There’s a trashy Fifties film noir where Robert Mitchum and Ava Gardner play illicit lovers in New Orleans. When they rendezvous in a graveyard at midnight, Mitchum asks, “Are you alone?” Gardner replies, “Isn’t everyone?” Great line – Jack Nicholson swiped it for Chinatown. But in Mad Men‘s season finale, Don Draper didn’t even have to finish the punch line. He just sat on his bar stool in the dark, gazing at a mysterious stranger with his haunted face, and you could see just how alone he was.
That’s where Mad Men left us at the end of that powerhouse fifth season. And as the new season begins with a lavish two-hour premiere, written by creator Matthew Weiner, alone remains a crowded place. That same question – “Are you alone?” – still stalks Don Draper, and without getting into any of the whos, whens or whys of the new season, suffice to say he’s not alone in being alone.
After three astounding seasons in a row, one thing is for sure: Mad Men is the greatest TV drama of all time, and it’s not even close. Mad Men is to TV what The Godfather was to the movies – an epic tour of America’s deepest fantasies, deadliest traps, darkest scams. Like Francis Ford Coppola, Weiner has loaded his cast with a gallery of glamorously damaged hustlers whose biggest curse is believing all their own lies. Even in a golden age – for movies in the 1970s, for TV in the 2010s – it has no competition.
The new season continues at that same level of emotional brutality, as the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce crew moves into an uncertain future. If you’re a fan, you can be forgiven for hoping the premiere begins with Lane waking up, rolling over and telling Joan, “Darling, I’ve had the most dreadful dream.” (Sorry – don’t get your hopes up.)
Mad Men usually kicks off the season with a few shockers – Don hires a hooker to slap him around, Don and Megan have rough sex on the carpet, Don brings his daughter a souvenir brooch from the flight attendant he just banged. (Eeewww.) This one is no exception. Let’s just say Don’s newfound interest in Dante makes perfect sense – “The Inferno” is a poem about a man who gets lost in the woods, halfway through the journey of his life, and ends up exploring hell. At least Dante comes out on the other end. Don might still have a way to go.
This story is from the April 11th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.