Almost every television series has something of an off, odd or peculiar season somewhere in its run. That is generally true regardless of the overall quality of the program. But when the series in question is as deep, layered, and poetically beautiful as, say, 'Mad Men,' questions begin to spring up in regard to just what is going on, and how this venerated television program's penultimate season could become so disjointed, discordant, dissonant and, more to the point: why? Season 6 was, for all intents and purposes, an experimental season; it was made during a time when creator Matthew Weiner was wrapping up his filmmaking debut with the comedy 'You Are Here,' and, as was reported both during and after the season aired, Weiner was told by his longtime writers and producers André and Maria Jacquemetton, not to save things for the final season, to just burn through everything he had on hand to make the best television possible. The results, of which, were a decidedly mixed and messy season.
But were they, really? 'Mad Men' is undoubtedly television of the highest order, run by a man who is renowned for being as gifted at micromanaging the show, as he is at writing it. So, if we consider what we know about the creator, the show and how both have worked to represent it in the past – that is, by taking thematic elements of each season and using them as a reflection of the year in which it unfolds (historically speaking, of course), the true essence of season 6 begins to emerge. This time however, the season was set in one of the most tumultuous and disruptive years in American history, one in which the very meaning of the word "American" began to be questioned by even its own citizens.
It was a confused and chaotic time and it seems that 'Mad Men' season 6 is a reflection of that not only in its individual and episodic stories, but also in the way the season was arranged as a whole. The idea being that 'Mad Men' metatextually abandoned the usually connected nature of its storylines to make a point regarding the inharmonious state of the world during the year 1968. Furthermore, the season was meant to demonstrate the rampant decay of not only America and its greatest city, but also rise of a disillusioned generation and, ultimately, the corrosion of the American Dream. It was all going down the toilet and, as usual, generational journeyman Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was there to witness and take part in watching as the world as he knew it came crashing down. As a reflection of all of that, 'Mad Men' season 6 deliberately wound up a messy, discordant season that was in keeping with the climate of the year in which it takes place.
After the usual 13-episode run ended in June, the time came to let the show sit for a while. The remarkable thing about 'Mad Men' is not only does the show age like a fine wine, but it also needs to be given a chance to breathe once it's initially been uncorked (unlike wine, TV can be successfully put back in the bottle). Only then, once the noise of episodic analysis and general speculation has died down, can the season be better understood for its subtleties, nuances and, since this is 'Mad Men' we're talking about, its deep subtext – which, more so than ever before, seems to have been woven into the actual delivery of the season's arc. That being said, it also works as a kind of response to the calls from those who watched the season 5 finale, 'The Phantom,' and exclaimed, "Yeah, Don Draper's back!" without comprehending Don's unheard answer to the question, "Are you alone?" wasn't a return to form for the character, but rather a continuation of the downward spiral he has been on since 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.'
In that sense, season 6 is Matthew Weiner's response to those who want Don to go on being a cad, drinking like his liver is made of cast iron, and believing that if he just keeps moving, he can continue to evade his past. As entertaining as those aspects of Don's character have been, 'Mad Men' isn't about sending its characters into a frustrating Mobiüs strip of a narrative. Perhaps, then, that is why the season takes Don to his lowest point ever, and does what all good shows revolving around a likeable, charismatic antihero should do: Reveal the ugly monster hiding behind that devilishly dapper façade. But it's more than that; it is the representation of the character's inner decay that's paralleled by the cacophonous sounds of commotion and police sirens erupting from the streets below the apartment Don and Megan (Jessica Paré) barely acknowledge as their home. That analogous use of decay is an extension of the rot that bubbled to the surface in the form of Don's "hot tooth" from season 5 that had to be extracted because it had become too painful to ignore any longer.
It was also the sign that the inexorable march of time was pressing down on a man who'd literally made his life from the remnants of someone else's past, only to have the dream of a new life continue to evade his grasp. In season 2, Don said, "I keep watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get in. And I can't." Don is as isolated as he's always been, causing him to break down and to attempt to fill the holes in his life with sex, booze and power – all which has been giving him rapidly diminishing returns. And in season 6, we, along with Don, finally come to the understanding that he will have to let Dick Whitman be more a part of Don Draper if he's ever going to have some semblance of normalcy and acceptance in his life.
The season begins with the lyrically beautiful, and terrifically somber two-part 'The Doorway,' which segues into the misfire that is 'Collaborators,' and the moderately more successful 'To Have and to Hold.' But then the season creates something that's not entirely successful, but is certainly dialogue worthy, with its handling of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in 'The Flood' – which avoids mawkishness by offering a meta discussion on how the show is innately about a generation of men on the inside of the establishment looking out. But then things start to turn around with episode 6, 'For Immediate Release,' where SCDP and CG&C merge in an act of poor impulse control that brings Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) once more under Don's petulant shadow, and allows the series to examine why mergers of any kind (business, romantic, etc.) cannot fill the ever-expanding void inside him and why everyone from the perpetually unfulfilled Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), to the eternal man-child that is Roger Sterling (John Slattery) are doomed to repeat these kinds of mergers and acquisitions over and over again, and why acquiring more is simply an exercise in futility, as nothing is going to make them feel whole.
The devastating loneliness of it all is wrapped up poignantly in the season finale 'In Care Of,' which puts Don on a path of self-discovery by way of personal archaeology. But before that moment of clarity comes, the commotion of the aptly titled and allegorical 'The Crash' and the failed transcendence of Don's normally recuperative excursions to California in 'A Tale of Two Cities.' It all combines to point mournfully toward the end of a man as he believes himself to be, and the end of an era – both historically speaking and in terms of this Golden Age of Television. 'Mad Men' season 6 isn't perfect, and it's flawed in a myriad of ways, but there's plenty to suggest that is exactly how Weiner & Co. planned it (and if it's not, they have plenty of ammunition to say it was).
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mad Men: Season 6' comes from Lionsgate as a 3-disc BD 50 set, containing all 13 episodes of the season. As per usual, the first disc comes loaded with previews and advertisements before heading to the top menu, but subsequent discs are free of such material. There is also an insert advertising the upcoming bifurcated final season of the show, and an episode guide for each disc.
61 of the series' 78 episodes have been filmed with the help of cinematographer Chris Manley, who has shepherded 'Mad Men' from typical television fare to something far more emotive and suggestive of theme than perhaps anything that's come before in the medium. As a result, the series typically looks terrific when it hits Blu-ray. This time around, with its 1800p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer all the details that make the series so unique and terrific are on display.
This is a robust image with terrific color that brings the contentious 1968 wardrobes to life just as well as it does Roger Sterling's suits sideburns, Pete Campbell's receding hairline, and the fiery hair of Joan Holloway/Harris (Christina Hendricks). But there is also a great deal of fine detail to be enjoyed along with all that color. Textures in the aforementioned wardrobes are on constant display, as is the detail in all the actor's faces, as well as the terrific sets and immaculate backdrops that transform a sound stage in California into a bustling Manhattan office, complete with sprawling vistas of the city below. The picture is helped further by the terrific contrast levels on display that produce wonderfully deep and pristine blacks, as well as white levels that never burn too bright, even in Roger Sterling's white-on-white-on-white office.
Overall, this is a terrific looking image that only occasionally seems to have an issue with soft focus, or some hint of grain. Aside from those issues, though, 'Mad Men' season 6 looks incredible.
Much like the series' continual collaboration with Chris Manley, 'Mad Men' has made great use of David Carbonara's somber musical composition for the past six seasons. Along with the usually spot-on selections from popular music of the era, the series is as much a treat for music lovers as it is for those who can't get enough TV. That being said, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a brilliant job bringing all of Carbonara's music and the tunes added at the end of nearly each episode to the listeners.
More than that, though, the mix presents the dialogue in a crisp, clear fashion that makes all of the actors easy to hear and understand at almost any reasonable volume level. But the sound design of the series is also terrific, paying particular attention to the sounds of New York, as the sirens and indications of conflict on the streets far below Don and Megan's apartment begin to play as much a part in the overall storyline as the idea of history itself. This is continued by the mix's ability to spread so many different sounds across all the channels to create a totally immersive experience, regardless if the scene is in the offices of SCDP, or some hotel bar in Hawaii.
'Mad Men: Season 6' comes with a wonderful audio mix that highlights what the show does incredibly well, while also playing up an important atmospheric element that the narrative would otherwise not work without.
For the first time, a season of 'Mad Men' has been released on Blu-ray without any commentary from series creator Matthew Weiner or the cast and crew. There's no indication of why this incredibly enlightening and entertaining component has been dropped from this release, but it is a massive oversight by all involved. Weiner's terrific commentary is usually the highlight of the season's release on home video, and without it, the season 6 feels somehow shortchanged. If ever there was a season that could benefit from some insight by Weiner and his collaborators, it is this one.
In terms of critical and audience reactions, 'Mad Men' seasons tend to break down a little like this: Episodes 1 and 2 (generally the season premiere in a two-hour episode): "Amazing!" Episodes 3-6: "What the hell is going on?" and "Where is this all going?" Episode 7 or 8 (with the exception of season 1): "'Mad Men' is back, baby!" Episodes 9-11: "Who's going to die?" (This is also the most irritating time to be on the Internet, as people are constantly trying to turn 'Mad Men' into the kind of show it is most vehemently not). And, finally, Episodes 12-13: "Well, another amazing season of 'Mad Men' has been put to bed" and, usually, "But what does it all mean?" (For the record, it seems as though season 6 might have been largely lumped with the latter.) But while the season winds up being something of an enigma, the resonance of the series remains incredibly strong. While this Blu-ray is shockingly light on special features, it does have terrific picture and audio. This one comes highly recommended.