PLEASE NOTE: This recap contains spoilers for the first two episodes of season six of Mad Men

Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in season six of <i>Mad Men</i>

Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in season six of Mad Men

"That's it, hang in there."

Those were the first words heard on the sixth season of Mad Men, and if it was reassurance to the obsessive viewers who've been waiting impatiently since last June for the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to return, the context was alarming: someone was dying, complete with a point of view shot looking upwards at the man valiantly trying to save them.

The eternal question for Don, buried away where the audience can only sense his discomfort, is how do you enjoy a life that you know isn't truly yours? 

Cut to Don Draper, prone on a Hawaiian beach with wife Megan tanning by his side and a copy of Dante's Inferno in his hand – just a book about a guy who descends into Hell – and you have the beginning of a season that appears to be fraught with mortal complications. If season five opened slowly and built to a searing climax with the suicide of Lane Pryce, season six of Mad Men plunged straight in. It was compelling and also terrifying – when you start at this point, where does the season end?

Actors Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in Mad Men season six Click for more photos

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Actors Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in Mad Men season six

  • Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in the black and white Mad Men season six gallery.
  • Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • January Jones as Betty Francis in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • John Slattery as Roger Sterling in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • Mad Men season six
  • Robert Morse as Bertram Cooper in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • Jessica Pare as Megan Draper in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper in a Mad Men season six portrait.
  • Mad men season 6

These two opening episodes, written by the show's creator Matthew Weiner, essentially formed a movie, establishing that not only was nearly everyone unhappy, but they were focused on endings and passings, losing their lustre and fearing the slippage of time or being replaced.

Don's subsequent pitch for the Hawaiian resort that he'd sampled with Megan, now a soap opera actress enjoying the first flush of recognition, suggested a man literally shedding his burdens to walk into the ocean. Don tried to kid himself that it suggested paradise; everyone else saw a man committing suicide.

Even Roger Sterling's mercurial charms faltered, although he did have the perfect audience to try new material out on: his psychiatrist. "I think you're being a little hard on me," the ageing hellion told his shrink, throwing in a Foghorn Leghorn accent for good measure.

The most obvious sign of death in the opening episodes was that of Roger's 91-year-old mother, the one woman who'd never been disappointed in him and was thus just another one to neglect until it was too late.

The service in her palatial apartment was a kind of black comedy, with pushy friends and family swamping Roger, who had both his former wives in attendance, even if his first wife Mona brought along her new husband, which was a red rag to Roger's snorting bull. The only thing that could top Roger's tantrum, which no-one reacted to despite him yelling "this is my funeral!", was Don literally vomiting up his emotions (and some purloined booze) at the idea of someone losing a mother who loved them their entire life; Don's own mother being a prostitute who died in childbirth, leaving him with a stepmother who called him "whore child".

It's a given that Don Draper is unhappy, the question is what plagues him the most and how will he react. Despite Megan's slinky devotion – "you haven't had sex high," she tells him in Hawaii, producing two joints – he was uneasy with the confines of his marriage, and was seemingly drawn to the friendship of his downstairs neighbour, cardiac surgeon Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson), who is revealed as the man who saved the heart attack victim, which turns out to be the building's doorman. By the time the Drapers return from their holiday the uniformed greeter is back at his desk, snapped back to life with a happiness Don can't comprehend.

Hawaii also re-established Don's fear of his original identity being discovered, when a soldier on leave from Vietnam, Private Dinkins, gets to talking to Don in the bar. The drunken, friendly GI's attempts to get Don to give away his fiancé at their looming beach wedding because Don is a Korean War veteran only reminded Don that he'd used his war experience to swap identities, leaving behind Dick Whitman to become Don Draper.

The eternal question for Don, buried away where the audience can only sense his discomfort, is how do you enjoy a life that you know isn't truly yours?

When Dinkins first meets Don he good naturedly asks him, "Are you an astronaut?" The handsome advertising executive still looks the part (and appears to care abut his work once more), and  the setting of the week around Christmas 1967 and January 1, 1968 allowed the period detail to move slightly forward. Pete Campbell's sideburns are longer – and his manner even shorter – and Don's creative staff look like a different generation now.

But it's Betty of all people, the former Mrs. Draper, who ventures from the suburbs into the counterculture, visiting a Greenwich Village squat in search of a friend of her daughter Sally, who has confided her desire to run away. There are no bell-bottoms or flower power, just grime and disdain. Looking and feeling her age, Betty swaps cooking advice for information on the girl, getting called a "narc" for her efforts.

Betty's quest didn't succeed, and no-one who took measures to change their course found satisfaction. Roger tried to bond with his married daughter, only for her to pitch a business proposal on her husband's behalf. Even the affable Ken Cosgrove is spooked by the changing of the guard, feeling the need to publicly slap down an ambitious new SCDP staff member whose youthful ingratiation might once have been the preserve of Pete Campbell.

The odd person out was Peggy, who has become the new Don, running the creative department at a rival firm and winning the unconditional approval of her boss, Ted Chaough. The way Peggy berates her staff is pure Don, as is their terrified reaction to her, and Peggy's only conundrum is that she doesn't know how she should enjoy her position and power. As Mad Men problems go, it's a comparatively welcome one.

That left Don, who celebrated the arrival of 1968 – the year in which Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy will be assassinated, the Tet Offensive will take place and Richard Nixon will be elected – by sharing fondue with Megan, Dr. Rosen and his wife, and then slipping into their marital bed when life and death work called the husband into a blizzard and Mrs. Rosen (Linda Cardellini) was ready for what was obviously not their first act of infidelity.

It was Don's new mistress who had given him Inferno to read, which is nothing else suggests that he's in some kind of unofficial book club with the women whose presence in his life he otherwise cannot acknowledge (remember how he shared Frank O'Hara's Meditations on an Emergency with the real Don Draper's wife in California?). Even in a post-coital embrace Don admits to his failing. Asked for a New Year's resolution he simply replies, "I don't want to be doing this." But clearly he will.

Happy new year, Don Draper. It's going to be a long, engrossing one.

Barely seen? Joan Harris – apart from having her picture taken by a condescending photographer, SCDP's newest partner had hardly a line of dialogue in the two episodes.

Sally Draper's progress to teenage revolutionary? Mild – "I hate cops" giggles the teenage daughter who is destined to join the Weather Underground just to torment her parents.

The ever quotable Roger Sterling? Asked by ex-wife number two, Jane, if he wanted a ring that once belonged to his mother back so she could be buried with it, he casually demurred. "We already burned her up. And they steal that stuff."