First Night: Mad Men, Season Six; Sky Atlantic

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Sad men: existential crisis comes to Madison Avenue as series goes astray

Was Matthew Weiner trying to tell us something with the opening shot of the season six premiere? Don, always a bookish type, is on the beach at Hawaii, countering the sunshine with a paperback translation of Dante's Inferno and those famous lines about finding yourself, halfway through the journey of your life, lost in a dark wood.

We've known that Don feels this way about himself since the beginning, of course – his troubled melancholy the defining key for the whole thing.

But watching the double episode that followed it occurred to me that television shows have their existential crises too – moments when success and its obligations come to feel like a burden rather than a reward. Is Weiner a little lost as well?

After drinking in a bar with a soldier on R&R from Vietnam Don picks up his zippo by mistake. Engraved on it is the motto "In life we often have to do things that just are not our bag", a line that seems to pitch Don's mood even darker but could speak for a show-runner too, deep in the thicket of his own creation.

One of the things that makes Mad Men durable is the Weltschmerz, of course – not an over-familiar ingredient in American television. Last night's two-parter was a positive festival of spiritual despair, with the death of Roger's mother adding to his sense of nihilism. Even before he hears the news he's moaning to his psychiatrist about the sheer pointlessness of life, the modern imperative to "move on" always taking you through new doorways, never leading anywhere.

"They all open the same way and they all close behind you", he says mournfully. Then when his mother dies he moans about his inability to feel – until the grief finally spills out over a dead shoeshine's box of brushes.

Don is preoccupied with death too – pressing the doorman (who had to be resuscitated by Don's neighbour) for information about what he saw on the other side. His pitch for a new campaign for the Royal Hawaiian hotel is comically pensive – an image of a discarded business suit on a beach and the legend "The Jumping Off Point". "This is very... poetic" says the client – understandably doubtful about the suicidal undertow.

If Weiner is feeling weighed down at having to put the same old characters through the same old crises he may yet be able to shake it off. Mad Men can still startle, partly because it's prepared to be strikingly banal for long stretches and then suddenly hit you with something odd.

It's also because its oddities are so dark. Sitting in bed with her husband, Betty suddenly spins out an ugly sexual fantasy in which he rapes her daughter's teenage friend. And attending the funeral reception for Roger's mother Don spews up in a corner, as an old lady is reading out her clumsy eulogy .

But at times Weiner's much-praised dialogue can sound grievously flabby. "Well I think it's unfair that it's giving you more work", says Peggy's partner as she labours on New Year's Eve to put right a problematic ad, "but it's about time this unjust war is having an impact on commerce."

Weiner reportedly won't let his actors tweak his dialogue but he should have done it himself in that instance.

We ended on a scene we've seen many times before – Don rolling off the wrong woman and deep in post-coital tristesse. What does he want for the new year, she asks him. "I want to stop doing this" he replies. Was the character speaking there or his creator?

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