Premiering its two-hour sixth season opener at the DGA theatre in Hollywood on Wednesday night, AMC and Lionsgate’s four-Mad Mentime Best Drama Series Emmy winner Mad Men threw its hat in the ring to retake that Emmy which it lost for the first time last year to Showtime’s newcomer Homeland. The new season, which debuts on April 7th, opens with Don Draper and wife Megan on Christmas vacation on the beaches of Waikiki and promises more of the same kind of intrigue and incremental character development for which it is known. But creator Matt Weiner, who obviously wants to keep viewers guessing, warned the packed industry crowd not to give anything away before the show actually airs. In fact, in the elaborate press kit sent to critics, Weiner is even more specific about keeping the first episode’s secrets intact with a non-reveal list that includes the year the season begins, status of Don and Megan’s relationship, whether the agency has expanded to an additional floor, new characters, and new relationships or partnerships. That doesn’t leave much to tell except to say each of the characters is thrust into interesting new areas and the actors are all at the top of their games (Jon Hamm even has to pull off a mysterious 8-minute stretch where he doesn’t utter a word). It just continues to be a bafflement as to why not a single actor on the show has ever won an Emmy in the five years it has been on. Will that change as Season 6 takes off and plays right through the Emmy nomination voting period?

There are just two episodes left to film before the order of 13 wraps and the cast scatters to other gigs. Hamm told me that right after he finishes he is headed to India to start a new baseball film, Million Dollar Arm, to be directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars And The Real Girl) in which he plays an agent who recruits Asian cricket players to switch to the major leagues. He particularly liked getting to take Don Draper to Hawaii this time around, and the character clearly promises to be travelling to other new internal places as well based on the first two hours. Christina Hendricks, Robert Morse, Jessica Pare, January Jones, Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery (who has some big scenes in the show) were among the Mad Men cast who turned up for the crowded party at Sunset Towers following the screening along with Weiner, producer Scott Hornbacher (who directed the premiere) and AMC president Charlie Collier, who told me he was proud of the way Mad Men is able to keep fresh and inventive.

Collier thinks the competition will remain fierce for the Emmys this year and that includes his own Breaking Bad, which has never won Drama Series love from the Academy but unlike Mad Men has scored repeatedly for its actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. Its final season will debut just as final Emmy voting is taking place over the summer, so that could give it some advantage. But a strong season of Downton Abbey, the returning champ Homeland, Game Of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and new kid on the block Netflix’s House Of Cards should make this the most competitive of all Emmy races this year. Cards is only available on Netflix streaming so far, but if it wants to compete the company will have to aggressively get it in front of Emmy voters — and that includes sending DVDs. Even though in a novel approach Netflix made all episodes available on their service right from the beginning, it will be eligible to compete in the regular series categories, a fact even Hornbacher wasn’t aware of when we spoke about it last night. AMC also has its ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead in the mix, but Emmy voters tend to resist zombies or any sci-fi or horror oriented series when it comes to considering Best Drama. I don’t expect them to change that voting pattern anytime soon, so Dead will probably just have to be content with its monster numbers.

I asked Weiner if next season would be the last for the series as he has indicated in the past and he said there hasn’t been any discussion to date of going further than seven years. His CAA agent Bryan Lourd, also at the party, insisted Weiner was moving on to the big screen and stage projects. Weiner’s first writing and directorial effort in that regard, You Are Here — starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler — is undergoing test screenings now and still being tweaked. He’d love to take it to Cannes, but at the moment he is still trying to finish up the Mad Men season which he says is an enormous job. He and Lourd had nothing but praise for the You Are Here cast and pointed out that Poehler will be seen in a new light after her performance.

At any rate it looks to be a competitive field all around for Emmys. As one seasoned observer of the annual TV contest observed, “the Emmy race already started back in January and it looks intense”.