Since the Mad Men Season Six screeners were sent out to reviewers, series creator Matthew Weiner has kept an iron fist wrapped tightly around any spoilers (which, for him, means pretty much everything). Maybe he’s earned that right, but it means that until now, no one has been able to speak one specific word about the return of this cultural juggernaut of a show. I am breathing a sigh of relief to finally talk about all of the redacted things, because there are many. This two hour movie-like premiere threw in everything about the series, touching on every major person and every theme we’ve come across over the past six years. It’s no small feat, and the writing (Weiner wrote the premiere) and directing (by Scott Hornbacher) were as top-notch as ever. So where exactly do we find Don now, after that suffocatingly bleak end to Season Five? Hit the jump to find out what you see when you die.
Last season, Mad Men had a pervasive feeling of death, and Season Six has, so far, done little to erase it. Roger and Don, in particular, are staring into the chasms of their mortality and wondering, “what’s it all for?” It’s a question Don has been plagued with since the beginning of the series, but whereas Roger has done everything possible to fight it or throw it off (by always keeping up with the latest trends, having the youngest mistresses or new wife, taking drugs and remaining cavalier), in “The Doorway” after a pair of deaths (one major and one minor) he finally breaks down and, in an existential frustration, talks about life as a series of doors, all of them the same, and all of them closing behind you.
As if Peter-Pan-Roger’s wings being clipped wasn’t dark enough, Don is right back where he’s always been: searching for something that can’t be found, and running from everything he has. When he meets a young soldier in Hawaii, we’re reminded of Don’s time in Korea (where of course he first became Don). Later, when he realizes he still has PFC Dinkins’ lighter, he registers shock with a touch of horror. Here he is holding another military lighter with someone else’s name on it. “Just be you,” the photographer tells him — a terrifying and confusing prospect for Don. Is he ready to shed his skin again?
Don brings up that very idea of escape in an ad for the Hawaiian hotel where he and Megan stayed, but to everyone else his concept just looks like suicide (as Stan said, “that’s what’s so great about it!”) Death cannot be escaped so easily on Mad Men, and moments like Don standing at his window and hearing the ocean remind one of all of the moments last year that seemed to point to someone taking that iconic leap from a Madison Avenue window. It was Lane who took his life to end that season (and not Pete like most of us thought), but there’s something that suggests Don might not make it out — if not this year, then to end the show.
For now, whether he lives or dies, Don’s preoccupation with death, what comes after it, and who he is in the here and now continue to trap him in a moral quagmire. At the end of the two hours we see that, again, he’s back to cheating (with his old type). It’s the most dour moment of the premiere, proving that Don won’t change and perhaps can’t change. Worst still it’s that he’s cheating with the wife of a man he’s actually become friends with. Dawn’s look said it all when Dr. Rosen was introduced, “Don has friends??” But Don remains empty and alienated, as he quotes from Dante to start the episode. So what is this all for?
Elsewhere, Betty (still fat but not as fat) went on her own journey into the city to track down Sally’s friend Sandy. Is Betty really searching for Sandy, or to go back to what it was like when life was still full of promise for her, when she was a model who met a handsome ad man? Betty’s life now is better than it’s ever been — Henry Francis is a much, much better man than Don, but Betty, like Don, seems to have lost a sense of herself since she’s become Mrs. Francis. She’s the object of ridicule to the beatnik kids living in squalor, and the barb about her being a bottle blond seems to have been taken to heart — she reveals herself the next day as a brunette.
For those worried about what would become of Peggy, she’s still around (thankfully) as a kind of Don Jr. at Ted Chaough’s firm. Peggy has come so very far in terms of both honing her creative skills, which are exceptional, and also in her confidence. She is strict and has a weariness to her now, but seems to be making her way with what she learned from Don and her time at Sterling Cooper. It will be interesting to see if she and Don cross paths again.
We checked in on everyone in this long episode of “The Doorway,” and I would love to comment on every scene because my notes are ridiculous and there’s so much I loved, but it would be novel-length. Sometimes it’s nice to just bask. On the other hand, as much as I adore the show and am exceptionally glad to have it back, it’s gotten to be a terribly heavy watch. It always was steeped in visual metaphor and deeper meanings, though peppered with humor, but this pallor of death is starting to feel like too much. There is an inescapable nihilism that settles in like last year’s fog, choking even some of the lighter moments (or ones that play particular fan service like Peggy and Stan gossiping on the phone). Don reads a headline near the end of the episode, “goodbye to a violent year,” everything now is covered with pristine white snow. Maybe there’s hope.
Episode Rating: A
Musings and Miscellanea:
— How fucking creepy was it to hear Betty talk so casually with a smile on her face about Henry raping Sandy while she held her down? She had a lot of suggestions for how he could do it, too. “You said you wanted to spice things up …”
— It seems that Weiner is still in love with Jessica Pare, since the first eight minutes were entirely devoted to her. Did Don speak at all?
— “She acts like she’s 25 because she uses tampons” – Sally
— Everyone laughing at Sandy saying her mother’s dead was pretty morbid.
— I laughed out loud at so many things: Don vomiting at Roger’s mother’s funeral, Pete hounding Don about work and Don just ignoring him, Betty and Sandy’s conversation and Betty asking her if she’s on dope, Roger’s many one-liners, the facial hair (notable Abe, Stan and Ginsberg), Joan saying everything smelled like reefer, and Peggy’s conversation with the pastor on the phone.
— Watch out for Bob Benson, he’s a mover and a shaker!
— Don laments the wearing out of the word “love” but what does he know about it? Let’s be real. (Though I agree with him).
— One of the kids berating Betty used the word “grok”! That is fantastic.
— I wanted to talk a lot more about Roger because he’s probably my favorite character. He’s gone through so much change over the years and has always remained so flippant at even the darkest of times we’ve never seen him really feel anything. His interactions with Mona and his daughter were heartbreaking, and though Joan should ignore him in his pain, I can’t help but still hold a torch for their early relationship. Roger is a cad, make no mistake, but he’s a damn charming one. He’s my Gaius Baltar on this show — fully self-serving, but also wholly entertaining.
— It disturbs me that Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) who played Dr. Rosen’s wife Sylvia, could be old enough to have a college aged child. I feel old.
— As a violinist, I am always happy to see when shows go the extra mile to either find people who can actually play violin, or do a good enough approximation of it to look realistic.
— “In life we often have to do things that just are not our bag” – Dinkins