Warning: This Review May Contain Spoilers
Mad Men, like all great art, likes to subvert expectations. Last season’s finale, which kept all of its loose ends gleefully flowing in the wind, ended on something of a cliffhanger. Will Don Draper revert back to his old ways? Is he, as the blonde woman asks, “alone”?
Many believed the first shot of the new season would show Don in the arms of another woman, breaking his good (for him) track record with his new wife, Megan. However, season six has begun on a very different note. With a point-of-view shot from the perspective of a dying doorman, watching helplessly as a doctor tries to save him. The image lasts for only a moment, with Don himself reading aloud from Dante’s Inferno, and the man taking slow, deliberate breaths.
Dissolve to Don and Megan, still happily married, vacationing in Hawaii. It’s a shocking step back into the world of Mad Men, and it’s an instant reminder of what the show has always been–an ambitious, unpredictable drama unlike anything else on television.
Aside from the voice-over, Don doesn’t speak for the first ten minutes of the premiere. Megan buys some marijuana and insists that Don smoke with her. A stranger at a bar asks Don several questions without any response, only eliciting the word “Army” after showing Don his matching government-issued Zippo (more on that later). Don is working on autopilot, but that’s not what’s alarming about the scenes. What’s alarming about the scenes is that nobody seems to notice that Don is totally disengaged. Something is clearly wrong with Don, but Megan either doesn’t see it, or she isn’t talking about it.
Death and Disconnection
On the surface, everybody seems happy enough, but there’s a definite feeling of dread and unease leftover from season five. There’s also a continuing obsession with death and decay.
Not only is the first shot of the episode the point-of-view of a man having a heart attack on the floor, but Roger Sterling also loses his mother. Yet, in keeping with the theme of disengagement, Sterling feels nothing at all when he hears the news. He is more troubled by his lack of emotions than he is by the death of his mother.
Perhaps, like Don, it is Roger’s narcissism that keeps him from emotionally engaging. At the funeral, when Sterling’s ex-wife brings her new husband to the wake, Sterling screams that the man should leave “[his] funeral” because nobody likes him, only to stomp up the stairs and slam the door like a teenager. Like everything else, Sterling makes the occasion all about him, thereby removing the need to think about his mother, or the fact that he is now the oldest member of his immediate family.
Peggy, working at a new agency, spends most of the episode trying to resolve a situation surrounding a commercial that, through cultural context, has become offensive since it was shot. In working around this problem, writer Matthew Weiner makes it clear that Peggy, over a short time, has become a powerful force to be reckoned with. She’s not unlike Don Draper in his prime: confident, savvy, arrogant, and a little rude. She gets what she wants, and she often cares very little for the feelings of those beneath her. It’s amazing how much she’s changed and how gradually Weiner has written her arc.
Reversals and Reflections
While disconnection and emotional emptiness are certainly themes for Mad Men as a whole, “The Doorway” was more acutely focused on reversals and reflections, going all the way back to the opening shot.
Mad Men has always been a story told from the perspective of Don Draper, but this episode opens from the eyes of a stranger, staring at Don as he passes away. It’s a jarring reversal that forces us to pay attention not only to Don, but to how we’re experiencing Don.
This scene is followed by Don and the soldier meeting at a bar and bonding over their government-issued Zippo lighters. Don’s lighter, belonging to the real Donald Draper, a Lieutenant, reflects his new identity, whereas the other soldier’s lighter, Private, First Class, reflects Dick Whitman. And, wouldn’t you know it, Don ends up with the wrong lighter, discovering it as a photographer asks Don to “show [him] the real man.” Too on-the-nose? Maybe. But also very revealing when it comes to Don’s constant fear of being discovered.
Megan has landed a supporting role in an unnamed soap opera since we left off, and, of all things, she’s playing a maid harboring a dark secret. It’s an interesting development, as Megan spent most of last season wallowing in the apartment, depressed at the thought of being a maid for the rest of her life. It’s also an interesting call-back to Betty, as she was essentially the character that Megan is now playing on TV. It’s a brilliant bit of writing that will hopefully be developed over the course of the season.
Speaking of Betty, her role was significantly boosted in this episode (and hopefully the whole season), and her story ended up being the most fascinating of them all. In last year’s finale, Betty had a very sweet moment with Sally, and it seemed that there was some humanity in there after all. “The Doorway” continued this arc with Betty looking for one of Sally’s friends, who ran away from home and (maybe) ran away to Greenwich Village, which is now overrun with vagrants. Most of her screen time is spent with homeless twenty-somethings who are squatting in a dilapidated brownstone and pontificating about “the establishment,” only to give Betty a series of rules that they live by. Seeing Betty hold her own against them was one of the best parts of the episode. Betty’s actions in the episode seem more appropriate of Megan, who is younger and more hip to social issues. To make the reversal even more apparent, Betty changes her hair style to almost exactly match Megan’s, making the reflection even more apparent.
The reflections don’t end there (Roger ends up mourning for his shoe-shine salesman instead of his mother; Ken Cosgrove embodies Pete Campbell when chewing out the new account manager), as there are perhaps too many to mention, but suffice to say that this will be one of the major themes of season six, as the promotional poster features two Don Drapers walking in separate directions. Which one is the real Don Draper? Does it matter?
“The Doorway” was, much like this review, a little overlong and a little rambling, but it was packed with superb and surprising details, and it has paved the way for an excellent season to follow it.