For better or worse, Mad Men is beginning to look more and more like a modernist novel. At least that’s the generous reading of how showrunner Matthew Weiner arrived at his pet project’s frequently incomprehensible sixth season, which at times seemed to veer inexplicably into the outright avant-garde. The less charitably inclined, of course, may regard much of this season as a shrewd attempt to reconfigure longstanding faults as oblique virtues—hardly television’s most egregious sin, but not exactly a creative strategy that inspires much confidence. In any case, Mad Men has long been criticized for lacking anything like a coherent shape or structure, meandering for episodes at a time, its lackadaisical plotting whisking characters along digressive arcs that don’t so much end or wrap up as simply stop. The difference is that the series now seems to be meandering and digressing on purpose.
Mad Men’s sixth season also seems, to its benefit, to have discovered a sense of humor about itself. This levity does much to undercut the strained self-seriousness of the show’s portentous early seasons, which felt too often weighed down by a gloom that was hardly needed. It’s no mistake that the season’s most memorable moments are those inflected with curiosity and wit: Don’s (John Hamm) attempts to surreptitiously pitch Heinz Ketchup without the Beans rep finding out; Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) frantic meeting with Koss headphones after a crass joke on The Tonight Show ruins the word “ears”; Don’s hashish hallucinations in L.A.; Roger’s (John Slattery) rather gleeful firing of Burt Peterson (Michael Gaston) for a second time; Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) nearly losing an eye among the trigger-happy Chevy gang. It used to be that Mad Men would coast on sustained brooding, propping Don up in the corner of an office with a cigarette and a glower and hope for the best. It hasn’t gained any real sense of perspective or direction as it’s gotten older, but it’s finally having fun getting lost.
Television is so committed to managing the expectations of its audience that it rarely conspires to defy them; there’s just too much goodwill on the line week after week to risk its depletion. And so when “The Crash” aired, last May, people seemed genuinely disconcerted. What an utterly bizarre hour of mainstream TV: a drug-fueled foray through baffling dance numbers (Cosgrove doing Astaire, for some reason), company funerals (Craig Anton’s Gleason finally expires, though hardly anyone seems to care), office sex while grieving (Jay R. Ferguson’s Stan consoling Gleason’s daughter), and, well, everything that Don does, really, from scouring the archives for an ad he thinks will crack his creative dry spell to a childhood memory suddenly recalled of a furtive sexual encounter. Even Sally’s run-in at the Draper household, well beyond the influence of Cutler’s miracle drugs, with so-called “Grandma Ida”—an odd African-American burglar who persuades the kids she’s a distant relation—seems so far outside reality that it’s hard to accept as anything but further hallucination.
It would doubtless be harder to reconcile “The Crash” with Mad Men as a whole if it weren’t for the already uncanny atmosphere of its surrounding episodes. The whole season seems possessed of an experimental sensibility, a tendency to drift into reveries of mind and spirit outside the realm of straight-up social realism or historical drama. Hence the connection to modernist literature, with which it shares, of course, a fundamental aimlessness as well as a habit of delving into the inner reaches of the mind. We’re provided a clue in the season’s framing device, a scene so brief most may not have noticed it: The premiere, “The Doorway,” opens with a first-person shot of someone in the throes of a heart attack, a doctor resuscitating him back to consciousness. It’s a misdirect (ultimately we learn that it’s the doorman who nearly dies, not Don), but the implication is clear. The second shot of the season is of Don, on a beach, reading Dante. He doesn’t speak a word through the following seven or eight scenes—a solid 10 minutes in silence, too conspicuous to be incidental. It seems that Don may soon expire. But on a formal level he’s already dead.
Lionsgate clearly puts a lot of effort into ensuring that their annual Mad Men Blu-ray sets are lavished with the attention and effort they deserve. Season six of the series receives an expectedly sterling 1080p transfer that boasts rich colors, inky blacks, and superb detail throughout. (Episode one’s sojourn in Hawaii, with its tanned bodies and golden sands, justifies the price of admission not five minutes in.) The sound, likewise, is excellent, with the DTS-HD Master Audio track piping in the music and dialogue with all the clarity and texture you could hope for. As always, the extraneous noise that makes the series difficult to listen to on air—those clattering typewriters never seem to stop—are properly balanced at last, making this by far the best way to watch.
Mad Men’s fifth season arrived in one of my favorite Blu-ray box sets in recent memory, touting an incredible amount of extras that, more impressively, were all genuinely worth watching. The set included six substantial featurettes on a variety of interesting topics, commentary tracks for each episode from a number of different cast members, and, best of all, a neat classic recipe guide from Canadian Club. This set, on the other hand, has two pretty dinky featuettes (one on the design of certain sets, the other on Timothy Leary), no commentary tracks whatsoever, and an "interactive gallery" of photos from the ’60s. They have a name for this kind of content: filler. What happened?
Mad Men’s meandering, beguiling sixth season arrives on home video looking and sounding better than ever, but the special features seem to have wandered off and gotten lost along the way.