LOS ANGELES - In the first episode of the first season of "Mad Men," Don Draper's next-in-line affair, Rachel Menken, hears his brutal philosophy: Love is nothing more than an ad man's myth, and everyone is born alone and dies alone.
Stack up five years of cynicism and unfulfilled dreams and the result is a dazzling drama with a core of shattered glass.
As the series returns for what creator Matthew Weiner says is the penultimate season, he's asking viewers to embrace other, more comfortable concepts: belief and trust.
They must believe that he knows what they will find satisfying for Don, Peggy, Pete and the other souls of "Mad Men," and trust in his vision as the AMC drama returns Sunday.
That he's putting his characters on the knife's edge of dread may not make that trust any easier - especially since Weiner believes we are living uneasily with a 21st-century version of their 1960s mind-set.
"This season is very much capturing what's going on right now, in a strange way," Weiner said. "I think we have been thrown into a state of individual anxiety, based on being disconnected from events outside our control," including economic disarray.
The writer-director paraphrases a line from Sunday's episode that he deems key to the sixth season: People will do anything to alleviate anxiety.
Pre-debut, Weiner wants no spoilers about the season, not even a hint of what happens and whether Don finally is taking the institution of marriage to heart.
But if Weiner won't talk about what the season is, he's at least willing to say what it's not.
"It's not about Lane's suicide. There is no eulogy for Lane. It's not all about Joan and the Jaguar guy," he said.
The references are to two of last season's more startling twists: the hanging death of ad agency partner Lane after he's fired for theft, and Joan's prostituting herself, under pressure, to win the luxury car account for the agency.
There are other stories to be told, Weiner said, even if viewers tend to cling to the past and would prefer the show pick up with the calendar flipped just a day or two ahead. That would become boring "really fast," Weiner said.
How will the latest chapter of "Mad Men" be received? Last season, its winning streak of four consecutive best-drama Emmy Awards was broken when it lost to "Homeland" and it failed to capture any other Emmy trophies.
Jon Hamm, the center-ring attraction as Don, the sharp-dressed man with the tortured psyche, has no qualms about following Weiner's lead once more.
He credits Weiner's probing, self-analytic nature with producing the richly complex world of "Mad Men" and its parade of human and cultural foibles.
"Matt is a wickedly smart, very curious and deeply flawed person, and he likes exploring those flaws and pulling them apart and examining them," Hamm said. "All writers are wonderful observers, (and) Matt sees everything at a micro level and macro level."
Weiner clearly relishes toying with his audience and his characters. When he talks about Draper and others repeating old mistakes, he chortles.
Hamm, close to wrapping up work on this season's 13 episodes, has found himself tested over the years by his character's dark side.
"There's no vicarious thrill for me as an actor to doing any of this sort of bad behavior. I don't get off on it. ... There's a psychic toll it takes," he said. "I'm not comparing myself to a bricklayer or construction worker or miner. But it does take a psychic toll."
There are 13 episodes planned for its last season, Weiner said.
"I have an idea for what it feels like for the show to end, and I think I know how it ends, and I've known for a couple of years," Weiner said.
Could Don, at last, find happiness? Hamm tackles that question.
"Well, that's the hope. And at some point it will be the journey of the series, finding that happiness, or a balance."
That's the audience's challenge as well. And Mr. Weiner's call.
The new season of "Mad Men" starts with a two-hour episode airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on AMC.