[This story contains small spoilers.]
Wow, just wow.
AMC’s “Mad Men” returns for season 6 with two hours that are as rich and as deftly literary as anything in the history of the show. The premiere operates like a series of exquisitely written theatrical set pieces, one after another — Don and a drunk Vietnam soldier at a bar, Roger in analysis, Peggy as a boss, Betty in Greenwich Village — that add up to a moving, ironic, and often comic group portrait. And at the very, very end of the episode, after a few references to earlier seasons — note Megan’s zeal for the slide carousel, Don’s season 1 icon of the happy family — the story brilliantly pivots back around to its opening moments.
The curtain drops.
The writing of the episode, by show creator Matthew Weiner, is among the very best to be found on TV. Weiner writes like an accomplished stage dramatist, with faceted dialogue that is simultaneously simple, profound, allusive, and revelatory of character. There are countless lines that resonate in the premiere, including tossed-off comments such as when a portrait photographer tells Don “I want you to be yourself.” As if TV’s most identity-confused character could easily do that. And there are canny symbols all over the episode — a cigarette lighter, given to Don by the soldier, an ad for a Hawaiian resort, a violin — whose meanings subtly creep up on you, even after the credits roll.
Weiner is also a master of that powerful but risky writing tool, silence. He isn’t afraid to give us the small abysses that emerge in daily life. These quiet moments lead impatient viewers to dismiss “Mad Men” as dull, and others — including me, obviously — to celebrate the way it re-creates the characters’ unexpressed emotions. There is so much that all of the people in “Mad Men” are not saying, feelings that inevitably manifest inappropriately further down the road — Betty, for example, pursuing her own buried dreams and maternal needs through one of Sally’s lost friends. Betty, who makes a series of abhorrent rape jokes, is inarticulate and stubborn, as she wanders through her mausoleum of a home with Henry, and she is unconsciously led by her ignored desires.
Weiner’s boldest deployment of silence, though, has Don saying absolutely nothing for the first eight minutes of the premiere. The world turns around Don, and he watches it in a state of mystification and dissatisfaction. That’s why it’s fitting that our first image of Don has him reading “The Inferno” while the Hawaiian sun beats down on him. He is in his own quiet hell, still and always the broken son who wants to be someone else — in the premiere, that someone else is a doctor who lives in his building. It is one of those unfortunate awards oddities that Jon Hamm remains Emmy-less, given the intensity and intimacy of his performance year in and year out. With the help of Weiner’s psychologically and psychosexually astute storytelling, Hamm has meticulously delineated Don’s internal life.
A good portion of the premiere revolves around Roger Sterling, who, surprisingly, has become one of the show’s more questioning characters as the 1960s unfold. He looked like a good old boy locked in the past, until his more hedonistic and hungry side led him to experiment with LSD. I won’t give away the heart of his story line on Sunday, which serves as a nice antithesis to Don’s history — but I will say that the scenes of Roger in therapy are perfection. Leaning back in a recliner, sometimes filmed from above, Roger delivers tour de force monologues that veer from philosophy to despair to pure shtick. “You’re obviously not afraid that you’re boring,” his shrink slips in as an aside. It’s a treat, as always, to see John Slattery let loose; he is so natural in Roger’s skin.
While Don and Roger are a study in contrary backgrounds, Don and Peggy continue to be twins of a sort. It’s clear in the premiere that Peggy is becoming a Don-like leader to her copywriters at Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough — demanding, distant, visionary. When she has an ad concept, she describes it with the same poetic lilt as Don. She and Don both deal with misunderstood ad campaigns on Sunday, shrugging with the same smug annoyance. And we know that, like Don, she has at least one huge secret in her past. Elisabeth Moss’s performance has opened out beautifully across the years, as Peggy’s skin has thickened since her first days as a secretary. Don and Peggy are, to some extent, Weiner’s parallel leads.
It’s a great relief that, as he develops his characters, Weiner has wisely avoided turning them into 1960s types. On a more schematic show — think NBC’s “American Dreams” from a few years back — Sally would inevitably become a hippie. Each “Mad Men” character would embody some cliché about the era of change. But Sally continues to evolve organically, and her unhappiness is leading her more toward the princess than the rebellious end of the spectrum. It appears as though she may become her mother’s daughter, and not the more expected reaction to her parents’ hang-ups and mistakes.
Ah, there is so much more in Sunday night’s episode, including a painful scene in which one of Peggy’s workers tries to perform a stand-up act from late-night TV because, of course, he can’t just Google it. The set pieces keep on coming, gorgeously designed playlets that have so much more color than they did when the series began. The opening material set in Hawaii is seductive and lush, with its hot sand and flowered shirts. It’s a visually striking inferno, a spectacular jumping-off point.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter