We last saw Don Draper smiling a devilish smile, tempted to betray his wife and backslide into piggish patterns. The season premiere of Mad Men finds the fortysomething copywriter-poet on a working vacation in Hawaii, pondering verses from Dante's Inferno about a middle-aged soul lost in the woods. (That's one hell of a beach read.) Television's sexiest, haziest cipher (Jon Hamm, more sly and mannered than ever) quietly reintroduces himself: For the first seven minutes, he smokes and drinks, smirks and smolders, but doesn't say a word. Don reveals more of his state of affairs as the two-hour premiere progresses, but don't ask us for specifics: Creator Matthew Weiner has asked reviewers to avoid talking about Don's marriage, his job, or even the year. What's left to say if we can't define a man by his relationships, profession, and place in history?
And yet this is exactly the question that rumbles throughout Mad Men's rambling season 6 opener, a meditation on identities in flux, set against a culture in tumult. The episode is called ''The Doorway.'' It should be subtitled ''A Series of Highly Metaphorical Moments That Sum Up Everything and Foreshadow Much to Come.'' For Don, that moment comes during a PR photo shoot as the suave Superman realizes he's using another man's lighter while struggling to find an appropriate, comfortable pose. ''I want you to be yourself,'' says the shutterbug. Don responds with a cartoon Cathy face of squirmy-sweaty panic, because both he and we know there's nothing authentic about ''Don Draper,'' the illicit creation of Dick Whitman, shame-stained white-trash bastard from the sticks. The premiere invites debate: Has Don Draper realized that ''Don Draper'' has become as empty and useless as an outdated ad slogan? If so, does he have the balls to reinvent himself into something meaningful? An artfully disguised secret, revealed at the end, will shade your deliberations plus leave you fuming.
''The Doorway'' is framed by the hope and fear of change. Death haunts every corner. Roger (John Slattery) now chasing enlightenment through therapy (and hilariously talking himself out of it at the same time) grapples with two losses, one major and one minor, but it's the latter that rattles him to the core. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), thriving at her new agency, must alter a Super Bowl spot for a maker of headphones worried about evoking a horrible news event. Her creativity is inspiring, but her uncompromising drive has a cost she can't see. And then there's Betty (January Jones), whose ticket for reckless driving is another of the premiere's Highly Metaphorical Moments, and who gets a jarring makeover that I'm not sure even she can explain.
The worst thing about ''The Doorway'' is its size: Like Betty's frumpy frocks, Mad Men's supersize episodes aren't flattering. Weiner should stick with tighter, denser storytelling packages. I hope he also delivers the season of change that the premiere seems to promise: For the first time in the series, Don being Don, Betty being Betty, even Roger being Roger felt tedious to me. To borrow from Dante, ''The Doorway'' is Mad Men in purgatory. It's time for its boozy-woozy cluster of souls to ascend, descend, or just plain move. We pray for redemption, but more than anything, we expect to see what we've always gotten from the show: the best drama on television. B