It's fitting that an ad – in the form of a poster – spurred much of the recent chatter surrounding the upcoming sixth season of "Mad Men," ostensibly a show about advertising.
The drawing depicts two Don Drapers, one in a light-blue suit holding a briefcase, another in a dark-blue suit holding a woman's hand. The dueling Dons pass at a corner of Madison Avenue, under a big, red stop sign and two one-way signs, pointing in different directions. Cops lurk nearby, as does a cab.
The symbolism is almost too obvious: Don's double life as Draper/Dick Whitman, his love of work vs. flesh-and-blood relationships, the danger of being caught and the possibility of a quick getaway – all depicted as he stands at a crossroads on a street in New York’s 1960s advertising center.
The poster bodes collisions to come as the AMC drama that consistently offers unexpected twists on the seemingly obvious returns Sunday with a two-hour installment. Still, we suspect the new season will be framed primarily by the last three words uttered in the last episode 10 months ago, a woman's question to Don as he sat in a bar: "Are you alone?"
It’s a great question, a deceptively subtle cliffhanger that goes to the heart of the turmoil-filled, internal identity crisis that drives “Mad Men” as much as external action, like that suggested in the poster. Even a guy with two lives – or especially a guy with two lives – can feel terribly alone.
Season 5, after all, was about loss. Draper turned 40 and his creative gift temporarily deserted him as he struggled to keep up with rapidly changing times. He lost Peggy Olson, the protégé he molded in his own image, as she struck out to forge her own identity. He lost advertising firm partner Lane Pryce to suicide, unable to sell him on the value of reinvention after a disgrace.
Draper tried to make his comely young wife Megan into an extension of himself – only to lose her as an office mate when she quit the ad game. The season began with her singing him a birthday song
in front of his coworkers – the viral “Zou Bisou Bisou.” But we later learned the tune wasn’t a gift for him as much as for her – she craved the spotlight for herself.
In the season’s final episode, Draper used his influence to buoy her floundering acting career with a role in a commercial, changing the balance of power in their relationship. To paraphrase a Rolling Stones hit from 1966, the year much of the Season 5 took place, a change has come, she’s under his thumb.
That’s not a great thing for Draper, whose fleeting sense of stability and security rested in the fragile hands of Megan, who turned out to be far more flawed than the idealized image he fashioned in his psyche, much like an ad of the perfect woman come to life. The season-ending question at the bar went unanswered, but the look on Draper’s face suggested he’s ready to spend less time alone.
The game of love, however, is shifting as quickly as the times. The upcoming second-to-last season of "Mad Men" takes place in the late 1960s, an era of upheaval. Don Draper is still the man in the grey flannel suit, a 1950s throwback. When he walked into the bar in that pivotal final scene last year, he ordered an Old Fashioned.
It’s probably safe to say that the women in Draper’s life will play a crucial role this season – Peggy, Megan, his childish ex-wife and the daughter forced to grow up far too fast. Could one of them be the female in the poster? Whether Draper ends up holding a briefcase or a woman’s hand, the show maintains a grip on fans.
The poster ultimately tells us little about what’s to come, while offering enough to draw us in – just like an effective ad. We can say the same for the preview below. Check it out as we await our latest journey into the world of “Mad Men”:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.