“You know, we sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? By ignoring it.”
This particular line encapsulates the themes covered not only in the season six premiere of Mad Men but also in the series as a whole. As the period drama returns to its penultimate season we have reached the year 1968, a time when the previously benign attempts at social revolution had reached a fever pitch. The characters we’ve followed since 1960 have grown older, seeing the world they once owned slip from their fingertips before they even knew it. Season Five was largely about what it means to grow older and facing the latter half of your life, especially for the male characters, and this theme has continued into “The Doorway”, a two-hour masterstroke that sees Don, Betty and Roger facing an era that may not be suited for them.
Tackling the theme of death head on, the episode begins with a POV shot of a man lying on the ground, a shrieking Megan hovering over him in panic. We cut directly to Don on a beach in Hawaii reading from Dante’s The Inferno, quoting a passage in voiceover: “Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” He is with Megan, whose free-spirited nature indicates that she is having the time of her life. Don smirks repeatedly through these scenes, enough to keep up appearances, enough to not lead Megan to ask him what’s wrong. Even if she did, though, I don’t think he would know how to answer that question with any sort of truth. Later, when he returns to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce he is repeatedly asked about the trip and how it made him feel, to which Don either evades the question or explains that the experience was unexplainable. His outlook on life and towards his work has subtly shifted over the years to a more jaded, cynical man who can no longer deny the fact that he’s getting old. His rant about the word “love” not having the same power it used to have and his pitch to clients about stripping away business clothes and embracing the ocean wholeheartedly indicate his growing frustration about the changing winds of society. He longs for the days when old-fashioned values used to mean something, a time when he felt fully capable of loving another person. Now he looks at Megan and sees a bright young girl but he doesn’t understand her. She’s part of the new age, and Don is more than ready to take himself out of a world he no longer owns or understands. His drunken embarrassment at Roger’s mother’s funeral just shows how out-of-place and bitter he is. His time is rapidly running out, so its no surprise to see him go back to his old ways yet again at the end of the episode (Hi Linda Cardellini!).
Roger is of a very similar mindset to Don in this episode, as judged by his musings at his therapy sessions. He lays out an extended metaphor about how he always thought that life was a series of doors and bridges that are ostensibly supposed to change who you are, preferably for the better. In reality, those doors close behind you without making any difference and you just continue moving in a straight line. Roger is who he is, and he has come to terms with his flaws and with his outlook on life. When he receives word that his mother has died, he is almost viciously clinical in his show of grief (or lack thereof). When things start to go awry at the funeral procession he desperately cries out “THIS IS MY FUNERAL!”, and in many ways he’s right. Despite what his older relatives may tell him, he’s not getting any younger and the things he did in those days are no longer acceptable. For one, his flirting with first wife Mona is pitifully laughable, a similar attempt to Don’s return to infidelity. His suave exterior finally gives way at the end of the episode as he breaks down in his office, which could very well be the first of many we see this season.
Betty starts off this season by getting pulled over by a cop for reckless driving. Much like this incident, her priorities and actions over the course of this episode are scattershot and without consistent reasoning. She takes in a girl Sally’s age named Sandy, a talented violinist who hopes to gain acceptance into Julliard. When Sandy runs away, Betty runs off to find her in New York and stumbles upon stragglers and drug addicts who claim they she sold her violin to them and took off. They severely judge her, Betty, for her rich lifestyle and returns at the end of the episode with her hair dyed “Elizabeth Taylor-brown”. Weiner and company have had trouble integrating Betty into the show over the past few years but ironically enough this feels like a step in the right direction. Rather than focusing on her struggle with her “getting fat then thinking it was cancer then it turns out she was just fat” from Season Five, we have her struggling to find satisfaction by hanging around cosmopolitan girls like Sandy in a desire to maintain her relevancy as a person. Like Don and Roger, she too is about to face the twilight of her years and her changing her hair color is a regression back to the little girl who wanted attention over all else.
I’m intrigued that Weiner and company chose to fit Peggy’s storyline into this episode, especially since it covered clashing themes. She tries to do damage control for a headphones client after a comedian makes a joke about the Vietcong on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson that essentially uses the same catchphrase “Lend Me Your Ears”. The Peggy we see in this episode, a confident bordering on arrogant city woman, is completely different from the mousy young secretary we were introduced to in Season One. She knows she’s damn good at her job and has no qualms about bossing the men in her office around. Peggy has revealed herself to be the rightful heir to Don Draper, and many people have predicted that the series will end with Don out of work and Peggy as the new boss at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She has a real swagger now that we haven’t seen before and I’m excited to see her reach new heights.
This was a very strong, if somber, premiere episode that showed three of its main characters how quickly they are expiring. With each silent scream of desperation, each grumbled waxing nostalgic and each lonely cry for attention, the characters we’ve followed through America’s most influential decade are seeing their lives change in ways they don’t like or understand. They may force a change upon themselves with each doorway they pass through but more often then not they’re just pocketing life experiences like pennies on the ground.
MVP: John Slattery