Now in its sixth season, Mad Men is probably one of the only shows on television that never jumped the shark – it remains as thoughtful and sophisticated a show since its first season. Sure, there have been some mistakes made along the way. But if I’m to judge from this two-hour premiere episode alone (sorry, this will likely therefore be on the long side), entitled “The Doorway,” I don’t think that there’s much to worry about in terms of the show not living up to expectations. In the premiere, a lot of recurring themes from seasons past are revisited – impending death, times that are a-changin’, infidelity, identity – though are these themes should be ever-present, as the show wouldn’t exist without them. Especially now since Vietnam looms even more heavily over the show’s landscape and harbingers of death become even more pertinent.
And, yes, the premiere was pretty damn good. Written by showrunner Matthew Weiner and directed by veteran Mad Men director Scott Hornbacher, it featured elegant, filmic non-linear structure, as well as the intelligent writing that we have all grown accustomed to in the many years of drinking in this show.
A breathtakingly handsome and tanned Don Draper is getting existential with Dante’s Inferno on a Hawaiian beach to a voiceover of what he’s reading.
“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
Don is sadly at home in that dark wood. In fact, the pitch man even stays silent until a bit later into the episode, which speaks volumes about his current state of mind. The Drapers are in Hawaii to woo a new client, Royal Hawaiian hotels (SCDP has an upcoming meeting with their parent company, Sheraton). Megan, now apparently starring on a soap opera, sits by his side on the beach. They look to be the perfect couple. Though much like that baked beans mock up last season, Megan is apparently there so the Drapers can put on a good display for Royal Hawaiian.
Of course, the same situation existed with Don’s dynamic with Betty and the kids in earlier seasons, though his pairing with Megan holds another importance altogether as Megan is significantly younger than he is, and therefore gives him a surface-level connection to the younger generation. Megan dazzles the Royal Hawaiian client by getting up on stage for a hula demonstration, swiveling her hips in her mod-printed dress. Though to those of us who know better, Don never seems older than when he’s with Megan. Especially when she offers up some weed before sex. Something about Don Draper with a joint just seems wrong, for some reason, and he’d probably agree.
The existential thread prefaced by Dante is woven throughout the episode as many important allusions to death are made. Just before Don’s Dante voiceover is present, the episode opens with the Drapers’ neighbor, Dr. Rosen, reviving their doorman Jonesy, who had a heart attack on the job. Death continues to loom when Don is alone at the hotel bar in Hawaii and he crosses paths with a serviceman who is about to get married… and also who is about to ship off to Vietnam. He knows no one, and since Don also served, he asks Don to give his bride away. Don does this, and is haunted by the experience. He picks up the young man’s inscribed cigarette lighter by accident which strongly recalls those Dick Whitman/Donald Draper dog tags and the mental remains of people who are no longer with us. In that moment, Don killed off this young man in his head.
Roger’s 91-year-old mother Mimsy died, though his secretary seems to be taking it a bit harder than he. . . in that she is hysterically crying while Roger simply raises his glass of vodka. Roger’s shoeshine man also dies, and since Roger was the only person to call about him, he got his shoeshine kit which magically has the power to make him crack that smooth, one-liner-filled artifice and cry.
Roger was likely moved by his mother’s passing, but sometimes it takes a small object to bring everything big crashing down. Though there’s something to be said for the simplicity in the shoeshine kit being this unseen man’s only legacy versus the bloated grandeur of his mother’s funeral. Obviously not the nicest woman in the world, she left everything she had to the zoo. Despite his mother’s lacking of maternal warmth, Roger does note that his mother was the last woman alive who didn’t want anything from him, in comparison to his money-grubbing exes and daughter. What about Joan, Roger? Hopefully Joan gets her moment in the sun on an upcoming episode…
Judging by Don’s inebriated state at the Mimsy’s funeral, you would think he was in deep mourning over Mrs. Sterling. Though really, he was drowning a deluge of sorrows, the tipping point being Megan’s independence. Megan couldn’t go to the funeral because she had to shoot the soap opera. It’s strange since all of Don’s extramarital affairs up until this point have been with strong-minded independent women. But now that Megan has gained some power over the course of being married to him, she has lost some of her allure. Don stumbles into the main speech-giving area, featuring some comic relief from Roger and his mother’s extremely elderly, wheelchair-bound bestie who insists on speaking. She insists, goddamn it! Though as she quotes Mimsy in regard to her son, “My heart is full because my son is my sunshine,” Don appropriately drunk-pukes on the floor (recalling the drunken puking of “The Suitcase”). Ah. I mean… is anyone better at playing drunk than Jon Hamm? Is anyone better at acting wordlessly than Jon Hamm? Probably not. Mad Men has such a conglomeration of amazing acting talent that is consistently good, but Hamm brings it in his usual expert fashion here in an effortless performance.
Speaking of which, Elizabeth Moss is back as Peggy, working at another ad agency in a position of authority. Peggy apes her mentor Don in the brusque way she deals with her underlings, as well as how she makes them work on New Year’s Eve (even though we learn that making them work is inadvertent on her part). Though Peggy isn’t really hardened – she is still trying to make it in the man’s world of advertising. She is making a go of it, however, since Don’s innate ability to piece together a brilliant campaign at the last minute (and usually from scraps) has successfully rubbed off on her. She saves the day and impresses her boss, Ted (Kevin Rahm). It’s fun to watch Peggy as she uses Don as a template here. Her underlings respect her, and she is not ignored because she is a woman, but rather respected for her creative talent, which is an important viewpoint to have on the show…
…especially when there’s Betty. Poor January Jones, by the way. Betty is still battling a weight issue, which is unfortunate, since Jones still has to wear those Shallow Hal-esque facial prosthetics. Betty’s thread this episode is also pretty bleak and has overtones of loss, though it’s probably the weakest of the episode. When Sally’s friend Sandy is rejected from Julliard, the girls runs off to St. Marks Place to live with squatters and Betty goes off to find her. Not entirely out of sheer good will, but perhaps because Betty thinks she sees a lot of herself in Sandy, an ambitious girl who has the potential to snag the opportunities that Betty missed in her youth. Betty discovers that the girl sold her violin to one of the squatters, though never ends up finding her. And then she comes home in defeat… though now she’s a brunette! The anti-establishment squatters comment about her hair coming from a bottle, so perhaps that’s motivation. Or perhaps Betty feels like she is stuck in a rut.
You would think, also, that Betty was being nicer than usual in this episode, which might be true. But then you have to think back to her making those really inappropriate jokes to Henry about him wanting to rape Sandy. To the point of her saying that he should stuff a rag in her mouth. And then you realize… no, Betty is still pretty awful. Pretty awful indeed. Though her storyline was integrated better into the plotline of the show much better than it had been last season, so hopefully that is maintained throughout this new season, since while Betty is awful, the domestic life is a much needed facet to the show. By the way, Sally Draper is a teenager. Are we that old?
Closing with Don, he also had to present a campaign for Royal Hawaiian, “Hawaii. The Jumping Off Point,” which the clients interpret as somewhat suicidal in tone. And yeah, it kind of is. The ad features an abandoned suit on the beach, and mysterious footprints leading off into the unknown. When the clients voice their dissatisfaction, Don gives a rather brilliant speech about how the word “love” should be something more substantial than the domesticity they want in the ad. He says, “We want that electric jolt to the body. We want eros. It’s like a drug, it’s not domestic. What’s the difference between a husband knocking on a door and a sailor getting off a ship? Ten thousand volts.”
Does Don get that electric jolt from his affair with Sylvia, since it’s right under Megan and Dr. Rosen’s noses? Yeah, probably. Affairs provide said jolt, but marriage does not for Don. While it’s mildly disappointing that this season brings another extramarital affair subplot (even though Don claims he wants to end it), it is in keeping with Don’s inability to find happiness. Through his work and his sex life, he constantly looks for that jolt to keep him alive, to keep him engaged, and he does find that frequently, but it always dims eventually. Much like Don, like Roger, like Peggy, like Betty in this episode, it is impossible to feel fully satisfied with your life, with so much darkness lurking all around. Which is a testament to the overall human condition, then and now: people are always looking for that electricity to keep them out of the darkness, but it very seldom keeps them going for a sustainable amount of time.
The Upside: The show has done this before in varying degrees, but this premiere’s obsession with death is rather intriguing, especially the inadvertent suicidal ad. Also, Drunk Don at Mimsy’s funeral, Peggy aping Don in the workplace, emotive Roger, and a better incorporation of Betty than in last season.
The Downside: The affair storyline seems old before it even starts (even though it involves Lindsay Weir). Also, poor January Jones… couldn’t Betty have lost the weight between seasons so she could shed the Shallow Hal-esque chubby face prosthetics?
On the Side: Don still hates Pete, Don still remains sexy while vomiting, Roger still flirts with Joan, and Betty is still pretty deplorable. In other words, all is right with the world.