Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The long, dark night of Don Draper's soul

Mad Men's lead character struggles to answer the question: 'ARE YOU ALONE?'

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NEW YORK -- Jon Hamm is luxuriating on a bed in a hotel room located somewhere in the vast spread of Los Angeles. We know this because he says so, while the vague cushiony sound of a mattress that carries over a phone line from 3,000 miles away confirms both posture and bed.

Hamm and others from the show are doing their one day of interviews before Man Men's sixth season kicks off tonight on AMC. The press continues to follow TV's multiple Emmy-winning drama with a rapture normally reserved for a successful sports franchise or the newest Apple product.

Most attention is, and always has been, focused on Hamm and his gorgeously flawed antihero, Don Draper.

For this reason, one can also assume Hamm is happy as well as relaxed. He is one of the biggest stars in the world. He is the lead in a show that has just two intensely anticipated seasons left. And perhaps best of all, he has not yet become the subject of a silly and distracting campaign, largely waged on Tumblr and the tabloid press, about his underwear habits.

So, yes, "luxuriates" and "happy" would seem to be the right words.

Then the conversation turns to the sixth season and (who else) Don.

"Yeah, 'grim' is a good starting point" in a discussion of the sixth season, Hamm says. "We're getting into that grimmer, darker part of the post-Second World War period, and I think that's really resonating in a lot of our characters' existences."

Draper's especially. When he first appears in this season's première, The Doorway, he is reclining on a brilliantly colourful beach in Oahu with his wife, Megan (Jessica Paré) -- also brilliantly colourful in her one-piece and big floppy hat -- by his side.

He is reading Dante's Inferno.

In the world of Mad Men, who else would be interested in damnation, the nine circles of hell, and the one he currently inhabits, while sitting on a beach in Hawaii?

Besides Don? Of course, no one.

Strung out over almost exactly a 10-year span -- from the very early '60s to the very late '60s, from the first season of Mad Men to the new one -- the America beyond Sterling Cooper Draper has changed as much as America possibly can (and has), from the Eisenhower era to the Vietnam one. But Men's characters mostly remain trapped in an amber of their own making -- their strengths, weaknesses, virtues and vices intact, or at least instantly recognizable.

None more so than Draper. He was last seen perched on a bar stool, staring down a drink and grappling with the philosophical implications of a pickup line from a beautiful and alluring stranger: "Are you alone?"

He is not (Megan; remember her?), but he is. At the outset of the sixth season, Draper has never seemed so isolated.

By now, as the sixth begins, it should be obvious to any and all Mad Men fans what this show is really about and has been about since the first instant the opening credits revealed a man in a free fall down the side of a building: the journey of Don Draper's soul.

One almost invites scorn by pointing out something so obvious, but his is a troubled soul, and a complicated one. For Don, the big question -- the meaning-of-life question -- is not simply whether he will ever find happiness, but what exactly is happiness anyway? He's not actually certain he knows, even though he is in the business of manufacturing "happiness," or desire, in the form of advertising.

As the show enters 1968, one of the most tragic years in American history, the pursuit of happiness on Mad Men has never been so fraught.

"The show this season," says creator Matthew Weiner, in a phone interview, "is about that question that was in the very first episode. People will do anything to alleviate anxiety and one of the big ones for Don is mortality. I don't know that the show is about mortality, and I never want the show to repeat itself, but life does repeat itself and at a certain point, you do come upon these events, these common elements, and I want to set the stage for answering that question, 'Are you alone?' "

Back in that Los Angeles hotel room, where Hamm is alone, he muses about Don and where he is heading.

"Death is very much on Don's mind, and mortality. He's at last getting to an age when you are not just taking stock but examining mortality and the fact that 'I'm not going to be around forever.' Most people get a sense of that in their 20s, but for Don it came later. He's got children and an ex-wife, and business relationships and a business and he's ill-equipped to handle them all. He feels that deficit and is trying to fix it. He's at a crossroads."

Hamm recalls waiting between takes on the set and reading magazines from the period -- Time, Look, Life -- full of articles about "riots, assassination and crime and this whole kind of breakdown of civil society."

The show begins on the last day of 1967 -- "the year of the summer of love, and then in 1968, the bottom fell out... We have the benefit of hindsight and we can put all those things next to each other and look at the patterns of these mosaics from the space of (more than) 40 years later," Hamm says.

"But when you're living in them, you're staring at one tile at a time, and you can't discern a pattern. It seems so chaotic and confusing, and that's where you get this sense of grimness and darkness" at the beginning of the new season. "People haven't quite got their bearings."

Does any of this provide any clue to how Draper's story will (or should) wrap in a couple of years? Will his entire life story fit on the back of a gum wrapper, or on a billboard -- in the final analysis reduced to, say, Hunter S. Thompson's bitter reflection that "We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and... we're alone the whole way"?

"I wake up every morning thankful I don't have to create this story," says Hamm.

He is of course responsible for his own story, and is he now contemplating life post-Mad Men?

"I love coming to work and love the opportunities this has afforded me, and I've gotten to know a group of people that I respect and have become a fan of and I'm lucky to have had this wonderful ride," he says.

But he's also close friends with the staff and stars of 30 Rock -- on which he guest-starred -- who recently closed out a classic run, "and I watched them finish up and know just how bittersweet that was. I think we are just beginning to realize that the end is closer than we think. I've been fortunate to be with this group of people that I consider friends and colleagues and obviously I'll miss the camaraderie, and one day we'll all talk about the old times.

"But right now, we're in the moment. That'll have to wait."

-- Newsday

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2013 A14

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