Casual “Mad Men” viewers do exist, and they are the first to be put off by creator Matthew Weiner’s boldest experiments like “The Crash,” the eighth episode in the sixth and penultimate season of this series about 1960s advertising and the fungible concept of identity. Reality and fantasy intersect constantly throughout “The Crash” as the newly merged Sterling Cooper and Partners eat speed and try to devise a campaign for the new Chevy model. It baffled many viewers, but “The Crash” is the episode that is most emblematic of a season in which the old modes of behavior, style, messaging and relationships are being ushered out, and a newly weird era is taking over.
If “Breaking Bad” followed the structure of a five-act Shakespearean tragedy, then “Mad Men” is a perverse take on Horatio Alger stories. Don Draper (the always superb Jon Hamm) rises from his dead-end beginnings by taking on another man’s identity, but Don’s success as a family man, husband and his business gets profoundly compromised by his own rootless nature. This season tracks Don’s most catastrophic unraveling as he loses faith in his work and his relationships, and his partners — on all fronts — lose faith in him. Facing up to long-denied truths is the only way back up, and Don only sees this once he hits rock bottom.
Season Six deftly captures the recurring horrors of 1968 — the assassinations, the riots and the creeping malaise over the Vietnam War are playing out both in the background and, in a few key episodes, the foreground. Don is just not made for these times, and as Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) discover, the Don Draper way of life is non-transferable — each fails miserably and specifically when trying to live Draperian dual lives.
As always, the core cast is uniformly superb, but special mentions are in order for the new additions, notably Linda Cardellini (“Freaks and Geeks”) as Don’s most recent lover, Sylvia Rosen, and a surprisingly entertaining performance by Harry Hamlin as Jim Cutler, the new partner who looks buttoned up but is utterly bonkers. The Blu-ray includes some strong extra features, including “Recreating an Era,” a look at the challenges of art direction when building a late-‘60s milieu, and a short documentary on Timothy Leary and the psychedelic movement that provides background for some of the strange trips in this “Mad Men” season.
— George Lang