Death hangs over the two-hour premiere of AMC's "Mad Men" (9 p.m. Sunday) like a dark cloud. There's a hint of it in the opening moments and the menace of the Grim Reaper recurs throughout. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) may feel it most acutely after he reads a line from "Dante's Inferno" while frying under the hot sun on a Hawaiian beach: "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood."
What will Don's "dark wood" turn out to be this season? The fifth-season finale ended with ambiguity: After a season of being faithful to wife Megan (Jessica Pare), the closing moments suggested he might be preparing to stray. Could that be the "dark wood" or is it something else? Don seems especially spooked after meeting a soldier who's on leave from fighting in the Vietnam War. Later a client reacts to one of his ad pitches by saying, "It's a little morbid."
Of course, dark does not equate to unentertaining: Even in its sixth season "Mad Men," remains a standout, a better series than 95 percent of what's on television.
And while Don seems to have the strongest link to the notion of death or loss, he's not alone. As the new season begins, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is in therapy and Betty (January Jones) teasingly (but weirdly) suggests husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) should misbehave with a teenager.
Yes, it's a pretty dark start to the season, but "Mad Men" has always featured a bleak undercurrent, so it's not that much of a surprise.
In a recent conference call with reporters, "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner bristled at suggestions that the season premiere is dark.
"I don't find it any bleaker and more doomed than normal," he said. "We've had a show that from the pilot started with a guy jumping out the window. It's a very high bar to hit dark on this show."
Mr. Weiner is always reluctant to give away too much about any new season of "Mad Men," but he has acknowledged that despite leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to work at another ad agency, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is still part of the show. In the season premiere she employs Don's gruff-n-tough style of management.
"She's a very different person than Don," Mr. Weiner said. "How can she succeed? People don't even know where she's going to be working. Is she going to have a husband and a baby? For me, they are the two leads of the show, which is a tough call to make when you have an ensemble like this. What happens to both of them is always in relation to each other."
As for Roger, who's coming off a fifth-season LSD trip, Mr. Weiner said he's changing, too.
"He took LSD and had this realization that most of us are born with that you're not the center of the universe," Mr. Weiner said. "I think Roger is Don's id. He's a pleasure-seeker. ... Will Roger Sterling ever grow up is a more interesting question to me than is he dealing with the times. I think if Roger Sterling were here today he would be going to a spa and having chocolate and sugar rubbed on his face."
Mr. Weiner said this sixth season remains, in his mind, the show's penultimate season.
"I feel like I want to finish before we've overstayed our welcome," he said. "It's getting harder and harder. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked. There's always more story but this was the hardest season since season two."
Mr. Weiner said he had a sense of confidence going into season five brought about by the long delay between seasons and the opportunity to flesh out the character of Don's new wife, Megan.
"We've kind of gone through a cycle on some level," Mr. Weiner said, noting that in the first season Don was married to Betty. Season two was about meeting the first Mrs. Draper and Betty uncovering Don's cheating but staying together for the sake of baby Gene. In season three Don's marriage and business fell apart. In season four Don was single and his business was struggling. "He reached out to this young woman, got married and had this fantasy that that's all that mattered. Doing the story of Don's disillusionment with what his fantasy is like puts him in a place that is very much like his place before the pilot."
So what theme is Mr. Weiner exploring this year on "Mad Men"?
"The show this season is about the sentence in the first episode: 'People will do anything to alleviate anxiety,' and one of the big anxieties for Don is mortality, it is for all of us," he said. "I never want the show to repeat itself, but life does repeat itself at certain points, and you come upon these events and say, 'Here it goes again, am I the common element?' So I really wanted to talk about setting the stage for answering that question from the end of last season: 'Are you alone?' "
That was the final image of the season finale: After Don left Megan to film a scene on a soundstage, he wandered to a bar and was approached by a woman who posed that question.
"It was deliberately ambiguous," Mr. Weiner said. "Are you available for whatever, but more importantly, are you actually alone?"
Keep or Cancel? poll
Voting is now underway online in the Post-Gazette's annual Keep or Cancel? poll. You can play TV programmer and vote for the prime-time shows to renew and those you would deep-six if you were a network programming chief.
Vote today at http://old.post-gazette.com/tv/poll/default.asp.
Upcoming Sundance Channel drama "Rectify" will be shown at a free screening at 8 p.m. April 16 at Regent Square Theater. The six-episode drama chronicles the first seven days after a prisoner's release from death row after 19 years of imprisonment.
Four free tickets per person are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Regent Square Theater box office, 1035 S. Braddock Ave., during theater hours or at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' front desk, 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. The day of the show, doors open at 7:15 p.m., and if any seats remain at 7:45 p.m., those without tickets will be seated.
"Rectify" debuts on Sundance at 9 p.m. April 22, and the first episode will replay at 11 p.m. April 28 on AMC.
The 15-episode new season of "Arrested Development" debuts May 26 on Netflix. ... Sinclair Broadcast Group will begin broadcasting mobile capable signals from 10 stations, including WPGH in Pittsburgh, within the next six months. Mobile DTV lets viewers watch local broadcast stations for free on smartphones and tablets. ... This is not a surprise: HBO renewed "Game of Thrones" for a fourth season two days after Sunday's third-season premiere, which drew 4.4 million viewers to its premiere broadcast, the show's best ratings yet. ... Lifetime has canceled "America's Most Wanted" after rescuing it from Fox a few years back, but the network is developing another program with host John Walsh. ... TBS renewed late-night host Conan O'Brien's contract through November 2015. ... Sometime this summer daily reruns of CBS's "The Young and the Restless" will migrate from SOAPnet to TVGN (formerly TV Guide Network), keeping its 7 p.m. time slot. ... Networks are starting to announce summer premiere dates for returning series, including HBO's "True Blood" (9 p.m. June 16) and AMC's "The Killing" (8 p.m. June 2). ... The death of entertainer Jenni Rivera will be chronicled in the final season of mun2's "I Love Jenni" (9 p.m. April 14), and the singer/actress will be remembered in the special "We Love Jenni" (9 p.m. Sunday). ... Comedian Carol Burnett will be featured on PBS's "American Masters" at 8 p.m. Tuesday. ... The Snipe family of Pittsburgh -- including Deyotta, Rich, Dianne, Erica and Aleshia -- will compete Tuesday on "Family Feud" (7:30 p.m., WPCW).
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "The New Normal," "Work of Art" and local newscasters. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on CBS's "Vegas," NBC's "Hannibal," ABC's "How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life) and DirecTV's "Rogue." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "Game of Thrones," "The Walking Dead," "Orphan Black" and the death of "Buckwild" star Shain Gandee. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.