Thursday, April 11, 2013

Mad Men: The Doorway (6.1) / (6.2)

As much as you try, as much as you work at your life, your surroundings, or your sense of self, we eventually all just spin around to the exact same patterns time and time again. Mad Men has often been distracted by the impossibility of change, that trying to break a repetitive cycle is a futile activity, one that only ever leads to disappointment -- the crushing inevitability that life always seems to bring. Like so much of season five, The Doorway is heavily indebted to themes of death and futility, an array of characters working to break down a cycle, only for truth to ultimately smack them square in the chest.

A significant part of Don Draper's recent evolution has been our anticipation for him to break down and become the Don of old. Sure, there was a good chunk of time in which he was faithful to Megan, and the two of them seemed to be a perfect match, but around the middle of last season things unsurprisingly turned sour, finally brought to a close when Don stepped out from her fantastical commercial shoot and into the dark reality of his own situation. As Mad Men's sixth year starts up, Megan is an employed actress on a daytime soap, admired by fans and still the life of the party. But Don is more detached than normal, a silent observer for most of the episode's first act, a ghost of a man.

His journey here is marked by visual surreality, detached flashback sequences randomly cutting into similar scenes in the future, along with POV shots and dreamy voiceover. It's a fun trick, one that brings about a seasick feeling of sorts, juxtaposed nicely with Don's current woes. While nothing he does here is explicitly new, each development is suddenly telegraphed through the specter of death. What once would have been another impressive advertising pitch is suddenly an awkwardly unconscious suicide metaphor, while a hot affair with an attractive neighbor is here something painful in its everyday laziness, something Don is desperate to end.

What we're watching is a man circling the drain. There's been this recurring fear in recent Mad Men of characters being marked for death, repeated implication that they're about to tumble down an elevator shaft or take their own life. It's a similar feeling here, only made arguably more tragic by the way Don seems to be dying internally. Death is infecting his work, his mind is distracted by a visceral journey to hell, and he seems unusually infatuated with Arnold Rosen, a doctor neighbor who takes life in his hands on a daily basis. A doctor who happens to be married to the lady he's currently sleeping with. It's a tangled web of neuroses, a satisfying mix of old and new and an interesting track for the character to go down.

A similar quality of emotional unrest echoes through most of the cast this week, a pair of deaths weighing heavily on Roger's mind, making him collapse in tears in one of the show's most uncomfortable moments yet, his character earlier questioning the crippling banality of his everyday existence -- life being a collection of doorways, sometimes disguised and interesting looking from the outside, but eventually unsurprising and dull.

Betty, once again given a decent amount of material following her absences last year, at first appears detached in a throwaway story involving a young girl we've never met before. But it spins down unexpected routes, ultimately merging with the themes of the rest of the hour. Sandy seems to represent Betty's wild youth, a youth in which she freely ventured into the outside world with a fearless independence. And when she's confronted by a band of hippies for her conventional middle-aged mindset, she orchestrates a typically Betty comeback by dyeing her hair. Unlike Don and Roger wallowing in psychological trauma, Betty takes action. Only it's sort of uninspired and lightweight, fitting for a bored housewife.

Peggy's subplot broke up some of the sadness elsewhere, her exasperation in her new job played for laughs at certain junctures, particularly during the hilarious minister phone call (why is Elisabeth Moss so great on phones?). But again the major themes of the premiere surfaced, Peggy trying to figure out what kind of boss she wants to be. Here she acts like Don, being the type of leader she assumes he'd want her to be. But she ultimately realizes that what Don loved about her is that she wasn't him, and that success for her awaits once she discovers her own way in life.

The Doorway is a heavy, layered season premiere, one that isn't particularly easy to watch and feels, at certain points, like almost too much of something to take in one sitting. But as an exploration into how repetitive emotions can take their toll, and how psychology is enough to entirely break you down, it's a strong indication of the darkness that is presumably lying ahead. That and Mad Men has never looked so beautiful. From the dusky Hawaiian sands that opened the show to the fairytale snowfall that brought the premiere to a close, this remains one of the most visually inspiring shows on the air. I'm glad to have it back, even if nobody's really having any fun. A-


- Okay, this has probably been discussed ad infinitum, but WTF with the Betty rape dialogue? On a lesser show I'd assume it was a kind of "look how awful we were back then" thing, but here? I guess she wants to be an exciting, sexually 'edgy' wife? And for some reason her mind goes to child rape with that? Ugh. Sometimes this show just does not know when to stop with Betty being terrible.

- James Wolk did fantastic work on the criminally short-lived Lone Star, and I'm eager to see where his character will go. I hope they integrate him better than they did Ginsberg, however. While Ginsberg is now as much a part of the show as a typical cigar, he never went the places you thought he'd go. Hopefully they'll rectify that in some way with this season's newbies.

- I was surprised to still see January Jones in that fatsuit. Then again, would it have even been realistic for Betty to go from shooting whipped cream into her mouth to seeing her all svelte and tiny again so rapidly?

- They barely appeared, but I adored Pete and Joan's poses on the stairwell. That and the fashions and hair changes. I can't express how much I need my own Harry Crane wig.

- "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood." Seriously, one of the most beautiful sentences ever written.


Dinkins: I believe in what goes around, comes around. One day I'm gonna be a veteran in paradise, one day I'll be the man who can't sleep and talks to strangers.

Megan: One scene. I take somebody's coat and offer them a drink.
Don: You're the maid, that's more than ours does.

Sandy: You go to college, you meet a boy. You drop out, you get married. Struggle for a year in New York while he learns to tie a tie and then move to the country and just start the whole disaster over.
Betty: That's an arrogant exaggeration. You have so much.
Sandy: I didn't ask for it and I don't need it.
Betty: You don't need it? Do you know what it's like to have nothing?
Sandy: Do you?

Roger: 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?" 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 all close behind you.

Joan: I don't know if it's the photographers or the writers, but it really smells like reefer in here.

Don: I wanna know, I wanna know. What did you see when you died?
Jonesy: I don't know, doc said I wasn't really dead.
Don: I saw you! You were dead! He died right there! What did you see?
Jonesy: I don't like to think about it.
Don: Well you must have seen something.
Jonesy: I guess there was a light?
Don: So like hot tropical sunshine?
Jonesy: I don't know.
Don: Did you hear the ocean?

Guest stars
Talia Balsam (Mona Sterling); Peyton List (Jane Sterling)
Writer Matthew Weiner Director Scott Hornbacher


  1. Hey there. Love the review. How comes these aren't on billiedoux anymore? It used to be great to discuss the show along with your excellently thoughtful reviews with a crowd of like minded people.

  2. That sort of fell apart last year, unfortunately. And I miss the conversation, too, but it's just one of those things that happens, I guess?

    Thanks for still reading my stuff, though. It's hugely appreciated!

  3. Ah, thats a huge shame. dont know the reasons for the fall out, but thats a great site and your contributions were really worthwhile.