SPOILER ALERT: PLEASE DON’T READ THIS POST IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN LAST NIGHT’S SEASON PREMIERE OF MAD MEN. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
YOU CAN WATCH THE ENTIRE SEASON PREMIERE ON LINE FOR FREE AT AMC’S WEBSITE UNTIL April 30, 2013.
The closing scene of the last episode of Season 5 of “Mad Men,” “The Phantom,” found Don Draper at a bar, where he is approached by a woman who asks “Are you alone?” Of course he’s alone, literally in that moment in time because his wife, Megan, is off pursuing her acting dream by appearing as “Beauty” in a television commercial that he helped her get, but in a greater sense. He is always alone, a tormented man, who tried to reinvent himself when Dick Whitman, the dirt-poor hillbilly son of a brutal drunk and the prostitute he impregnated, assumed the identity of his Korean War commanding officer Don Draper, but who continues to be haunted by his hideous past. In that same Season 5 episode, Don repeatedly sees men who resemble his dead brother Adam, and then finally while under anesthesia for a tooth extraction, he sees Adam’s ghost who tells him “You’re in bad shape, Dick. It’s not your tooth that’s rotten.” YIKES!
In last night’s Season 6 premiere, “The Doorway,” it’s December 1967, and Don is still in bad shape. He has returned to his endless search for anything that will exorcise his demons, and he seems to have concluded that the only permanent cure is death, which is everywhere in this episode. I noticed a couple of themes in this episode. Death, as I mentioned was the prevailing one. The other was Elvis.
First, the death theme. Is Don suicidal? Perhaps that’s the conclusion we should draw. The episode opens with a scream, as we see the doorman at the Drapers’ building, Jonesy, getting CPR from Don’s neighbor, Dr. Rosen, a cardiologist, who we later learn, brings Jonesy back from death. Cut to black, with Don’s voiceover saying “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” Then, we see Don lying on a Hawaiian beach reading The Inferno. Matthew Weiner brilliantly weaves these events together.
At the end of the episode, Dr. Rosen is summoned from the Drapers’ New Year’s Eve party in a snowstorm to attend to an emergency. Don walks the good doc downstairs, telling Megan and Silvia Rosen that he needs to get cigarettes. As the doctor stands in the doorway, ready to head out into the blizzard, he tells Don “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” Cut to Don hitting the sheets with with Silvia, who it turns out gave him The Inferno book that he was reading on the beach in Hawaii in the opening scenes. When Mrs. Rosen asks him “What do you want for this year?” he says “I want to stop doing this.” How will he able to do that, at least while he’s still alive? I think we all realized when he married Megan that, even though he may have had the best intentions, she wouldn’t be able to keep that big dog on the porch. His incessant womanizing is his way of trying to medicate himself, to alleviate his anxiety, the anxiety and misery that comes from the horrible circumstances of his upbringing and his trying to avoid facing them. Perhaps if Megan could have devoted herself completely to being at Don’s beck and call, maybe he would have changed. That’s what she seemed to think in last season’s season finale when she got drunk after Don refused to help her get the part in the commercial. Now that she is a “tv star,” she’s abandoned him, at least as he sees it, and sent him into the arms of his neighbor’s wife. It’s doubtful that it would have made any difference whether Megan pursued a career or not. Betty’s embrace of the traditional role of wife and mother didn’t seem to deter Don’s skirt chasing. He can’t escape this cycle: excitement of the chase, that “eros” he spoke about in last night’s episode, connection and comfort in warmth and intimacy with this new “love,” a term that he ironically told his team not to trivialize, and ultimately, disillusionment and rejection. Repeat forever, or until death do you depart this plane of existence. Remember the end of Season 4, when Don returned from his trip to California engaged to Megan, and the rejected Dr. Faye told Don that she hoped Megan understands that Don “only likes the beginning of things?” I think the clock is ticking on the Megan experiment. Fortunately, she’ll have her acting career, and Don, assuming he’s still alive, will be the rejected one, always the rejected child of a whore, raised by a woman who couldn’t look at him without being reminded of her husband’s patronizing prostitutes. Don can never escape it. That’s what Pfc. Dinkins’ cigarette lighter meant in last night’s episode.
That’s the reason that he started puking at Roger’s mom’s funeral. Well, that, and the fact that he was a tad over served. One of the guests, a friend of the deceased, insisted on speaking first. When she did, she described Roger’s mother’s never-ending devotion to her son. During the touching tribute to maternal love, the camera lingered on Don, making it clear that he was painfully aware that he had never experienced such unconditional love, and probably never would, despite seeking it in a thousand different beds. Ouch-tough stuff, but stuff which explains a lot.
Later, a drunk Don is escorted home from Mrs. Sterling’s funeral by Pete and Ken, and seeing Jonesy, Don asks him what he saw when he was “dead.” Did he see “hot, tropical sunshine?” Did he hear the ocean? You know, like Don did in Hawaii.
Just in case anyone missed what was really going on, the scene in which Don pitched his ad campaign, “The Jumping Off Point,” to the Sheraton hotel execs left no doubt. It turns out that Don had been in Hawaii on Sheraton’s dime, doing research for the ad campaign for their Royal Hawaiian property. This scene was brilliantly acted by Jon Hamm, and was in some ways a mirror image of the iconic monologue from Season 1’s episode “The Wheel.” In that latter scene, Don caused Kodak executives to swoon with this presentation for their new product, a slide projector, which they insisted on calling “the wheel.” Don put on a clinic on advertising creativity with his presentation for the product, re-christened by him as “the carousel,” which allows one to travel as a child does, “around and around back to a place where you know you are loved.” In other words, a place Don has never been. In the Sheraton pitch, the shoe is on the other foot. The clients are telling him what his campaign is about, and it’s about going to heaven, which means dying, something that they don’t really want to associate with their resort. Don says that maybe the man in the ad died, and went to heaven, which is “a little morbid” because to get there “something terrible has to happen.” At that point, Pete rushes in to rescue the account. Whoa-Don, maybe you need to ask Roger for his shrink’s name and phone number. At that afore-mentioned New Year’s Eve party, what makes an appearance? You guessed it. The wheel, this time to show slides of Don and Megan’s trip to paradise.
The Elvis theme was more subtle, but it was definitely there; specifically, (1) in the scene where Megan dances with the luau show M.C., who while wiggling his hips, refers to himself as the “Hawaiian Elvis” (2) Pfc. Dinkins’ bride, who Don gives away, looks exactly like Priscilla at her wedding to Elvis-check out that hair! and (3) Elvis’ 1961 version of “Hawaiian Wedding Song” played over the closing credits. Is Weiner suggesting that Don is like Elvis, once this young dynamic superstar, who could wrap clients around his little finger, reduced to being a clueless has-been, mired in his own shadowy past, and his failure to find any happiness in the present? The 1968 Elvis was a disaster, but he turned it around in a major way for that 1969 NBC special, so we shouldn’t count Don out.
There were two other plots, one involving Betty and the other Peggy. Betty is as uninteresting as always, although she did appear in one cringe-inducing scene in which she asked her husband if he wanted to sneak into another bedroom and rape a teenaged house guest. She also became a brunette. Ho-hum. It’s clear that as much as Don has lost it, Peggy has come into her own, and has it all going on. So, Peggy is now Don, or rather Top-of-his-game Don, and Don is …well, that remains to be seen.