Review: Mad Men – Season 6 Episodes 1&2: ‘The Doorway’

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(Wri. Matthew Weiner, Dir. Scott Hornbacher)

The pertinent question “Are you alone?” – posed by a blonde temptress to a stoic Don Draper – was the bracing cliffhanger that rounded off the stunning, poetic fifth season of Matthew Weiner’s epic televisual novel, Mad Men, which makes a monumentally solemn return for a sixth and penultimate run. A close up of Draper’s face literally contemplating such a loaded inquiry before turning his tempted head sewed up a season that wove together the show’s standard intimations and concerns with death and the unappeasable pursuit of happiness but gave them a bleaker and more weighty angle, as each character from the robust ensemble individually mused about mortality and their positions in an ever-changing world. If season five highlighted and subsequently explored the awesome position mortality has in one’s self-identification, then ‘The Doorway’ carries across such hefty themes but exacerbates them, dealing unequivocally with death and loneliness whilst answering the aforementioned question regarding Don’s fidelity. It’s seamless and totally fitting that Weiner is fully confronting death on a more personable level now that his baby is reaching its looming demise, and it’s a subject that pervades a feature-length episode of a show already steeped in substantial visual and thematic metaphor.

The suicide of Lane Pryce late in season five formed a considerable shadow over its final episode ‘The Phantom’, which saw Don perusing the guilt he felt in playing a significant part in his colleague’s untimely death and, by extension, his brother Adam’s back in season one, who hung himself after Don refused to let him back into his new, fraudulent life. The climax of ‘The Phantom’ signalled a harbinger of doom as Don’s aching tooth was extracted (“It’s not your tooth that’s rotten”, intones Adam’s ghost) and his marriage to Megan – now a fully realised soap opera actress – hung in the balance. The episode opens with the Draper’s bathed in the Hawaiian sun, with Don – physically silent for a whole eight minutes – reading in voiceover a line from Dante’s ‘Inferno’: “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood”; an image that will undoubtedly form as much of an integral resonance for the structure of the ensuing season as Frank O’Hara’s poetry volume ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ acted as a supplement to season two. It’s the tail end of 1967 and Don’s no closer to finding the proper means to scratch his anxious itch or finding the happiness that now seems completely unattainable. That he has indeed returned to cheating on his wife is indicative of his unchangeable persona; he is a man incapable of being – as a photographer taking profiles of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce staff in their renovated, reefer-stenched office demands – himself, because he refuses to acknowledge who Don Draper/Dick Whitman is and who he wants to be.

The case of Don’s stolen identity continues to reverberate in several forms throughout the series, and now it stares him in the face once again in the form of PFC Dinkins’ lighter, a soldier on a break from Vietnam and whose marriage Don attends on Waikiki Beach. Still searching for the uneasy balance between business and pleasure, Don is on an assignment (not holiday) for latest client The Royal Hawaiian, for whom he constructs an ad campaign that evokes, to everyone else but him, a sense of foreboding and, explicitly, suicide. It depicts an office drone shedding his skin and engaging in “The jumping off point” provided by the experience of the hotel; wading through a transient ocean towards an unknowable oasis, a close example of life continuing to imitate art. Throughout the episode Don appears indifferent and unchanged, that patented sleek ad man adrift in a sea of shifting haircuts, bushy beards and marijuana smoke; that is until the almost dreamlike closing scenes where, on New Years Eve, he sees off new friend Dr. Arnold Rosen wading away through a thick blanket of snow before promptly sleeping with his wife Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), who leant him her copy of ‘Inferno’. Stationed in horizontal, post-coital compunction, Don is an image of self-loathing and inexorable remorse, answering his newest conquest’s question of what he wants for the New Year with a deflated “I want to stop doing this”, something he knows won’t be happening any time soon.

This is a stark indication of the potential tenor of the successive episodes, welcoming the audience and characters to 1968 with a gloomy foreshadowing of Don’s constant battle with his perpetual existential crisis, whilst offering an apposite delineation to what Dr. Rosen surmises: that “people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety”. A thoughtful and profoundly moving season premiere, “The Doorway” does a perfect job of balancing heavy material alongside the show’s multitude of characters both minor and major, and although it has become a beautifully shrewd and dense watch, it is nevertheless a pleasure to see the return of a show that takes pride in a drip-feed approach to rewarding the more discerning viewer.

Extra thoughts:

·         As much as “The Doorway” focuses on Mad Men’s chief protagonist Don Draper, it is also a four-pronged and competently structured story that catches up with Roger Sterling, Betty Francis and Peggy Olsen; one whose nuances – as always – rewards repeat viewings.

·         Roger, seen last year openly bankrolling the agency whilst embracing LSD, is now seeking answers in psychotherapy, musing about life with a doctor who refuses to laugh at his jokes. In an episode filled with strong moments (especially for Roger, whose sobbing over the one-two punch of the death of his mother and the building’s shoeshine clerk was raw and incredibly poignant), the scene where he openly engages with the episode’s title sees him unleashing a lengthy diatribe about his discontent. His analogy about the events in life being represented by a series of doors that ultimately lead to the same dissatisfaction and close behind you is a spikey summation for a man deeply unhappy with what he has. “Turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where”, he says, and it’ll be interesting to see if he manages to find the keys to a door that will lead him to the contentment he seemed to enjoy with courting Megan’s mother last season. Though, of course, Roger is all about living for the now and disregarding the future consequences.

·         Similarly restless is Betty, although she’s come a long way from the callous, childish woman she once was. Still “reducing” her weight (excellent prosthetics), she appears – in more screen time than January Jones had in season 5 put together – a woman struggling to deal with the echoes of her venomous demeanour and keep her newfound nuclear family stable. This isn’t to say she’s totally unlikable (her joke regarding her assistance in her husband’s raping of daughter Sally’s friend, asleep in the next room, nosedives her ostensibly softer edges, said with a sinister Stepford robot smile), but she goes some way to being a more sympathetic maternal figure, even though her attentions are totally guided in the wrong direction. That Sally addresses her as Betty speaks volumes about their chequered relationship.

·        Betty’s shift from icy bottled blonde, which is a response to her being accused of not liking her life, to Elizabeth Taylor-esque brunette has a sub-Freudian complex as she looks peculiarly similarly to her Henry’s mother, Pauline.

·         Finally, seen as her agency’s Don Draper figure, Peggy is thriving in her job at Cutler Gleason and Chaough, exemplifying how much the apprentice has become the master and how good she really is in a crisis.

·        Credits song: Elvis Presley – Hawaiian Wedding Song.

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