost like falling out of love — or, at least, losing your infatuation with someone.
Weiner had already done that with Betty, Don’s first wife. And who would have thought that possible the first time we saw January Jones on screen?
It seems as if Weiner is showing his mastery at the very skill that defines Madison Avenue: the ability to create images of desire so strong that audience members will buy things they never knew they needed.
I loved this series the first four seasons when it was anchored in Don’s dark psyche rather than his Brooks Brothers good looks. But last season, I felt we were spending far too much time on the surface of Madison Avenue, sex, style and the ’60s, rather than the dark spaces in the American psyche that still warp the culture of today. Have we not, for example, repeated the death dance of Vietnam in Iraq and Afghanistan because we didn’t learn the lessons of history — and didn’t confess our sins of Napalm slaughter?
Brooks Brothers Don, the outwardly confident guy for whom satisfaction if not happiness seems attainable, isn’t a bad image of desire in his own right. And Weiner has certainly played that card as often as he could last year. And it certainly gave the series a tremendous boost of sexual energy with the the “Zou Bisou Bisou” Megan.
But the return of Existential Don is a deeper and richer pleasure. Brooks Brothers Don is the stuff of glossy magazine and catalog covers. Existential Don is the stuff of The Great American Novel.