Mad Men Season Premiere Recap: Death Becomes Them

Mad Men Season 6 Episode 1 “The Doorway”

Source: you were thinking that Mad Men‘s obsession with death would end with Lane’s pitiful suicide, well you were wrong. Last night’s season premiere was positively rank with death and morbidity, from the opening shot from the point of view of a man having a heart attack, to the passages of Dante’s Inferno that Don decided would be a good beach read, to Roger’s tango with his mother’s and then his shoe-shiner’s deaths to Doctor Rosen’s not so subtle comments that death doesn’t affect him. Take away what you will, but it’s clear that SCDP and friends were pretty unaffected by the summer of love (the episode, it seems, takes place at the end of ’67 and the first few hours of ’68). A lot went down in this two-hour premiere, and the weaving between characters and locations was a little more reminiscent of Game of Thrones, as Mad Men‘s world has grown over the past five years. The focus on some seemed to be at the expense of others’ screen time, including Joan, something that Stan and Peggy actually noticed on their phone call (Stan notes that Rogers mother has died and Joan has ignored him and the audience suddenly remembers that she wasn’t at the funeral and we haven’t seen her since her portrait on the spanking new stairs). So let’s take this character by character.

Peggy Olson, settled in at her new post at Cutler, Gleason, and Chaugh, gets the happiest and most typically Mad Men subplot this episode. Although her conflict is caused by death, by murders in Vietnam where US soldiers wore ears around their necks causing trouble for a headphones campaign tag “Lend me your ears,” it’s slightly disconnected from Don, Roger, and Betty’s thematic story lines. It does reassure the viewer both that Peggy is still resolutely a part of the show, and that she is not going to turn into Don. She seems to be getting close, when she scolds her staff for not being as smart as her and then holds them in on New Year’s Eve. But when Ted shows up and tells her, gently and respectfully that she has maybe gone too far, Peggy realizes her wrong and corrects it. So maybe she’ll be able to lead a team without thoroughly degrading them at every turn. It’s also nice to know that she is still friendly with a very hairy Stan (besides death, the big theme of this episode was hair. Lots of hair! Late sixties hair! Stan, Ginsberg, Harry, Abe, they all look like they’ve been carpeted).

The spotlight of the premiere was on Don, yes, but also very bright on Roger Sterling, who continues his (post) midlife crisis that started last season when he is confronted with an actual death, that of his 91-year-old mother. There have never been so many great Roger lines in a single episode, whether it was either of his monologues to his psychiatrist (look how far he’s come, back in season 1, when his daughter Margaret was seeing one, he was ashamed), his freudian slip “this is my funeral!” or his exchanges with all the women in his life(ex-wife, ex-wife, daughter) except the one he actually wants (a conspicuously absent Joan). His story is simple, his mother dies and he can’t come to terms with it emotionally until learns of another death, of the building shoe shiner who only Roger bothered calling about. But it says so much about Roger, and how he’s slowly sinking into a depression caused by his realization of his own mortality. The title comes from his first therapy session, where he speaks ad naseum about doorways, bridges, and what’s the difference on either side. He’s reached a new doorway in his life, on one side was his life with his mother and the other is his life without her. Without the women who was so devoted to him, who doted on him extensively and probably contributed to his over-inflated sense of self. Now he’s alone, unmarried, and feeling the encroachment of not just Pete but Pete 2.0, the new account man who sends the spread to the funeral. He’s got to figure out what he’s doing, what he’s going to do, or he’ll be depressed for the rest of  his life. There was nothing to encouraging in this episode to make it seem like he will do that.

And then there’s Betty, television’s shallowest and most hateful character, who spent the episode trying to save a teenaged friend of Sally’s from a path that will lead to destitution and death, and also herself from her fat suburban housewife life. A lot of time was spent on Mrs. Hofstdat Francis, who seems to still be carrying some of her tumor weight despite the fact that all of the promotion photos showed January Jones at her usual fit self. That’s concerning, if only because the Mad Men folks should know about false advertising. Despite her slow weight loss, this is the first time since the divorce that Betty’s storyline moved forward. Fat Betty was something that happened to her that didn’t change her except for physically, and was generally my least favorite plot on Mad Men ever.

Death is in the air in the Francis Manor, a house that could easily stand in for a Frankenstein castle. Sally has a friend over, a violin prodigy named Sandy who Bobby has a crush on. He demands a performance and brings out the violin, and with his first real line of the entire series, notes that the case looks like a coffin. Something that will be important to Betty later. That night, creepy Betty suggests Henry should rape Sally’s friend because she’s jealous and scares the shit out of you. It’s like when she was jealous of Sally and Glen, except she uses her words (Good job Betty!) instead of insane and irrational actions. It may be the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard (and I think Henry agreed) but it did show something new. Then Betty’s interaction with the liberated, smoking fifteen-year-old Sandy, who says things to Betty you know Sally thinks, was perhaps the first time Betty started to think about herself and her life and flaws beyond her physical appearance. You could see her changing.

And when she learns that Sandy has run away, even though it doesn’t affect Betty at all, she goes looking for her in the slums of New York. Something season 4 narcissistic newlywed Betty never would have done. And when she finds the violin, she stays, helping the poor kids without running water cook dinner, fighting with their ringleader about power and social class, and then leaving the violin, in its coffin case, whether because she’s given up on Sandy or she feels bad for the kids in the house, it’s hard to tell. Her time with the squatters seems to be an expression of self-pity, she wants to run away from her life and become a one of them, even at the same time she is afraid of them. But still, Betty spent a whole day on someone besides herself.

And then there’s Don. Oh Donny Dickie Whitman Draper. Your life is so hard. Seven minutes into the episode and you haven’t said a word, despite the happiness of your soap-star wife or the relative paradise of your winter work vacation. More than anyone, even poor Roger, Don is feeling his mortality this episode. He flashes back to the heart attack of his doorman, in a shot that lent initial confusion as to whether or not it was Don wheezing on the floor. But Don’t not dying, he’s just seeing other people die, over and over again, and he may not be seeing Adam everywhere he looks anymore, but he’s still being haunted.

Don is so unengaged in this episode, whether its with Megan or his copywriters or his clients or his neighbor or his lover. He is the ghost now, haunting himself. The blatant symbolism of his footprints on the beach pitch to Sheraton Hawaii clients is completely lost on him and his team, so used to every pitch being utter genius. The pitch meeting was one of the more genius bits of Matthew Weiner’s. The reactions of the clients progress from concern about their campaign to concern about Don. Their faces say it all, “How can he not see it?!” And suddenly, Don has to realize his own obsession. He’s not just unhappy; he’s obsessed with death.

Like Roger, he doesn’t know what do with his life now that he’s walked through a doorway. On one side was his happy life with Megan, however brief that was, and also his happiness in the office, with Peggy at his disposal and Lane alive and Joan not prostituting herself. On the other side is uncertainty. He doesn’t know what to do to numb his unhappiness. With Betty he threw himself into a variety of affairs, moving from one to the other as he got bored. Then he tried a year of monogamy with Megan. Now his affair with the nice doctor’s wife seems too easy, too simple. At the office the disconnect between him and his staff has never been greater. They’re young (and hairy!) and smoking a lot of weed. Even the new addition of a middle-aged female doesn’t seem to be helping Don at all. It was hard enough for him to connect to Peggy, who he basically raised in his own image. On this side of the doorway, to answer the question from the end of season 5, Don Draper is all alone. Season six will tell us if he stays that way.


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