Mad Men: Season Six, Episode 1
The Doorway
Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark forest, for the straight forward pathway had been lost. So begins the penultimate season of Mad Men, immediately reminding us of several of its key facets. For one thing, it is instantly clear what show we are watching. Nothing on television feels like Mad Men, a show that is as much a mood as a narrative, and those opening moments, framed as they are by the near-death of the doorman, set that mood perfectly. Another thing that is immediately clear is where Matt Weiner wants our heads--voice over is never used lightly on this show, and when its deployed, its almost always done to get us exactly where the show wants us. Finally, its a reminder that the specter of death hangs over this show more and more as it nears its own end. In a lot of ways, this makes it comparable to Weiner's last gig, over on The Sopranos, a show that also became more about mortality and endings as it progressed. But Mad Men has always been a show about the inexorable march of time, about the inevitability of change, and death, after all, is the final change we'll ever go through.

In some of this episode's storylines, that theme is abundantly clear. Tonight, Roger Sterling loses his mother and his shoeshine guy, and tells his therapist "All I'm going to be doing from now on is losing everything," and while its a morose statement, Roger isn't exactly wrong. He's been past his prime since before the show even started, and in fact, the series hasn't been shy about pointing out that Roger's prime was a very narrow window of his life. And as he looks out across his mother's funeral and sees two ex-wives and a daughter he feels estranged from (or, as he puts it, "a sea of women I've disappointed), its hard for him not to focus on all he's lost, or, put differently, everything he failed to gain along the path of his life. "The Doorway" takes its title from a bleak but wonderful monologue Roger delivers to his therapist about the fact that in youth, each new experience feels like the chance to open a doorway and enter a new room, but as we get older it becomes increasingly clear that life is a series of doorways, and everything on the other side of them is pretty much the same. For an optimist, its easy to say "its not the destination, its the journey," but Roger has grown weary, and its becoming increasingly clear to him that his whole life has basically been a slow march toward his own death. He's picked up a few "pennies" on the way, sure, but he's mostly thoughtlessly discarded them as he moved on to the next thing. He left Sterling Cooper, he left Mona, he left Jane. And now, he realizes he's left everything behind and all that's in front of him is yet another doorway.

I'm not sure there's a better show on television (period, but that's another discussion) at illustrating the way insignificant objects can take on worlds of meaning, can symbolize virtually everything, even if only for a moment, and even if we don't fully understand why. Roger hands his daughter a jar of water. Five minutes earlier, he would have had a quip about its uselessness, five minutes later, he's probably lost the thought at the bottom of another glass. But when she gets up, after shaking him down for money, and leaves behind the jar he gifted her, its hard not to feel a little heartbroken at that sad little jar, out of place in the corner of a couch. And then, of course, there's the shoe shine kit that tears apart Roger's world by reminding him, even for a moment, just how much he has left to lose. Don finds he has switched lighters with a Private serving in Vietnam after he gave the bride away at the man's wedding, and in an instant all that he left behind when he became Don Draper seems closer than it has before. That soldier tells him, wistfully, "One day I'm gonna be a veteran in paradise. One day I'll be the man that can't sleep and talks to strangers." He sounds like he's looking forward to it, but Don's been that man for a very long time, and looking at that lighter gives him a sense he can't shake off that he's lost something along the way. Its no surprise he sends it off the first chance he gets. And Betty finds a violin in a slum house, and knows immediately it means something is gone forever. She takes it from the man who bought it off a little girl whose now long gone, but before she even leaves the house, she realizes that what that violin meant to her is now gone forever. For all of Roger's talk about opening doors and finding the same thing on the other side, each of these objects in some sense represents a door the characters have closed, and one they might wish they'd left even slightly ajar. Mad Men knows a thing or two about the meaning in a closed door (don't believe me? Think how many episodes have ended with a closing door or the camera pulling back through a doorway), and most of its characters spend their lives flinging them shut as they try to escape their past. But every once in a while, its hard not to wonder what life might look like on the other side.

The new tradition (established with last year's "A Little Kiss") of two-hour premieres does wonders for the show. Many of its previous season-openers have had too much exposition to get out of the way to really delve in deep, and the extra run-time is used wonderfully here. Instead of being told how things have changed since we last saw the characters (though there is still some of that, obviously), we mostly have the time to settle back into their world and see the way things work now. Everyone wears the effects of the hippie movement, whether or not they would ever admit to it, and the sideburns and facial hair have all gotten longer. It's (presumably) Christmas-time 1967, and the more things have changed, the more they've stayed the same. Peggy is in her new job, trying her best to be Don Draper, but she has never learned how to be a manager (or at least, how to manage without using strictly cruelty and manipulation, as Don always did), and so while she's got the brilliant ideas, she's also got a serious Scrooge vibe, with her underlings working alongside her on New Year's Eve (I can only assume they are conspiring to ask her for more coal). Betty is still "reducing," and still engaged in the endless war with Sally called "motherhood." And Don Draper is the same as he ever was, with a charming new best friend in the form of a Doctor, and a spot in the man's bed when he's called away. His new paramour (Linda Cardellini) is the one supplying him with the Dante (of course she is), and Megan is too busy becoming a TV star to really notice her husband has shed the skin she's sleeping next to.

"The Doorway" also has a Draper pitch, always a surefire sign we're about to get a heaping helping of theme thrown our way, and that theme, once again and perhaps not surprisingly, is death. Don's pitch to the Sheraton people is vintage Draper, all about mystery, misdirection, and what people really want when they say they want Hawaii...but its also fairly easy to read as a businessman's suicide. The slogan ("Hawaii. The Jumping Off Point") screams suicide, and the image, a man's suit strewn across the beach and footprints leading into the ocean, is evocative mostly because it conjures up the idea of a man throwing everything away and thrusting himself into the sea. It's something that is clearly on Don's mind throughout the episode, as his vacation ease wears off and his standard malaise begins to sink in. Don Draper is nothing if not the man who threw everything away and completely transformed himself, and he's a man who has often taken comfort in the idea that if he needed to, he could do it all again. Standing in his office, looking out at the Manhattan skyline from behind a desk that was rearranged without his permission, he hears the ocean calling to him. And when he drunkenly confronts his doorman about what he saw when he died, briefly, on the floor of the lobby, the question he asks (and likely my favorite line in an episode full of great ones) is "Did you hear the ocean?" Don hates nothing more than feeling anchored, and as time slips away from him, he feels pulled, more and more, to the sea.

There's so much to "The Doorway," and to any episode of Mad Men, really, that I could go on for twice the length I've already expended. We haven't talked about a lot of what happened, plot-wise this evening, and there's plenty of thematic flourishes and excellent asides we've elided over here. Suffice it to say, one of the best shows on television is back on television. My favorite (self-imposed) writing assignment is back before me, and over the course of this season, I promise we'll dig in deep on all the things we touched on tonight, and quite a few more, I imagine. For now, though, there's a doorway in front of us. What's on the other side probably looks a great deal like the room we're standing in right now. But you want to see it anyway, don't you? What's the alternative? There's no going back, and there might be some shiny pennies there to shove in your pocket.

Grade: A-


-I can't start throwing out "A"s all willy nilly this early in the game. If season six has a run of episodes anywhere near as good as the stretch from "Signal 30" to "Lady Lazarus" last year, I'm going to be glad I showed restraint tonight.

-"They offer you R&R in Honolulu, and you think, did anybody realize its the same place?"

-"Would you play it a little?" "I don't know." "Please? It makes me feel so much."

-"Jesus, what's his real name?" "I don't know."

-Hey, Betty, maybe don't joke about raping 15 year olds? K, thanks.

-"People are actually democratic if you give them a chance." "Are you on dope?"

-"Defcon 4 is better than Defcon 3, I've told you that. Defcon 1 is the worst."

-"How was Hawaii?" "Long ago and far away."

-The new office layout is amazing. Also, I would do many of the terrible things Roger has done for a chance to work in his office.

-"Why are we contributing to the trivialization of the word?"-Don Draper doesn't like it when you say you "love" your hamburger. So keep that in mind.

-"Part of me was hoping that head was empty." "Can't resist cutting people open, can you?

-"Talk to Joan. She'll know what to do." She always does...

-"What? What do you want?" "I want you to be yourself." I don't know how this show has gotten away with this trick for as long as it has, but lines like this cut me to the core every time, no matter how often they use them.

-"These are stunning rooms." Bert Cooper, continuing to be the best.

-"God, she is all kinds of trouble, isn't she?" "Everything turns you on, doesn't it?" "Is your mother still alive?" Also, note Don's silence on that front, and when asked many more significant questions tonight. Nothing new there, but he's still our man of mystery.

-"This is MY funeral!"

-"You certainly seem emotional." "Its because I need a drink."

-"Look, lady, I don't want to lay the rap into you, but I am exhausted from telling people like you I haven't seen people like her."

-"If you can't tell the difference between the idea and the execution of the idea, then you're of no use to me."

-"My mother loved me in some completely pointless way and now its gone. And now I know that all I'm going to be doing from now on is losing everything."

-"I think people might think...that he died."

-"Did that make you think of suicide?" "Of course! That's what's so great about it!"

-"You know, we sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? We ignored it."

-"Honestly, Don, the life and death thing? Its never bothered me. Guys like us, that's what we get paid for."

-Don's New Year's Resolution is to end his affair. That's about as likely as him going to the gym every day or ending his love affair with liquor, but the true tragedy is the look on his face that tells us he knows its an empty promise too.

-I have to ask, because no one I was watching with could tell: did the Private end up with Dick Whitman's lighter or with Don Draper's? I don't think its inherently more meaningful if its the former, but I would kind of like to know nevertheless.

-God, its good to be back in this space. Take a stroll with me for the next 12 weeks, will you?
Tags: Mad Men
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