The mark of the modern cable drama seems to be the cynical worldview. The Walking Dead teaches us, “You kill or you die, or you die and you kill. Game of Thrones warns us that “Winter is coming” (which even for the skiing enthusiast sounds awfully ominous). And Breaking Bad shows that inside every man is a monster. To me, the most devastating outlook belongs to Mad Men. It’s mantra was most succinctly said by Don Draper in last season’s “Commissions and Fees”— “Happiness is just the moment before you need more happiness.” And it only got more grim as we ushered in 1968 and the penultimate season of the series (according to showrunner Matthew Weiner who intends to wrap up in seven seasons).
This episode dripped with death. Between the opening, where a man performed CPR as Megan shrieked in the background, and then the cut to a shining, flat stomach (belonging also to Mrs. Draper) as Don read a passage from Dante’s The Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road to find myself alone in a dark wood.” Then we see our narrator lounging on a beach in Hawaii, and Megan pops into view in her barely-there bikini. Even in paradise, Don Draper is in hell.
Mad Men has become a fast classic for many reasons. Phenomenal acting, gorgeous writing, and a keen eye for the sixties ethos. But what solidifies its greatness for me is the lasting images. When Don looked down the elevator shaft just as he was about to chase Megan after leaving the firm, that haunted me for a long time. When the five partners stood looking out at the view from their new second floor, it was a powerful picture. What did they all see looking out before them? The future? Or another long way down?
“The Doorway” showed us more arresting sights that would serve as striking symbols for how these characters see the world. Don views doors as somewhere to run away. Roger views doors as another step toward the end. Megan sees a door as a new opportunity. Peggy sees a door as the boundary of her sanctuary: the office. Betty sees a door as a way of time traveling, as a means to protect the girl she once was from walking through too many doors to the point where she can’t turn back. How I see the door, for every one of them, is a way out , an escape hatch. All of these rich, complex people really are all searching for one, simple thing, but they’re terrified that they won’t find it before time runs out. As I mentioned already, death is knocking on the doorway. And like in Mad Men’s spiritual cousin, The Sopranos, the signs are everywhere.
Don spends these two hours trying to feel comfortable in his own skin. You see, he’s constantly shedding his old skin, that of Dick Whitman. And there are days the Don Draper skin fits like his finely tailored suits. And there’s vacations in Hawaii where he encounters a private a few hours before his wedding at the bar. He’s so frightened. Whether it’s marriage or going back to war that petrifies him more is unclear, but what he does confess is, “One day I’m gonna be the veteran in paradise. One day I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.” Don identifies with his need to be someone new so much, he accepts PFC Dinkins offer to give away the bride. But later, the encounter will only shatter his illusion of identity when he sees that they accidentally switched lighters. His only connection to who he once was is now lost (I say this with one caveat. It isn’t clear whether his lighter is the original Don Draper’s or Dick Whitman’s, the one the ignited the explosion killing Don the Former). So then who is Don/Dick? Is he a man who came from nothing and built himself into something? Or is he still nobody?
In the world of Betty Francis, she’s pulled over by a cop for reckless driving. Henry’s mother tries to name-drop her son, who works for Mayor Lindsey, but to no avail. She whines, “I can’t imagine this night getting any darker than this” and Sally’s friend Sandy says, “My mom’s dead.” See! Even the humor is morbid. This same girl plays the violin for Henry, Bobby and little Gene and they are all clearly captivated by this prodigy who apparently has been accepted into Juilliard.
The soothing music melds into the next scene where we get the full story on who was being resuscitated. Turns out it was Jonesy, the doorman. His savior was Arnold Rosen, a surgeon and neighbor of Don’s. Don relives this moment when Jonesy greets them after their vacation.
At the Francis household, Betty teases Henry about his enjoyment of Sandy’s playing. She goes quite blue suggesting he just go in the next room and rape the teenage girl while she, Betty, holds her arms down. She says she’s only trying to spice things up, but my takeaway is that the suburbs just continue to desensitize Betty, who is still heavy. Perhaps the only feeling she has left is her hunger. But this is proven wrong when we see her sympathy for Sandy.
She stumbles upon the girl in the kitchen and she confesses to Betty she didn’t get accepted to Juilliard. When Betty assures her she can try again, she won’t hear it. She’s distraught over her mother’s death still and just wants to break from the path she laid before her, similar to Betty’s. Sandy remembers how her mom wore a girdle that gave her stomachaches. She never understood why she withstood the pain just to make her father happy. She’s even bold enough to assert to Betty that she should be who she is, forget her size, because she’s beautiful. Sandy’s very preoccupied with this concept of natural beauty. She tells of a trip to The Village where she witnessed people “just living, and it was beautiful.” The show often goes to this well of privilege being a trap for our own self-actualization, and it’s further explored with Roger, later. I’ve never been Betty’s biggest fan, but this conversation was enlightening. As always, Betty is projecting her own feelings, and nothing she does is selfless, but witnessing her reflect on the girl she was through Sandy was refreshing and better than anything substance she was granted last season.
I quickly realized the character I missed most was Peggy. She’s still sticking it out with Abe, who was the first to show off his groovy facial hair. Turns out Burt Peterson, former Sterling Cooper account man is at CGC with Peggy and he calls her late to tell her that on Carson, a comedian made a grotesque joke about soliders wearing Viet Cong ears on a necklace and that it might mean an overhaul on their Koss headphones Super Bowl ad, “Lend Me Your Ears.” Watching Peggy do damage control was thrilling. It was infused with hilarity—her convo with a pastor while trying to reach her boss Teddy Chaough took many diversions including her Catholicism, her heritage and who she’s picking for the Super Bowl—and triumph when Teddy Chaough recognizes her crisis management. She definitely adopted Don’s style of delegation evidenced by her harsh dressing-down of her workers, “If you don’t know the difference between the idea and the execution of an idea, I have no use for you.” She is the sole success story, the one who seems to be embracing the changing times instead of filling with dread.
Roger’s journey over the two hours is a doozey. He’s now seeing a shrink who won’t laugh at all his jokes because he wants to see what that joking covers up. This is where Roger delivers his thesis about doors—there’s nothing on the other side but more doors. He equates his experiences to pennies that he has picked off the floor while walking a straight line to You Know Where. The End is clearly on the minds of the creative minds of Mad Men and it almost makes you wonder. What will Mad Men amount to in the end. Will we be changed? Or will we be the same person we were before we walked in the door to this fictional universe? And when we walk out, will we have found what we were looking for?
Back at the office, one among many notable guest star faces is James Wolk as Bob Benson, a new accounts man. Wolk was the lead of the tragically cancelled LoneStar. Stan and Ginsberg are both sporting some scruff as well, while Harry and Pete have gone the epic sideburn route. Don finds his office rearranged for the photographer, and he can only look out the window as the sound of the ocean swims in his ears. He left more than a lighter back in Hawaii.
It shows when he talks to two new members of his creative team who went unnamed. One upside, they landed Dow Chemical in the time away, so the rabid speech he gave Ken’s father-in-law evidently left an impression. But he’s unimpressed with their copy about oven cleaner that centers on love. Don bemoans the trivializing of the word which he believes evokes more electricity than domesticity. He asks, “What’s the difference between a husband knocking on a door and a sailor getting off a ship? About 10,00 volts.” First of all, dynamite line. I bow before these writers. It’s also eye-opening because it comments his own complacency, and his need to assume a role instead of wholly being somebody in order to feel passion is depressing to say the least. He leads a life where he’s performing more than his actress wife (I hope that subtlety wasn’t lost on you.) But then he sees Dr. Rosen listening in and all he can say is, “These are great.” Don Draper and his search for satisfaction soldiers on, captured on film as the cameraman instructs him to “be himself.” And Don stares off, dumbfounded, holding his Inception-like totem that grounds him in his reality, discovering that it isn’t his at all. Like his extravagant vacation where he dined on replicas of royal cuisine, it was only a likeness of “the real thing” that eludes him.
Sad clown Roger Sterling is sweet-talking his latest pretty young thing when his secretary Caroline walks in crying. She blubbers that his mom has passed away, breaking down as Roger stands there numbed. Caroline mourns, “She was so polite to me, when she could hear me.” Roger’s reaction to the loss isn’t clear until the funeral itself. He arranges the whole shindig in his mother’s elegant home, a tea and crumpets kind of affair, but it goes awry when one of her elderly, surviving friends speaks of Roger as her sunshine. It triggers a day-drinking Don (at a dry memorial nonetheless) to vomit, and the interruption gives Roger the opportunity to bark at his first wife Mona’s boyfriend for showing up. Deciphering Don’s psychology isn’t difficult. Considering his relationship with his own mother (a whore) was nonexistent, adding to that his sudden identity crisis, you have a recipe for a gag reflex.
Roger excuses his colleague with a wisecrack, “He was just saying what everyone else was thinking,” but when Mona checks on him you can tell he’s hurting. The occasion of reflection has increased his anxiety about the downward trajectory of things, lamenting how he’ll be remembered. Mona comforts him, “No matter what you do, everyone loves you. What you’re seeing is them worried about how you feel about them.” While the richness of all the characters was as clear as ever, at times Roger’s subplot felt less elegant than, say, Peggy or Don’s, with everyone talking so bluntly about death and its looming presence. Still, the Mona/Roger rapport is fascinating. She reads him like the cheapest of novels, and it pierces him at the heart in the sweetest way possible. Roger tries his damnedest to sabotage this pure relationship by propositioning her. But Mona, unlike Jane last season, resists his charms with a “Soothe yourself.”
She inspires Roger to reconnect with his daughter, giving her his mother’s jar of water from the River Jordan that his father had gathered. Margaret responds by asking him to finance her husband’s refrigeration venture. That’s all he is to her. Another door walked through, another door closing behind. At his shrink he continues to be too on-the-nose, and yet it’s exquisite. “I used to jump off mountains. I had no idea I had an invisible parachute.” Mad Men is not shy about it’s connections of materialism with lack of fulfillment, but this statement on privilege is striking. The idea that without struggle, without having to overcome like Peggy, or Meg, or even Don to rise in the ranks, Roger views his life as that straight line from before, because there was no climb, no uphill battle. And not only was money a foregone conclusion, so was love, given to him unconditionally by his mother. “All I’m going to be doing from hereon is losing everything. Life will end, and somebody else will get the bill.”
Don is dragged to his building by Ken, Harry and Pete. It’s not a bug by my detection, he’s hammered. He asks the doorman Jonesy what he saw when he died. After much prodding he admits to seeing a light. Don projects onto him his own version of the afterlife asking if it was a tropical sunshine. Is Don wondering whether he’s already dead? Does he believe he inhabits hell on Earth?
Betty stumbles further through her subplot when Sally alerts her that Sandy “went to Juilliard early” meaning she has begun her life as a Village hippie. Snarky Sally is deliciously rebellious. Calling her mom Betty, sarcastically quipping about her wonderful vacation. Kiernan Shipka is wise as a girl ten years her senior, and to watch her play as this insubordinate, bored, and disturbed teenager is delightful. January Jones stopping strangers in the city looking for her daughter’s friend? Kinda silly. While this show captures the times in a way that illuminates the past and present, when it steps out of its comfort zone, the mainstream and privileged, into counterculture it becomes stereotypical.
She finds Sandy’s violin in a run-down place at St. Mark’s, and she supervises their cooking of goulash with roof snow water until one devil-may-care gent saunters in claiming Sandy sold her violin to him to make her way to Cali, where it’s warmer. He judges her prematurely for casting Sandy out like the trash that litters their home, but she insists she didn’t disregard her. He insults her, “We don’t like your life anymore than you do.” She starts to storm off with the violin, but then hesitates, setting it down before leaving. Younger Betty would have kept the violin as a keepsake out of spite, maybe take it up herself. But instead she lets it be, realizing that like herself, Sandy and these young men will have to find their own paths, walk through their own doors, discover for themselves where it all ends up. She remembers being a model living with five other girls in one dinky, dingy room. She was free, until it was too hard. And that’s where Don swooped in, her shepherd to hell. She attempts to shed her own fake, plastic skin by dying her hair brown. Henry playfully mistakes her for Liz Taylor, Bobby thinks she’s ugly. Bobby is going to be a gaping asshole when he grows up, isn’t he?
The big pitch we end with is for Sheraton, which had sent him on his trip to the Royal Hawaiian. His idea is that when you are on vacation, you don’t just go somewhere different, you become somebody else. The copy says, “Hawaii. The jumping off point.” And the picture is of a guy’s suit splayed out in pieces on the beach, the tide coming in. Don equates it to Hawaiian legend where a person’s soul can be set free from their body, but the client associates it with suicide like in the movie A Star Is Born. Don, as always, is impatient with the client not perceiving the genius of the work, “How do you get to heaven? Something terrible has to happen.” But the clients can’t shake the, to them, obvious connotations of death. When Don asks Stan if it makes him think of suicide, mouth full he grumbles, “Of course! That’s what’s so great about it!” Ladies and gents, Stan is a riot. Don, however, is clearly looking for a way out of his life, and everyone but him seems to see that he needs a ledge to jump off and not a tropical destination. To take someone’s else life, someone will have to lose theirs.
And we find out that he’s stealing Dr. Rosen’s. Linda Cardellini, who post-Freaks and Geeks is establishing a niche as “the other woman” (the wedge between Cory and Topanga in Boy Meets World and the stopgap girlfriend for Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain), plays Sylvia Rosen whom Don meets up with after seeing off her husband. It’s New Year’s Eve and he receives a call for emergency surgery, so he skis down the streets of Manhattan with an incredible responsibility ahead of him. Whether Don is just fascinated by the man literally handling life and death or if he feels guilt for cuckolding this honorable man is shaky to me, but he is remorseful as he cuddles up with Sylvia telling her his new year’s resolution is to stop doing this. But what is that? Cheating on Megan as was foretold in the fifth season finale? Or does he mean he’s done with life? Or is he done searching? Is he going to try and be satisfied with what he has, make do with the skin he’s got on, blending the stoicism of Don and Dick into one whole man instead of the stoic outer shell of one? Like the story that Sylvia had him read, he’ll have many circles of hell to journey through before he finds peace. Or, he may be stuck there.
Dr. Rosen echos Roger in telling Don that his job is to think about death so that others won’t have to, so that they can ignore the impeding end, the ticking clock, and continue to consume. But Don, Roger, Betty, and even the ridding high Megan and Peggy are all confronted with their doom daily. They are the men and women behind the curtain, the facade of buying happiness the decor they live in. So they’re frantically soaking up life until there isn’t a drop left, and maybe, just maybe that will quench their thirst before they swim out into the ocean, never to come back ashore. There’s plenty more death to come in the year ahead—MLK, Bobby Kennedy, the Harlem riots—and I maybe I’m a sadist, but I can’t wait to dance with the devil for eleven episodes. Like I said, a lot of the monologuing felt like force-feeding us our nutrition, and Betty still feels like she is tagging along, while Sally is the real reason I tolerate the Francis family, but I appreciated her heightened self-awareness when dealing with Sandy. I’m looking forward to more Peggy running things at CGC (The new Koss tagline: “So sharp and clear, you can see it.” Brilliant!), and some followup on the miserable existence of Pete, and the repercussions of her sacrifice for Joan. Otherwise, this season’s jumping off point really was a slice of paradise.