On board for a darker, heavier ‘Mad Men’

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Tuning into the season premiere of “Mad Men,” audiences might have expected another showcase of whiskey-soaked, midcentury cool from one of our dapper protagonists. Instead, “Time Zones” starts off in a room in Sterling Cooper & Partners, muffled by a gloomy, stifling winter sky. Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) stares us straight in the eye — not the dashing Don Draper (Jon Hamm) or femme fatale Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), but pants-wetting Freddy, delivering an unusually captivating ad pitch in an awkwardly, almost suspiciously rehearsed tone. Then, we turn to a chubbier Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Olson), dressed in an overbearing mustard plaid.

The conspicuous lack of cool is poignant. For an entire decade, the characters’ trademarks — glorious, snazzy suits and effortless one-liners — magically protected them from moral repercussions while somehow winning our applause for their sleazy affairs.

In the tumultuous season six, even the seemingly timeless style erodes, and the world of Madison Avenue comes crashing down. Ken Cosgrove has an eye shot out by vicious capitalists at Chevy. Unfaithful Pete Campbell is finally driven out of the house by his wife, and his widowed mother is somehow romantically stolen by a Latino pervert. The list goes on, but our entire cast is crushingly alienated.

Most startlingly, Don Draper, our rugged anti-hero, cries. He collapses his calm veneer and bursts out in an awfully timed but heart-wrenchingly authentic confession. At a meeting with Hershey’s, Don lets his peers know he isn’t an embodiment of the American dream — he’s just an orphan who grew up in a brothel. He then convinces the confectionary titans they don’t need an ad campaign. The outburst, paired with his continued alcoholism, costs him his job — something that never seemed possible before.

Now, it’s 1969, and the nation continues to undergo psychedelic change while our heroes remain stuck in a rut. In a temporary moment of electric cool, Don Draper flies into a groovy LAX to a rock-and-roll tune, greeted by his Bond girl-esque, Hollywood wife in a sleek convertible. Yet the electricity quickly fades, and their one weekend together falls flat into bickering and painfully tense sex. Meanwhile, Campbell pretends to enjoy his exile in California, and Peggy Olson is frustratingly subordinated by new, unpassionate creative director, Lou Avery. The episode ends with Peggy Olson and Don Draper both crying in their empty apartments.

Season six saw Mad Men’s bougie thrill ride of day drinking, office sex and skinny ties screech to an alarming halt before crashing into a glass wall — and now its characters have been left to pick up the shards in an unsettling, paisley-clad world.

Jason Chen covers fashion. Contact him at [email protected].