Mad Men season premiere recap: Death Takes a Holiday
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).” – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
It’s a bit of a downer of an epigraph, but those are the opening lines of Nabokov’s memoir, which was released in its final version in 1967, the year we join Don and Megan Draper at the start of Mad Men‘s sixth season premiere. We first see them basking on a beach on their tropical Hawaiian vacation, but all that sun doesn’t make the mood any less dark.
This was quite the morbid episode. Everyone appeared to be contemplating either their own personal quietus or someone else’s. Mad Men has dealt with mortality in the past both directly — in the deaths of Lane, Anna, Pete Campbell’s father, Grandpa Gene, and Mrs. Blankenship, among others — and obliquely with its museum storeroom of thematic subtext, visual metaphor, and motifs. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you gaze long into the elevator shaft, the elevator shaft also gazes into you. (And anyone who watched L.A. Law can attest that an elevator shaft is a potent symbol for death in TV drama.) Season 5 was larded with premonitions and memento mori. The grim reaper seemed to be hanging out in the corridors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, killing nothing but time, scythe over his shoulder and a tumbler of scotch in his bony hand. It was clear early in the season, though, that someone’s secretary had scheduled them for an appointment in Samarra. That person turned out to be the office Charlie Brown, poor bemused Lane.
With the double-length “The Doorway,” Matthew Weiner also doubles down on the death. It’s everywhere: The episode begins with a scream and a point-of-view shot from someone having a heart attack. That near-death experience belongs, we learn, to the Drapers’ doorman, who collapses one evening just like turning off a light switch. He’s ultimately spared but Roger’s mother isn’t so lucky, hitting a less surprising death at age 91. In Hawaii, Don engages a GI in a conversation burdened by the knowledge that the young man may not be making it back to his new wife, and he returns from the vacation with a pitch practically draped in a funereal shawl: the powerful image of an abandoned set of clothes on the shore and footprints heading into the sea, a concept too death-obsessed for the good folks at Sheraton Hotels. Finally, Roger’s shoe-shine man kicks the bucket he’d been sitting on, bequeathing Roger his kit and finally creaking open the emotional valve in the charming bastard’s heart. Death is omnipresent, even among the bright colors and burning Tiki torches of Hawaii. There’s a thick black thread running through this episode’s tapestry.
That Nabokov quote implies that existence is palindromic, a glint of life sandwiched in between two chasms of oblivion. For all intents and purposes, the entrance is the same as the exit and, in Hawaiian terms, you can say “aloha” regardless of whether you’re coming or going. There’s a lot of symmetry to Mad Men: This episode’s grand reveal of Don sleeping with Arnold Rosen’s wife felt like a mirror to the series premiere’s sly surprise of Don returning to the heretofore unseen Betty after beginning the day with an affair. Was there ever any chance of quelling Don’s restlessness?
NEXT: The Drapers get lei’d…
The book Don reads while lounging at the Royal Hawaiian — lent to him, it turns out, by Mrs. Rosen (played by former freak Linda Cardellini) — is itself notably symmetrical. Dante’s Divine Comedy is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, with the rising spires of heaven echoing the sunken malebolges of the underworld. Don is reading the first book, but which one is he currently living? The closest we’ve seen him to a descent into hell is his fourth season bouts with alcoholism and depression, and this certainly isn’t as bad as that. (Unless this is only the beginning of a new katabasis, a further fall. Maybe all the show’s rampant sinners will start facing their own contrapasso. Roger certainly is starting to.) It isn’t paradise either, though, despite the edenic setting. Something unpleasant is tugging on Don’s sleeve even if he doesn’t seem fully aware of what it is. So that leaves us with purgatory, which I really think is the best bet.
Don’s life is in stasis. His watch has stopped. If Hawaii is perfect, then it’s too perfect. He certainly seems happy with Megan, although, as he told Dow Chemical last season, happiness is only a moment before you need more happiness. Here, he describes his island time in pretty purgatorial terms: “The air, the water are all the same temperature as your body.” That’s not a vacation, that’s suspended animation.
Hawaii has a long history with television, as far back as Brady Bunch specials and the original Hawaii Five-O. But one Hawaii-based show in particular comes to mind in relation to Mad Men, especially after all this purgatory talk: Lost. Matt Zoller Seitz traces the surprising connections between the two series in this piece, and he’s right that fans tend to treat the shows in similar ways. But where Lost was about tracking down narrative Easter eggs and trying to connect the dots with plot lines, Mad Men is like a Where’s Waldo for thematic content. It’s the kind of show where every line of dialogue seems to be carrying six times its weight, and lingered stares transfer truckloads of meaning. Weiner is just as spoiler-obsessed as Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse ever were, even though the questions he hopes to avoid answering tend to be more “Why?” than “What?”
So appropriately, not much technically happens in this two-hour premiere, at least not on the surface. “It’s like a movie,” one of the Sheraton guys exclaims upon seeing Don’s transmigratory mock-up, referring specifically to James Mason’s drowning death in A Star is Born. Weiner hopes viewers will have the same reaction to this episode. He’s said he wants the audience to treat the premiere like a feature film and not two episodes stuck together with Scotch tape. It’s not really eventful enough to truly feel like a movie, of course, but everything looks just as cinematic as it always has. I don’t know whether it’s a question of changing times, and loosening ties, but the visuals of this season’s premiere seemed to me especially vivid. The office has more color than it’s ever had, and some of the tableaux in Hawaii were pure Sirkian eye candy.
Don returns home from his vacation in time for Christmas. Megan’s career is taking off with a role on To Have and to Hold as Corinne the murderous maid. She even gets stopped for an autograph in Hawaii by an older woman who recognizes her from the show and insists her niece is an enormous fan. Don, on the other hand, has an encounter that’s more shaking than esteem-building: a late-night whiskey-soaked chat with the soused Private Dinkins. The exchange is both amusing and more than a little upsetting. Upon learning Dinkins, on leave, is to be married in a few hours, Don offers to buy the slurring grunt another drink, which probably isn’t the best possible thing for the man at this point in time. After a discussion in which Dinkins admits he hopes to live long enough to become like Don, “the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers,” Don ends up getting talked into giving away the bride while Megan laughs and takes a picture for posterity.
It’s all just stuff for a story you’d tell at, say, a fondue party, but Don can’t seem to shake the “experience,” as he calls it. It follows him around like a balloon tied to his belt loop, not unlike Roger’s post-LSD “enlightenment” from last season. The audio cuts out and we hear the ocean as he stares out of his office window, like an ad for Corona. He has Dinkins’ lighter, engraved with the Niebuhr-esque (and Jagger-esque) maxim “In life we often have to do things that just are not our bag.” It’s a truism you would think Don would know, but really, when has he ever stuck with something that he didn’t want to stick with? When has he made a decision that was better for someone else, even if it was worse for him?
He tries to ditch the lighter, but it keeps showing up like a bad penny. He’s been startled by something. He drinks too much and ends up vomiting in an umbrella stand at Roger’s mother’s funeral in the middle of a rambling eulogy from a crazy aunt. Roger sums it up hilariously (as usual) a couple scenes later when he tells Mona, “He was just saying what everybody else was thinking.” It’s an especially bad insult on Don’s part because apparently Sterling’s mère wasn’t a fan of libations. Maybe she was a Temperance rabble-rouser in her day, who knows? That’s amusing to hear considering her son has ended up downing more vodka on a given workday than Boris Yeltsin on his birthday.
NEXT: Roger Sterling’s latest mid-life crisis and Betty’s adventures in Bohemia…
Roger was probably the most desperate character this week. We see him in therapy, which is a perfect place for him: He can blab on and on, talking to no one but himself, and pretend that he’s getting to the root of things. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more shrinks on the show, considering Weiner’s previous writer’s room. Sigmund Freud is to his nephew Edward Bernays as The Sopranos is to Mad Men. But Roger is the opposite of Tony Soprano when he gets in the chair. Rather than withhold his emotions, he just pushes outward, deflecting as he’s always done with jokes and inexhaustible charisma. He mugs and exasperates, “Oh God, Doc, what is it all about!” before going into a Foghorn Leghorn impression, perfect for the ever-preening Roger, whose white coif has always kind of resembled a coxcomb.
He eventually goes into a speech about how life is only a series of thresholds (doors, windows, bridges, gates) that lead to more thresholds. Everyone always takes the saying “When God closes a door, He opens a window” to be heartening advice, but Roger gets at the uneasy premise underlying that: Why are we going through these doors? What makes us want to escape the room that we’re in? What’s the ultimate end point and will these accumulated experiences mean something when we finally get there? Roger seems to think that all his experiences have just rolled off his back like water off a well-tailored duck. He’s finally trying to assess his life truthfully, not self-aggrandizingly like with Sterling’s Gold, but he’s not one taken to sober reflection. Heck, he’s not one taken to sober anything. Maybe he just needs to get some acid and go on another trip downstream. On the other hand, what’s the point of going through the same door twice?
Roger is also worrying that he can’t feel anything anymore, and not even necessarily because of the couple of drinks he always has in him. He can’t even bring himself to mourn his mother’s death, comforting his secretary instead of vice versa and flirting with the blue hairs at the funeral. The service takes place in the Sterling estate, a Versailles that has taken on the air of a mausoleum. Roger, ever self-absorbed, starts feeling a bit like Tom Sawyer, as if this is his big send-off and not his mother’s. He even yells, “This is my funeral!” before storming out. Mona tries to assuage Roger’s pained but prideful heart. Roger was close with his mother and always seemed the kind of man, despite his sexism and despite how he’s treated many of his female companions, who draws strength and resolve from the women around him. Here Roger, of course, ruins the moment by propositioning Mona, who delivers the line “Soothe yourself” as exactly the hilarious riposte it’s meant to be. His daughter too rejects him and his too-little-too-late effort to connect with her. She’s more interested in the flow of cash — it’s for investing in refrigerated transport, not a terrible idea — than the flow of the River Jordan. She leaves behind the symbolic jar he’d given her once she has what she needs.
Roger doesn’t see the value in acquiring new experiences, while Sandy most certainly does. Sally’s friend didn’t get into Julliard, but she seems to be more interested in matriculating to the School of Hard Knocks anyway. In a late-night gab session, she admits to Betty that she wants to put a penny on her life-path and derail the train, hoping to run off to the city and never look back. Betty forges a tenuous connection with her, having lived as a quasi-bohemian herself in her model days before Don met her. This is possibly one of the most sympathetic subplots the former Mrs. Draper has gotten on the show. She barely even flashed her fangs once — except for that wacko aggressive rape joke she made while smiling psychotically — and while she may seem to have a lot more motherly instinct for this random girl than her own flesh-and-blood daughter, it’s still nice to see her being protective of someone.
She visits a house full of communistic itinerants in her search for the disappeared violinist, and both sides are simultaneously repelled and fascinated by each other’s lives. (Betty: “Is marijuana expensive?”; Boho Hobo Making Goulash: “Do I have to stir it again?”) But they are basically un-“grok”-able to each other, to borrow the Heinlein reference. When the head of the vagrant household — like the Rat King of the Nutcracker suite Betty watched — comes back to the building and harasses her, she eventually realizes she’s a stranger in a strange land and lets go of finding Sandy, instead returning to her own home, one with running water and plentiful chicken salad. This house represents the path she chose for herself a long, long time ago. And with everyone else obsessed with dying, Betty decides to just go with dyeing, coming home with Elizabeth Taylor-esque brown hair, presumably because of an offhand comment from the Rat King calling her “bottled.” Last season saw the arrival of Fat Betty, and this year we’re graced by the presence of Brown Betty.
NEXT: Peggy Olsen: Crisis Management and sideburns, sideburns, sideburns…
Peggy seems to be the only one genuinely doing well this season, and when Peggy does well, I do well. Her character arc throughout the entirety of the series has been a steady ascent: from secretary to copywriter to head of her own department. She’s in her element here, upbraiding her underlings for shoddy work — echoing the sentiments of her mentor Don about the difference between a slogan and an idea, and even using some of his old tricks to break up her mental roadblocks.
A stand-up on Johnny Carson does a bit about the gruesome trophies taken by soldiers in Vietnam and it ruins her Super Bowl spot for headphones. But as Ted Chaough reassures her, she’s good in a crisis, and she turns these lemons into some damn fine lemonade. In an industry where you’re only as good as your last idea, it’s easy to get worried that your last idea was actually your last idea ever. This is where Peggy realizes that she’s good enough not to let that particular fear eat at her too much — that if she opens herself up to it, the idea will inevitably come. There’s a reason why Chaough hired her, and it’s not just to twist the knife in Don.
Everyone else seems to be doing just about the same, give or take a few inches of sideburns. A new up-and-comer Bob Benson arrives and displays some genial gall, cornering Don in an elevator with a couple of coffees in those classic Anthora cups and then tactlessly sending a spread over to Sterling’s mother’s funeral, an act that flapped the usually unflappable Ken Cosgrove. Ken later sees Benson sitting out in the open, fishing for people to impress, and balks at his naked ambition, ordering him to go back to his office.
In the creative department, there are a few new faces in the copywriting pool and a few new facial features on some of the old faces: Stan has grown a beard, and Ginsburg has a mustache and scraggly hair that makes him look like a cross between Edgar Allen Poe and Harpo Marx. Don catches them smoking a joint when he returns, calling them out with the line, “I smell creativity.”
Don seems to have a good relationship with his team even in Peggy’s absence, although he dislikes some of their recent work and gives them a great impassioned speech about the dangers of trivializing the word “love.” Coming from Don, it’s a bit rich, like Newt Gingrich talking about “the sacred bond of marriage.” Especially when his motivational jeremiad — “What’s the difference between a husband knocking on the door and a sailor getting off a ship? About 10,000 volts.” — is interrupted by the visit of Dr. Rosen, whose wife Don will be bedding by the end of the episode.
Rosen’s presence is another of the episode’s reminders of the slender line between life and death. He’s a surgeon who hold’s people’s futures in his well-trained hands every day. “Please don’t compare what I do to what you do,” Don entreats him, but later in the episode, as the doctor is getting ready to cross-country ski his way to the hospital to save or lose yet another patient, he tells Don that their occupations are actually rather similar. “You get paid to think about things they don’t want to think about, and I get paid not to think about them,” Rosen says, certainly not thinking about the fact that Don will soon be up in bed with his own wife while he shuffles down a Manhattan avenue under the cold glow of streetlights. It’s the first day of the new year and both of them are already up to their same old habits: One on his way to a job he can’t turn his back on for a second, the other philandering and looking for his newest and latest shot of happiness. Don makes the resolution to put a stop to the affair, but you wonder how long that will actually last.
When Don was brought back to his apartment after the funeral incident, he drunkenly demanded his doorman tell him the details of his near-death experience. He wants to know, he needs to know: Is it a bright light? A tunnel? Can you see the Pearly Gates? After all this time and effort, is it just another door to walk through?
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Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama