A Dark, Lonely Walk Through The Doorway in The Season Six Premiere of Mad Men
Editor’s Note: What follows is Harlan R. Teller’s belated blog post about Mad Men, Season Six, Episodes One and Two. The author thanks so many of his friends for asking when this would be available. So, due to popular demand, here it is, just in time for the next episode.
The sixties are in full bloom in the season six premiere of Mad Men, and the good news is that thus far we are spared the sight of Don Draper in a leisure suit. The bad news is that our melancholic hero, thinking of death and becoming more dour and contemplative the higher that wife Megan climbs the dubious ladder of soap opera stardom, is back to his philandering ways.
Even worse news is that the woman he chooses to bed is the wife of perhaps the noblest character in the show’s history- a Jewish cardiologist who literally brings the Drapers’ doorman back to life following a heart attack (and who is last seen skiing up a snow-locked New York street in answer to an emergency call after toasting the New Year with the Drapers. As he skis off, Don repairs to the cardiologist’s apartment- and into his wife’s bed. It is perhaps the saddest and disappointing entrance through a doorway in this very appropriately named episode that we viewers have ever experienced. For the first time, we see Don wrestling with his demons even during the course of his betrayal.
But the most surprising news is that the estimable John Slattery’s Roger Sterling character- he of the glib one liners, the multiple wives and lovers and incorrigible manners- has become the emotional core of the show. Slattery is the Hank Aaron of character actors- someone who is so good at what he does that he makes it look not only easy but like he’s not even trying. In a lesser actor’s hands, Roger would have been just a wisecracking foil to our dark and deeply disturbed hero over the past five years. But Slattery (and creator Matthew Weiner) are up to bigger things here, as one of the oldest and potentially most hidebound of MM characters spends a good deal of airtime in this episode chasing his inner demons and trying to make sense of a life that he finds increasingly meaningless.
Don contemplates death while Roger confronts it. Roger’s aged mother, who idolized him, dies, and while her death first looks like an excuse for a sustained Henny Youngman act, he uses her funeral to issue an angry rant, triggered by an unwanted visitor (ex-wife Mona’s amour) and an untimely bout of nausea by an obviously sick (and half in the bag) Don. Roger’s hissy fit masks his deep fear that he really has no feeling whatsoever about his life and the people around him- people who, as Mona points out after Roger makes a half-hearted (and easily rejected) pass at her, all love him, despite knowing better.
Roger’s self reflection, brought on by his dabbling in LSD in Season Five, continues on a psychiatrist’s couch in this episode, featuring a perhaps more interactive Freudian than the loose lipped sourpuss who treated Betty in season one, and one whose primary value to Roger seems to be that he finds our newly self-aware ad man funny. Roger prattles on about walking through doors and over bridges only to find that there is no real destination to life, only more doors and bridges. And to prove it, his mother ups and dies and then, in an exquisite nod to the utter randomness that terrifies him so much, the shoeshine man to whom he has been typically and offhandedly kind to over the years leaves him his shoeshine box after his death. That seems to take the emotional cake for Roger, as he retreats to his office, contemplates the box for a moment and then breaks down in a torrent of tears, obviously more for himself than for the unfortunate donor.
I toyed with calling this posting “Trouble in Paradise”, as the opening scenes are of Don and Megan’s working vacation in Hawaii, featuring a widening emotional gap between a enraptured (and continually toasted) Megan and a distant Don. There’s a certain ominous and almost surreal quality to these scenes that make it clear that something is no longer right in their world, and that his time for being emotionally and sexually dominated by his younger partner—along with his determination to mend his ways for good— is long gone. Megan spends most of her Hawaiian vacation in an alcoholic and drug induced sex coma, pretty much oblivious to Don’s increasing ennui and disinterest. The gap is increasingly generational, as Megan appears to be embracing the liberation of the sixties, while Don still is still a quintessential man of the fifties, taking an offhand hit of an offered joint just to placate his younger and much more “with it” wife.
Perhaps the most intriguing segment of the Hawaii scenes is Don’s encounter with a GI on leave to marry a Mexican girl from San Diego—an encounter taking place at the hotel bar, the type of place that throughout the series has seemed to be Don’s default option for initiating human contact, both male and female. Both the drunken GI and Don discover that they have the same government-issued cigarette lighters, and in homage to the case of mistaken identity through which Dick Whitman became Don Draper, Don somehow ends up with the GI’s lighter instead of his own. As further irony, when asked whether he was married when serving in Korea, Don tells the GI that he wasn’t- although we of course know that the real Don Draper was very married during his ill-fated Korean tour of duty. Don plays impromptu best man for the GI the next morning, leaving his own wife alone all night in their own marital bed- clearly a foreshadowing of many lonely and/or disengaged nights to come.
Walking through another equally gloomy and darkened doorway is Betty, who visits a hovel down in the Soho district in an attempt to retrieve and potentially save the young life of a violinist friend of Sally’s who seems intent on throwing her life away after being rejected by Julliard. Besides being treated to the surprise of the generally self-absorbed Betty taking an active– and potentially dangerous–interest in another human being, the scenes at the dilapidated apartment building take the Aquarian romance out of the sixties, depicting the young rabble in residence there as being feral, frightening and utterly unlikeable. Betty’s violin-less departure resigns her to the child’s fate, and is a heartbreaking moment.
The merging of the personal and professional in the creation of ads has always been a hallmark of Mad Men in general and Don in particular, and for the most part Don’s personal life has been the fuel that has led to his most creative work. In these episodes, what’s most personal is his obsession with death, which, rather than leading to great creative, leads to a truly creepy campaign for a Hawaiian resort that looks more like the advocacy of suicide than an enticement to visiting an island paradise. While most Mad Men clients tend to be depicted as retrograde boors, these clients had very good reason to be horrified.
This time around, it is Peggy who is saddled with who she considers the blockhead client, the ad manager for Koss headphones. He proposes that the way around a problematic tagline is simply to eliminate the tagline and not replace it, destroying the sense of the ad and leaving the reader with essentially a spec sheet describing the product. Peggy, never the one to play the diplomat, is her typical tactless self, leaving no doubt that she thinks the client and his idea are both moronic, and offering up a rather elevated and Draper-like opinion of her own role in making “great ads”. In “Mad Men” land, the account guys are still there to humor the clients and take them out drinking and for other nocturnal activities, while the frustrated creatives are left to barely mask their contempt. It shows that some things haven’t changed with the clothes styles and lengthening sideburns, providing some comforting continuity for those of us discomfited by the darkness of this stylish and stylized set of opening episodes.
What did you think?