LOS ANGELES – In the first episode of the first season of “Mad Men,” Don Draper’s next-in-line affair, Rachel Menken, hears his brutal philosophy: Love is nothing more than an ad man’s myth, and everyone is born alone and dies alone.
Stack up five years of equivalent cynicism and unfulfilled dreams and the result is a drama with a core of shattered glass, dazzling but menacing.
As the series returns for what creator Matthew Weiner says is the penultimate season, he’s asking viewers to embrace other, more comfortable concepts: belief and trust.
They must believe that he knows what they will find satisfying for Don, Peggy, Pete and the other souls of “Mad Men,” and trust in his vision as the AMC drama returns 9 p.m. Sunday with a two-hour episode.
That he’s putting his characters on the knife’s edge of dread may not make that trust any easier – especially since Weiner believes we are living uneasily with a 21st-century version of their 1960s mindset.
“This season is very much capturing what’s going on right now, in a strange way,” Weiner said. “I think we have been thrown into a state of individual anxiety, based on being disconnected from events outside our control,” including economic disarray.
The writer-director paraphrases a line from Sunday’s episode that he deems key to the sixth season: People will do anything to alleviate anxiety.
If that’s intriguing but maddeningly cryptic, that’s how Weiner wants “Mad Men” to be approached pre-debut. No spoilers, not even a hint of what happens, when it happens and whether Don finally is taking the institution of marriage to heart.
But if Weiner won’t talk about what the season is, he’s at least willing to say what it’s not.
“It’s not about Lane’s suicide. There is no eulogy for Lane. It’s not all about Joan and the Jaguar guy,” he said.
The references are to two of last season’s more startling twists: the hanging death of ad agency partner Lane after he’s fired for theft, and Joan’s prostituting herself, under pressure, to win the luxury car account for the agency.
There are other stories to be told, Weiner said, even if viewers tend to cling to the past and would prefer the show pick up with the calendar flipped just a day or two ahead. That would become boring “really fast,” Weiner said.
“They (viewers) don’t know it, but that would get burned out. ... They have to trust me,” he said, even if it takes a couple of episodes to unfold.
How will the latest chapter of “Mad Men” be received? Last season, its winning streak of four consecutive best-drama Emmy Awards was broken when it lost to “Homeland” and it failed to capture any other Emmy trophies.
Jon Hamm, the center-ring attraction as Don, the sharp-dressed man with the tortured psyche, has no qualms about following Weiner’s lead once more.
When he was up for the role, Hamm said, “Matt, and really no one else, fought for me. ... For whatever reason, Matt’s trust in me worked out. And that’s why I have trust in him.”
He credits Weiner’s probing, self-analytic nature with producing the richly complex world of “Mad Men” and its parade of human and cultural foibles.
“Matt is a wickedly smart, very curious and deeply flawed person, and he likes exploring those flaws and pulling them apart and examining them,” Hamm said. “All writers are wonderful observers, (and) Matt sees everything at a micro level and macro level.”
Like a master magician, Weiner clearly relishes toying with his audience and his characters. When he talks about Draper and others repeating old mistakes, he chortles.
When he recommends facing down one’s lifetime of errors – “Every person who goes through that process with me gets a horrible feeling in the pit of their stomach” – he cackles.
The thought of those who complain about how he’s switched up the “Mad Men” world elicits a Weiner giggle.
Reflect back on the show’s pilot, and you’ll see his most beguiling trickery at work. We are introduced to Don, looking the picture of the carefree bachelor, as he makes a late-night visit to lover Midge and casually suggests marriage. Poor guy; she just brushes it aside.
It’s not until the episode’s last moments that we learn the truth. As the exotic jazz strains of “Caravan” play in the background, Don returns home to his wife and sleeping children, and the family is framed in a mockery of a Norman Rockwell moment.
While “Mad Men” has flipped through the mind-bending `60s, Don has remained steadfastly true to the music, liquor and tie-and-shirt dress code of his generation while his colleagues let it all hang out with Beatles albums, pot and turtlenecks.
But don’t mistake Draper for a lead-footed dinosaur on the verge of extinction, Weiner said.
“The world has finally caught up with Don. The world is in a state of identity crisis and he is the ultimate survivor,” he said. “He’s comfortable because he’s used to disaster.”
Hamm, close to wrapping up work on this season’s 13 episodes, has found himself tested over the years by his character’s dark side.
“There’s no vicarious thrill for me as an actor to doing any of this sort of bad behavior. I don’t get off on it. ... There’s a psychic toll it takes,” he said. “I’m not comparing myself to a bricklayer or construction worker or miner. But it does take a psychic toll.”
Those in the “Mad Men” audience cheering for Don to fall off the marriage wagon, or looking to him for guidance, give Hamm pause.
“The central conundrum is why people think this is a good person to model their lives after,” he said, citing one area of exception: “Don, I feel, strives for excellence and doesn’t settle for mediocrity, and demands that of people who work for him.”
“I think that’s beginning to be a lost art in our current culture of `140 characters and that’s good enough.’ The fact there are people who still strive for excellence ... is inspiring. That is the one good thing about Don; not that he looks good in a suit, not that he can drink, not that he (expletive) a lot of women.”
With the journey nearing conclusion for Draper and his fellow travelers, Weiner is faced with the task of wrapping up the ambitious drama that put him in the front ranks of TV producers. There are 13 episodes planned for its last season, he said.
“I have an idea for what it feels like for the show to end, and I think I know how it ends, and I’ve known for a couple of years,” Weiner said – cryptically, of course.
Could Don, at last, find happiness? Hamm tackles that question.
“Well, that’s the hope. And at some point it will be the journey of the series, finding that happiness, or a balance.”
That’s the audience’s challenge as well. And Mr. Weiner’s call.