Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
—from The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri
To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure I was going to cover Mad Men this season: I’ve been having a lot of trouble keeping up with my schedule lately as it is, and now the capricious Gods of Television Scheduling have seen fit to make sure my three “must-review” shows—Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men—are all running simultaneously in April and May. This is not a full-time gig for me, and three television reviews a week—plus the occasional movie review—is a lot for this moonlighting layman to write.
But here’s the problem: I love this show, and I find I love it even more when I write about it. I was reminded of that here, because I was still undecided about reviewing Season 6 of Mad Men after watching the two-hour premiere. On first viewing, “The Doorway” struck me as a perfectly fine episode—or couple of episodes, if you want to be technical—but fairly unremarkable, and thus a disappointing opening to the season. Certainly, it lacked the world-in-flux exhilaration of last year’s opener, “A Little Kiss.” There we got Negroes in the lobby, kinky sex on the living room floor, and Meghan (Jessica Paré) doing a sexy musical number at a swinging ’60s party: here we get a lot of talk about death, a vermin-infested building, and the men of the office rocking ’70s sideburns and porn staches. It’s hard not to feel we’ve taken a turn for the worse.
But that, of course, is the point of “The Doorway, ” and it wasn’t until I sat down for a second viewing, with pen (or keyboard) in hand, that I realized how smartly constructed this episode is, and how carefully (and wonderfully) Matthew Weiner is managing the trajectory of this show. For Mad Men, as I’ve said before, is long-form storytelling: it is one of the very best examples of how serialized television is uniquely capable of capturing the passage of time in all its resonant complexities. Weiner’s subject is arguably the most turbulent decade in our culture—the one that changed the American consciousness forever, for better and worse—and in each season we can see the subtle and profound changes those years have wrought on our characters. (If you haven’t done it in a while, go back and watch the first episode of Season One: it takes place in a different universe from the one Don Draper [Jon Hamm] occupies now, and many of the characters around him are almost unrecognizable from their current forms.)
Last season began with a party: this season, clearly, we are in a darker place. This episode opens with a point-of-view shot of someone dying: we see a doctor, Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson) frantically performing CPR, and from off-screen we hear the frightened gasps of Meghan. Our natural assumption—and it’s the one that’s intended—is that this is Don who dying, an impression that is reinforced when we flash (forward or backwards, we don’t yet know) to Don reading the opening lines of The Divine Comedy on a beach. “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road,” he reads, “and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” It is, we will discover later, the cusp of 1968, the penultimate year of the 1960s (as this is the penultimate year for Mad Men.) The decade that defined this show, and its culture, is winding to an end; the old order has been shattered, and the future is looking uncertain and kind of depressing. Is it any wonder that some of the characters who epitomized the ’60s in America are also feeling a little down, a little pessimistic, a little as though they are being stalked by time?
Dante’s visit to the underworld was a journey from hot to cold, and so here is Don Draper’s: before he returns to snowy Manhattan, we find him and Meghan in the paradise of Hawaii, and it’s an appropriate place to start. As I’ve pointed out several times before, California has always represented the future for our East Coast-based characters on Mad Men, and, by that logic, going further west means going further into the future: go far enough, and you may glimpse your own death. That’s what happens to Don here, as he meets a younger version of himself in the hotel bar, a soldier named Dinkins (Patrick Mapel) on leave from Vietnam. PFC Dinkins is getting married, and on a whim he asks Don to give away the bride. It’s an instant reminder of generational roles: this kid, fighting the wars and believing in love, is the present now, while Don is an elder looking on: his wars, and his loves, belong to the past. Don may have a hot young wife, but—significantly—she is not there when he meets Dinkins, and she’s not part of the wedding party. Meghan knows nothing about it until she wanders down to look on in amusement as Don gives away the bride: she’s not of an age to be a parent to this man and his wife. “I believe that what goes around comes around,” Dinkins says to Don. “One day I’m going to be a veteran in paradise. One day I’ll be the guy in the hotel bar who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.” Yes, that’s the cycle of life: Don was once a young soldier named Dick Whitman, very much like this kid; now, one day soon, this kid will become Don, and by the time that day comes, Don himself will be dead.
Now, we should remember that the party in “A Little Kiss” was for Don’s 40th birthday, which makes him around 42 as this episode opens. Since he and I are roughly the same age, I feel it necessary to point out that he’s hardly at death’s door. And yet it is natural that he is beginning to grapple with his own mortality, and with the value of his life—especially since he’s lived through a decade that has changed the world around him so fast that he already seems like a dinosaur. Just last season, young men like Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) and Michael (Ben Feldman) seemed like counter-culture freaks in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices: now they wear their hair long and openly smoke pot in the workroom, while the “suits” like Don and Roger (John Slattery) seem woefully out of place and outnumbered. Don’s transformation into Roger, which has been ongoing for several seasons, is more or less complete at this point: he gets drunk in public places and must be escorted home by the next generation, and he is teased by younger men like Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) for taking too many naps. The best, most productive years of his life seem over, and what has he accomplished? “Please don’t compare what I do with what you do,” he says to Dr. Rosen; Rosen saves lives, while Don no longer even saves accounts.
And it’s Roger—the personification of the next step in Don’s life-cycle—who articulates the themes of this episode most directly. Roger, we learn, has not changed at all after his supposedly eye-opening experiences and acid trips last season. (“It wore off,” he said last season, of his supposed enlightenment.) Now he’s still drinking too much, and still not doing much of anything in the office, and still banging 29-year-olds. To his therapist, he complains about the repetitive pointlessness of his existence, and the absence of any real emotion or evolution:
“What are the events in life? It’s like, you see a door. The first time you come to it, you say, ‘Oh, what’s on the other side of the door?’ And then you open a few doors, and then you say, ‘I think I want to go over that bridge this time, I’m tired of doors.’ Finally, you go through one of these things, and you come out the other side, and you realize that’s all there are: doors, and windows, and bridges, and gates, and they all open the same way, and they close behind you. Look, life is supposed to be a path, and you go along, and these things happen to you, and they’re supposed to change you, change your direction. But it turns out that’s not true. It turns out the experiences are nothing; they’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor, and stick in your pocket. And you’re just going in a straight line towards you-know-where.”
You-know-where, of course, is death, and it strikes home almost immediately after with the death of Roger’s mother, an event he interprets as “my last new experience,” the last surprise of his life. “And now I know that all I’m going to be doing from now on is losing everything.” When his ex-wife Mona (Talia Balsam) show up at his mother’s funeral with her new husband—reminding him that she has moved on, and changed, and begun a new life—Roger loses it. “This is my funeral!” he shouts in rage. Later, Mona reminds him of the cycle of life, much as the soldier did for Don: “Don’t you wonder what Margaret will say at your funeral?”
Don and Roger have both been somewhat left behind by the times: of all the characters, it is arguably they who have changed the least, they who most resemble the men they were in Season One. (Don has changed so little that the only thing he can do to ease his existential crisis is sleep with Dr. Rosen’s wife, but he claims—as he did last season—that he wants to change.) For them—for everyone?—growing old is not so much a change, but a standing-still while the world changes around them.
And these themes are echoed throughout the episode. Betty (January Jones) is another person who has never changed at all: her divorcing Don had more to do with an attempt to solidify (with Henry) the stable, 1950s-style existence she always believed was what she wanted. Now her daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is a teen-ager who calls her “Betty” and shuts her out of conversations, and Betty tries to befriend instead Sally’s friend Sandy (Kerris Dorsey). Betty tries to relate to Sandy, and relate her life with Sandy’s, seeing the young girl as a version of herself. (This projection takes some truly uncomfortable turns, as when she imagines Sandy as a surrogate to spice up her dull sex life with Henry. “She’s just in the next room: why don’t you go in there and rape her? I’ll hold her arms down.”)
Betty tries to mentor Sandy—they both had a little talent, and dreamt of going to New York to pursue their dreams—but again, the world has changed. Betty, as a young girl, lived with proper roommates, and went to college, and eventually married a nice young man—a once “normal” life-path that Sandy unequivocally rejects. Sandy, instead, runs off to New York on her own, and ends up selling her violin to homeless kids squatting in a derelict building. Betty was once the epitome of the American dream—the proper, perfect blonde housewife with the picket fence, which is what every little girl aspired to be—but now she is no one’s role model, completely rejected by the next generation. (The only change she can manage is to dye her hair black, a move that Henry [Christopher Stanley] instantly equates with another outdated idealization of womanhood, Elizabeth Taylor: every one of Betty’s moves towards a new identity is just a lateral step into cliché.)
Even the youngest characters from the first seasons of Mad Men are now seeing the kids come up behind them. Pete, of course, has basically moved up to a level that Don and Roger used to occupy, and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) has to deal with hungry, sycophantic young account man Bob Benson (James Wolk) who is maneuvering himself—clumsily—for advancement.
And then there’s Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), who spent the first half of last season being the de facto Creative Director of SCDP, and the second half breaking away. Now, ensconced at the rival firm of Cutler, Gleeson and Chaough, she has truly become Don Draper: she is the genius who can salvage a last minute triumph from a crisis, and she terrifies the younger copywriters without even knowing it. “I know what you’re doing,” she says to the kids who work for her. “I’ve been you.” Just two seasons ago it was Don keeping Peggy working—unnecessarily—on her birthday in “The Suitcase”; now she’s the one keeping her copywriters working on New Year’s Eve, even after she’s already come up with the idea they need. “Oh, they know they can go,” she says to Teddy Chaough (Kevin Rahm). “No, they don’t,” Teddy tells her.
One of the major subjects of Mad Men is the accelerated passage of time that occurred during the 1960s—the radical transformation of an entire society’s structures, laws, and mores that was happening faster than anyone could keep up with. (“Time feels like it’s speeding up,” one character said, last season.) Season Five of Mad Men found many of our characters trying to keep up with the times, or—failing that—at least trying to pretend it didn’t bother them. (“I’m forty,” Don said, in “A Little Kiss.” “It’s too late.”) Here, Roger reminds Don that they all used to be better at pretending time would never catch up with them. “We sold death for 25 years with Lucky Strike,” Roger says. “You know how we did it? We ignored it.”
But they can’t ignore it any longer. For Roger, it comes home, finally, in the form of a shoeshine box, sent to him after his longtime shoeshine guy passed away. (“His family sent over his shoeshine kit because you were the only one who called about him.”) Roger hasn’t wept for his own mother, but this sad legacy of a life lived and unremarked—and this symbol of an era passing—finally breaks Roger down.
For Don, death is creeping in around the edges of his consciousness, to the point where he blurts out drunken questions about near-death experiences to Jonesy (Ray Abruzzo), the doorman who had the heart attack. (Get it? Doorman? The Doorway?) “Jonesy, what did you see…Was it like hot tropical sunshine? Did you hear the ocean?” Hawaii has become a symbol to Don, a symbol of the change he longs for, the escape from himself that may come only with death: he doesn’t even realize that his pitch to sell the benefits of a Hawaiian vacation reads like an ad for suicide. The man born as Dick Whitman had to die once to escape who he was, and now—as the world has changed unrecognizably around him, making him more obsolete by the second—the carefully constructed persona he created just feels like another stagnant, stifling identity he longs to shed and leave behind.