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Mad Men The Flood

This might turn out to be one of the more controversial episodes of “Mad Men.”  The background is a topic around which politically correct groupthink has calcified – the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. – yet the show explodes many liberal pieties and, very surprisingly, ends up being the funniest episode of the year so far.

On a normal show dealing with the MLK killing, the creators would depict its impact on the Black characters and milk their grief.  Instead, the Black characters are mostly stoic and going about their business even as the Whites indulge their feelings of shame, fear and awkwardness.

Not that Matt Weiner and his crew had much choice.  They never laid the groundwork to illustrate how African Americans (referred to as “Negroes” on the show, as was the case at the time) might have felt about anything.   Mad Men has never featured any major Black characters and in fact, it wasn’t until last week that we even saw two Black people talking to each other.  As I said last week, my guess is that Matt Weiner is uncomfortable with portraying African American issues and has decided to play to his strength, which is the white, urban upper-middle-class.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but poor Lena Dunham was viciously raked over the coals last year because “Girls,” a much less ambitious show about four white girls and their boyfriends, didn’t have any Black characters. For whatever reason, “Mad Men” has been luckier in evading the PC police.

In any event, unlike Matt Weiner, I’m old enough to remember 1968, and his depiction of these events seem a little off.  I’ve been Googling unsuccessfully to confirm that Paul Newman was speaking at the 1968 “Andy Awards,” but I assume he was and that, furthermore, the night went down just as it was depicted – with the organizers trying to hold back the news of the assassination until the end of the program, but with chaos erupting when the report leaked out (needless to say, this was in the pre-Twitter days, when you could plausibly decide to withhold news from a large group of people for an hour or two.)

Paul Newman was a famous liberal before he was a salad dressing mogul and his Andy Awards speech is exactly the kind of pompous thing he would have made (“I’m not here because I’m an actor.  I’m here because I have six kids and I’m worried about their future.”) As a guest notes, he was invited to speak precisely BECAUSE he’s an actor, which makes Newman seem somewhat self-delusional, but not as delusion as he does in making a full-throated endorsement of Eugene McCarthy to his mystified audience.

But if they got Paul Newman right, I’m not sure if they’re accurate about the audience.  Of course, liberals like Pete and Peggy’s boyfriend Abe would have been outraged by the muurder, but would someone like Joan have started crying?  Or would Megan, Peggy and Betty have really been so distraught?

This is a case where historical perspective seems to have distorted our understanding of what it was really like to have lived through a particular period.  I’m reminded of an earlier season when Joan and the other women in the office were in tears over the death of Marilyn Monroe.  I just don’t remember it that way. Surprise yes, tears no. When Marilyn died, she was not the icon she later became; and to the larger white community, MLK was not yet a saint.  The immediate reaction of privileged New Yorkers would have been fear, not anguish.  After all, there had been dangerous race riots in 1965 and 1967 and they would have assumed that this would trigger more of them.

But if the reaction of the Mad Men ladies seems off-key, the responses of the men seem right on the money.  The fight between Pete and Harry was both hilarious and true-to-life. The always-clueless Harry has spent the morning dealing with the business implications of the assassination (i.e., the cancellation of the regularly scheduled shows resulted in demands from TV sponsors to get their money back.) Harry is hardly the most sensitive fellow to start with, and when he matter-of-factly talks business rather than spout liberal catchphrases, Pete gets on his high horse.  When Burt Cooper tries to intervene Pete yells, “Did you know we were in the presence of a bona fide racist?” Which is laughable because Burt himself is the real racist, not Harry.

What also seems right is the awkward way the Whites on the show tried to interact with and sympathize with the Blacks and inadvertently ended up being insensitive.  The distance between Black and White is so distant that Joan and Peggy can only fumble their interactions. Joan’s aborted embrace of Dawn is cringe-worthy.  Peggy is somewhat more successful with her own secretary and she does manage to get a real hug in, but even she blurts out that “it could have been a lot worse.” Right, Martin Luther King was shot dead and it could have been a lot worse. Time for some sensitivity training, Peggy.

The only one who manages to say the right thing is Bobby Draper, who has gone with Don to see “The Planet of the Apes.” Talking to the Black usher, he doesn’t say he’s sorry, condescend to him or act like the shooting is a tragedy only for Blacks.  He just innocently observes, “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they are sad.”  Sometimes you can be the most sympathetic when you are not trying too hard.

The name of this episode is “The Flood,” which is an explicit reference to Noah’s Ark and the Biblical flood. But there’s a second meaning too.  King Louis XV of France famously (and accurately) predicted “Apres moi, le deluge.”  After me, the flood.  And after that beloved king died, the dam did break, climaxing in the French Revolution 15 years later.  There’s a sense here that MLK’s death is another such inflection point.  His assassination helped launch a downward spiral in American society from which we would not recover for decades.  For fans of foreshadowing, remember that before the Rosens headed to Washington, D.C., Sylvia said, “Come Monday morning it will all be like a dream.”  In other words, in a matter of days their life before the assassination will seem like a dream. This is what Europeans felt like after World War I, looking back on the Belle Epoque.

I’ve spent a lot of time here writing about the Martin Luther King’s murder, but the theme of the show is not really politics or social commentary.  It’s about the need for love.  As Ginsburg’s father argues, “Now’s the time when a man and a woman need to be together – in a catastrophe.  In the Flood, the animals went two by two.  You?  You’re going to get on the Ark with your father?”  In a series populated selfish, unhappy neurotic people, the love between Ginsburg and his father (both Holocaust survivors) is one of the few rays of hope.

We also have the case of Peggy and Abe, who at first don’t seem to be on the same page about housing arrangements or anything else. Then it transpires that Abe wants to raise their kids in a neighborhood with more diversity than the Upper East Side.  Their kids!!!! This is news to Peggy, who never knew that Abe envisioned any kind of future for them. This scene is a good example of brilliant acting, direction and writing.  You know they have crossed a threshold without it being explicitly stated and without Abe even knowing it.  Like most guys, he doesn’t even realize what he’s said to make her so happy.  In fact he doesn’t even realize that she IS happy.

And of course it all turns back to Don at the end, in an amazing soliloquy about a parent’s love for his children.  Last week the Draper marriage seemed over, but maybe there’s a little spark left.  Megan can talk to him honestly in a way that Betty never could.  He’s sitting in the bedroom, drinking himself to oblivion and feeling sorry for himself when she comes in and demands: “Is this who you really want to be to [your kids]?  When they need you?”

Here’s his answer, in full: “No, I always wanted to be the man who loves children.  But from the moment they’re born, the baby comes out and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars; but you don’t feel anything, especially if you’ve had a difficult childhood.  You want to love them but you don’t, and the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem.  Then one day they get older and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling you were pretending to have, and it feels like your heart is going to explode.”

So perhaps there is some hope for Don after all.  He can be more honest with Megan than he’s ever been with any other woman.  He can love his own children, even if they inadvertently confess, as Bobby did, that he’s more worried about his stepfather than his real father.  The show ends with Don on the balcony looking into the night as the sirens blare in the background.  Will there be a rescue vehicle to save him?

Some other thoughts and observations:

  • The first hilarious line of the show: the real estate agent, trying desperately, as they always do, to get Peggy to make an offer on the apartment on the Upper East Side, predicts, “When they finish the Second Ave subway, this will quadruple in price.” Forty-five years later and they are still working on it!
  • The second hilarious line of the show: when Megan goes over to talk to Peggy at the awards banquet, Don says “Tell her that her laxative radio spot is the sentimental favorite.” 
  • They really need to do something about the audio on the show.  I could barely understand some of the dialogue and had to replay the scene five times where someone yells at Paul Newman that MLK is dead.  There were several other exchanges that didn’t reveal themselves after two or three playbacks and I just gave up.
  • Ted Chaough clearly has eyes for Peggy and his wife knows it.  Btw, he’s still something of a supercilious jerk, despite being a nice boss in the season opener.  When Abe arrives looking like Frank Zappa, Chaough cracks to his wife, “You wanted to see Paul Newman and here he is.”  Also btw, there were several references last night to the disparities between small and large agencies, so I might have been right last week when I predicted a merger between the two firms.
  • Mad Men has most successfully honored Black Americans by not showing them as victims or heroes, but as ordinary Americans with middle class values who happened to be black.  To that end, having the two Black secretaries at the two agencies come to work the day after the assassination was a subtle way or exposing middle class privilege.  Dawn comes to work because her mother told her too and she insists on staying even after she’s urged she can go home.  In contrast, all the white secretaries have abandoned their desks, presumably to watch TV. 
  • Very interesting take by Henry Francis on John Lindsay. How well I remember the media fascination with the handsome urbane John Lindsey and the way he was credited with preventing post-assassination riots in NYC simply by walking the streets in Harlem. Like he was Jesus or something.  Henry snarks that “the only lives he seemed to be worried about protecting were the photographers” (heh) and later claims that what really prevented the riots were pay-offs to Black militants.  I guess no man is a hero to his valet, but I’d never heard this interpretation of events before.  I’d always believed the media legend.
  • Henry might be canny about his boss but his judgment continues to be impaired about his wife.  He actually seems to remain smitten with her, going so far as to say that when he runs for State Senate “I can’t wait for people to meet you – really meet you.”  Whaaaaattt?  This might motivate her to lose the rest of that weight and maybe even go blonde again, but who would want to meet the real Betty?
  • This is the fourth actor to play Bobby Draper and the first to get a juicy scene.  He’s a facile liar, showing that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, but essentially a good kid.  My guess, though, is that this will be the apex of Bobby Draper’s character development.
  • For you youngsters out there who didn’t understand Paul Newman’s speech, which would have taken place on April 4, 1968, the political sequence is this: Eugene McCarthy decided to run against LBJ as the anti-war candidate after Bobby Kennedy and other prominent liberals refused to do jump into the race. McCarthy nearly beat LBJ in the March 4 New Hampshire Presidential primary, a shocking outcome at the time for a sitting president.  On March 16, Kennedy jumped into the race against a weakened Johnson and two weeks later, on March 31, LBJ dropped out.  So for McCarthy supporters like Paul Newman, having Kennedy hop in after McCarthy had taken the risk of opposing a sitting president was intolerable. 
  • Speaking of Bobby Kennedy, it’s probably not safe to admit this without being called a racist like poor Harry Crane, but as tragic as Martin Luther King’s murder was, the coming RFK assassination was a much huger event.  This was the man who had the inside track to be the next president and the brother of an already slain president. Crowds lined the train tracks as his body was transported from New York to Washington, something that hadn’t happened since Lincoln’s body went in the opposite route in 1865.  It’s only in retrospect and historical hindsight that the MLK murder has seemed equal to or even more important than Kennedy’s.
  • Randall Walsh, the insurance man who wants to talk to Don about his ad ideas, is apparently one of Roger’s LSD buddies. Roger claims that he owes him a favor because he talked him off a roof.  The follow-up meeting, while extremely funny, is so preposterous that it doesn’t really belong on Mad Men.  Even at the height of the 60’s, there’s no way anyone so fundamentally weird could have ever held a job with any real responsibility at an insurance company.  Since the rest of the episode is already pretty funny, we didn’t really need the scene for comic relief.
  • Am I crazy or does the girl that Ginsburg gets fix up with, look a lot like a Jewish Peggy?  I hope we see more of her.  She seems like someone who would value Ginsburg’s sweet qualities and look past his extreme social awkwardness. (This is a guy who hints in one breath that he’d like to see this girl’s apartment and then confesses ten seconds later that he’s a virgin.  Another funny scene.)
  • I love the end song, “Love is Blue” and even owned the 45. If you look at the album cover, the object of desire looks a lot like Megan. 

By the way, don’t forget what Tecumseh said.

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The Americans who love “Downton Abbey” and its penetrating observations on British class conflict seem considerably less comfortable with shows that highlight class differences in the U.S.  This reflects an enduring American myth that we have a classless society.

Would that that were true.  America has multiple social classes, and Americans are afflicted with considerable status anxiety.  Although sociologists can’t agree on how many classes there are or how they are defined, there’s a general consensus that class and status somehow correlate to wealth, education, family background, and occupation.

For the sake of argument, let’s posit that there are least five American social classes: 1) the upper class (wealthy, with “good” family background); 2) the upper middle class (professional occupations with few financial concerns); 3) the actual middle class itself (white-collar, financially stable, but not secure); 4) lower middle class (no college education;  also called “working class” if they work with their hands); and lower class (poor and uneducated.)

In the early days of television, the default class for most shows was the middle of the middle class.   With a less stratified society in the ‘50s and ‘60s, viewers seemed satisfied watching ordinary bourgeois lifestyles on television.  Most TV families lived in modest homes, with dads who seemed to have middle-management jobs.  To the extent that TV portrayed class differences at all, they were mostly played for laughs, as with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” a show that skewered both the lower and upper classes and generated tremendous ratings.

Television today is more aspirational, and most TV characters have moved up the social ladder.  The default class for most scripted shows now is the upper middle class: the world of fancy homes, spacious apartments,  nice clothes and good taste.  This is a world where no one worries deeply about the next paycheck or doctor bills.   This is the world of doctors, lawyers, high-powered executives, unusually talented detectives, entrepreneurs, hipsters, and Presidents of the United States.

Scripted television once depicted a world that generally reflected society (assuming you weren’t black, Hispanic, gay or poor), but now functions mainly as a window into a world that many Americans can only dream about.  There aren’t many contemporary TV shows about nurses, plumbers, factory workers or bus drivers.  In other words, there aren’t many shows like “The Honeymooners,” “All in the Family,”  “Roseanne,” or “Friday Night Lights.”  Despite the occasional “Mike and Molly” or “Raising Hope,” viewers seem to prefer watching people who’ve got it made over those still trying to make it.

Of course there’s one enormous exception to this: the phenomenon known as reality TV.  As the lower middle class has disappeared from scripted television, it has re-emerged on reality television.

Some reality shows celebrate American’s workers, especially guy-friendly shows about hard physical jobs such as crab fishing and truck hauling, or female-leaning shows that help people improve their fashion or home design skills.  But more often than not, reality television exploits the lower classes.  “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “The Jersey Shore,” “Hoarders” and their ilk exist primarily to turn the rest of us into voyeurs of lifestyles we can barely imagine.

It’s this reputation for exploitation and voyeurism that makes the “respectable” classes avoid reality TV like the plague.  They don’t mind watching it, but they sure don’t want to be on it.  As Lisa Birnbach wrote in her book “True Prep,” a book ostensibly about preppies but really about the entire upper middle class, “No true preppy – whether she had a storied last name or not – would allow herself to be so exposed and to live at the mercy of TV producers and editors.”

The upper classes have worked hard to secure a measure of dignity and respectability that they don’t want to risk by letting camera crews into their lives.  The middle classes seem to know instinctively that their lives are humdrum affairs – going to work, helping the kids with the homework, doing the chores — and that the only way a reality show could make them interesting would be to manufacture and exploit drama.

Of course there are people with high net worths on reality TV, but as any society columnist can tell you, wealth and social status do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.  Paul Fussell, in his book “Class,” makes it plain that people with the same income can be in dramatically different classes (he cites the example of a plumber and a professor living side by side in identical houses with identical incomes to demonstrate that money does not define class.)  The people who appear on the “housewives,” “brides,” “bachelor” or Kardashian shows may think they are upper class — but they rest of us know they are prole at heart.

Pity the social historians of the future trying to use today’s television shows to unravel the class distinctions of the early 21st century.  They’ll see an idealized version of America on scripted programs and a dystopian version on reality shows.  Will they realize that the truth lies somewhere in between?

Mad Men to have and to hold

Go-go boots, wife-swapping, psychedelic discothèques, casual marijuana, sideburns down to the jawline, Joe Namath in a straw hat, two Black characters talking to each other on TV.  Now that’s the Sixties that I remember!  “Mad Men” has plunged feet first into some of the most unattractive aspects of this most divisive of decades.

Season Six has so far offered an overt theme of the week.  The first episode hit us over the head with death, the second focused on deception and this week’s theme was betrayal.  The very first scene occurs in Pete’s love nest and the initial implication is that he’s about to betray his marriage vows again. Instead, he and Don are meeting in secret with Timmy, the super-sleazy Heinz Ketchup brand manager, plotting to betray their existing client, Heinz baked beans, who has forbidden SCD&P from working on another Heinz brand.

The setting is pregnant with meaning.  Much of the inspiration for the early seasons of “Mad Men” came from the Billy Wilder movie “The Apartment,” (see trailer below) in which a young executive (Jack Lemon) lends his apartment to more senior married executives for daytime assignations.  To make the connection explicit, Pete offers to let Don borrow it during the day (although Don, unlike the predatory Fred McMurray in the movie, stiffly rejects the offer, pointing out that he already has his own place in the city.)

Don’s not about to get into Pete’s debt and be subject again to blackmail, but that doesn’t mean he’s above his own betrayal.  He is, after all, carrying on with his friend’s wife while simultaneously giving his own wife grief for playing a love scene in a soap opera.

Meanwhile Peggy has betrayed the trust of her friend Stan, who told her in a late-night schmooze-fest that the Heinz Ketchup account is up for grabs.  Don and Stan are shocked when they leave their secret pitch meeting only to find Peggy and Ted Chaough ready to make their own pitch.  Stan knows that Peggy has broken his trust by passing along confidential information for a shot at a huge account and rewards her with one of the funnier bird-flippings.  (Please note that these pitches take place in a hotel room, the classic place for adulterous activities.)

Then there’s the case of Kate, Joan’s friend from the sticks, a Mary Kaye saleslady who is in town to betray her husband (by finding a one-night stand in a malt shop) and her employer (by meeting with Mary Kaye’s competitor Avon.)

And in the end, all the betrayals come to naught.  Neither Don nor Peggy win the Ketchup account, which goes to the larger agency J. Walter Thompson.  Worse, SCD&P lose the Heinz Beans account, which, while not a major client, does dent Don’s self-image as a loyal business partner.  Nor does it appear that Kate achieved anything worthy by her night on the town. We don’t know exactly what happened but we do see her and Joan waking up in Joan’s bed, fully clothed and hung over (and Joan’s dress is badly torn, signifying a rather active night.)

You do get a sense from this episode that there’s something rotten about the Sixties themselves.  The wife-swapping proposal that Megan’s boss and his wife make to Don and Megan is the kind of sordid offer that could be made in respectable company only in the late Sixties and early Seventies.  And the casual encounters that Kate and Joan participate in with total strangers at The Electric Circus aren’t much better.  (For more on The Electric Circus see: http://bit.ly/Zf5sjv).  It’s probably unfair to blame the Sixties for all the bad behavior on this show; after all, Don was cheating in the very first episode of the series, way back in 1960, but there’s also a big difference from doing something immoral while acknowledging that it’s immoral, and doing something immoral while pretending it’s OK.  And the Sixties were all about rejecting traditional morality.  Don’s line “I can tolerate this but can’t endorse it,” applies not just to Megan’s love scenes, but to the entire decade.

Interestingly, it’s Dawn, the Black secretary and the ultimate outsider, who sees most clearly that there’s something wrong about SCD&P and the society it represents. “Everybody’s scared there,” she says. “Women crying in the ladies’ room. Men crying in the elevator. Sounds like New Year’s Eve when they empty the garbage, there’s so many bottles.” As a Black women, she still has the most at stake in a society where there are clear rules to follow, and she’s the only person on the show with traditional values (so traditional that she bemoans the “harlots” in her own church.)

Dawn figures into the only sign of hopefulness in this episode.  The scene where Joan essentially forgives her for helping Scarlet cheat on her timecard was the most heartwarming encounter so far this season. Joan not only doesn’t fire her, she also gives her more responsibility.  Joan has worked so hard at manipulating the system with her looks and sexuality that she’s never had sympathy for or shown solidarity with any of the other women in the office; indeed, she’s quick to fire anyone who steps out of line.  But after realizing that becoming a partner hasn’t provided her with any more power or respect, she finally decides to give someone a break.  Joan sees in Dawn another vulnerable women who endures even more humiliation than she does and discovers empathy.

Maybe she’s beginning to understand that she hasn’t always made the best choices.  Having sex with a potential client in exchange for the partnership did not raise her credibility.  Harry Crane’s complaint that his accomplishments aren’t recognized because they were achieved in the broad daylight is cruel but accurate.  And in a showdown between the two of them, Harry is likely to win, because you can always find another office manager but Harry knows more about television than anyone in the firm.

Any discussion about betrayal on “Mad Men” must by necessity circle back to Don.  He blows a gasket when he sees Megan playing a love scene in her soap opera.  Maybe he fears she’s been acting in her own marriage.  He is almost certainly made uncomfortable seeing her dressed as a maid knowing that his trysts with Sylvia have occurred in her maid’s room.  Most likely, he has a visceral reaction to the scene because it reminds him of last week’s flashback in which a young Dick Whitman peeked through the keyhole to see his stepmother being mounted by Uncle Mac.

Regardless, Sylvia seems to have his number.  When he asks what she prays for she says “I pray for you … to find peace.”

A few other observations:

  • The title of this episode is “To Have and to Hold,” which not only refers to the traditional wedding vow but is also the name of Megan’s soap opera.  It seems cynical to name a soap opera, in which cheating is the primary activity, after a sacred vow, but in the Sixties millions of people decided those vows weren’t so sacred.  In any event, the words also apply to client relationships too, as Don was unable to have and to hold the Heinz beans account.
  • The timing of the episode seems to be in early 1968.  Burt Cooper makes a reference to LBJ and Nixon both seeming to think they are running against Kennedy, and if LBJ is still in the race it means it is before the March 12 New Hampshire primary.
  • You heard it here first.  I’m betting that SCD&P will merge with Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Ted Chaough moaned about how the little firms get overlooked by big clients like Heinz and it wouldn’t surprise me if they join forces, which would create more opportunities for interoffice conflict and bring Peggy back into Don’s orbit.
  • I’ve complained previously about the show’s inattention to race issues, but the scenes with Dawn and her friend make me wonder if they should skip the whole subject.  You get the feeling that “Mad Men” doesn’t have any Black writers and are tip-toeing respectfully around the whole issue.  These scenes felt like something out of “Julia,” the first sitcom with a Black star (see below).

  • What’s gotten into Harry Crane?  Last year he was usually offered up as comic relief (as in the episode where he and Don went backstage at a Rolling Stones concert.) This year he’s feeling his oats.  Dissing Joan, demanding to be a partner, barely sniffing at a bonus more than his salary and coming up with ideas like “Broadway Joe on Broadway.”  He’s crazy, though, to want to be partner.  As we’ve seen with Joan, a partnership doesn’t bring respect.  Bert Cooper says to him disdainfully, “I was different from you in every way,” and getting to attend the partners meetings will not change those attitudes.  Just take the money.
  • Speaking of Harry Crane, he does have a point about Joan’s high-handed way with secretaries.  As someone who once worked in an office, I would be PISSED if someone fired my assistant without consulting me.  By now Joan should have learned her lesson, anyway; several years ago she peremptorily fired Jane for leading a group of guys into Bert’s office and when Roger took pity on her, he ended up marrying her!
  • Speaking of Harry Crane again, the one historical bone I do have to pick with “Mad Men” is the way the show undervalues television.  When Don and Peggy make their respective pitches to Heinz Ketchup, they use storyboards that represent magazine ads.  Shouldn’t they be pitching TV ads? 1968 wasn’t the Dark Ages, even then TV was the major ad medium.  By the way, I like Don and Peggy’s slogans better than the one that was actually used in 1968: “The Slowest Ketchup in the West.”
  • There are several characters on the show – Don, Joan, and Henry Francis – who have not changed their appearance in six years.  Even Pete Campbell, who’s as establishment as they come, has sideburns.  Does the unwillingness of these characters to adapt sartorially indicate that they are doomed dinosaurs? Maybe, but maybe they are smart enough to realize they will look ridiculous in 15 years.  Ronald Reagan never changed his appearance and although he looked a bit out-of-it in the Sixties and Seventies, he was back in style in the Eighties.
  • I see that Bert finally has an office again, probably because the firm gained more space when it expanded to the second floor.  I wouldn’t mind watching a show based solely on Bert and Roger sitting in that office in their stocking feet passing wisecracks back and forth.

“Don’t thank me.  You don’t understand this is a punishment.”

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“Abandon all hope, ye that enter here.” In “Dante’s Divine Comedy” that’s the inscription on the gate to Hell, but it might as well be the motto of “Mad Men”; there’s not much hope in the season premiere the show’s sixth season.

The title of this episode is “The Doorway” and it immediately becomes apparent what door we are talking about. In the very first scene someone (who we later learn is the Drapers’ doorman) is being resuscitated after suffering a heart attack in the lobby.  He’s peered into the doorway and even seen the famous light that people who have these experiences describe.  But fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) he’s been brought back from paradise to spend more time in this vale of tears.

We them jump to an earthly paradise – Hawaii – where Don and Megan are lounging on Waikiki Beach.  Don’s reading “The Inferno” and the first real sentence spoken this season season is Don reading to himself: “Midway in life I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself in a dark wood.”   Well, this is certainly an apt description of the Draper situation and a clue that the Don who tried so hard to live a good life last season has relapsed a bit, although we don’t know that for sure until the end of the show.

Death is the main theme in this episode, a major preoccupation of both Don and Roger, and you have to wonder if Matt Weiner has morphed into Woody Allen without the jokes.  This is an episode in which Roger’s mother and shoeshine guy die and the aforementioned doorman almost dies.  Through the mix-up in lighters between Don and the soldier he meets at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, we are reminded that the REAL Don Draper died in Korean and that the guy on the screen is really Dick Whitman.  Later we learn the date of the new season by the repeated references to Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first heart transplant in December 1967; this too is a death image, the transference of a heart from one soul to another.

And then there’s the ad campaign that Don dreams up for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel: a picture of empty shoes and clothes lying on the beach, which reminds the client of the end of “A Star is Born,” where Norman Main (James Mason, whom John Hamm parodied so perfectly on “Saturday Night Live”) walked into the ocean to commit suicide.  The reference to “A Star is Born” is a disquieting one because that’s a story about a male movie star whose career begins to decline just as his wife’s (Judy Garland in the movie) begins to ascend.

Are we supposed to some that Don will spiral down as someone else’s begins to climb? Ugh, I hope not. We saw enough of that in season four.  And we certainly got enough of suicide and hints of suicide last year. But if this is the story arc of the season, who is the star that’s being born?

It could be Megan, who has landed a small part as an malign housekeeper on a daytime soap opera. Megan’s acting career is doing so well that she’s starting to be recognized by fans.  But she’s undergone a subtle but unwelcome transformation since last year. She’s so focused on herself that she doesn’t notice that her marriage is fading.  She and Don were so simpatico last year because they worked together and succeeded together, but now she natters on about getting more lines on the show and smoking dope to enhance the sexual experience and she doesn’t catch on the Don is barely listening to her.  She’s on the verge of becoming the beautiful trophy wife like Betty was before her.

Then there’s Peggy, who has become a female version of Don. Remarkably successful and intuitive about how to tap into human desire, but also a major hard-ass in the office.  In this show both Don and Peggy are challenged by clients on their original creative pitches but only Peggy is able to pull the coals out of the fire.

And finally, there’s Betty.  She’s still a bit heavy, weight-wise, but no longer a tub.  Her family life seems a lot happier, and the mausoleum that she and Henry live in feels almost cozy at Christmas.  She also shows a bit more concern about her fellow human beings than is normal for her by trying to rescue Sally’s friend who has absconded to a hippie flop house on the Lower East Side.   By law, any plot involving Betty has to show how incredibly out of it she is and this story line wasn’t the most credible.  Still, I’d say she is a dark horse for the Judy Garland role as someone who’s star is being born as Don’s is fading.

Death is also present is the burgeoning counter-culture movement.  Because the season starts at the end of 1967, we have missed the famous “Summer of Love” when the hippies were seen as strange, perhaps, but harmless.  As we move into 1968, the picture darkens. Looming ahead are the assassinations of Martine Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, a summer of riots, more killing in Vietnam and a general sense that society has spun out of control.

Already in this episode the hippie movement is dark and dangerous.  Betty’s rescue mission to find Sally’s friend Sandy (a name by the way, which now evokes contemporary sadness with Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook massacre) brings her to a bleak place in New York.  Squatters have taken over much of St. Marks Place, where they live without plumbing, heating and most of the amenities of civilization. Some of the residents are kind but their leader throws Betty out for being too bourgeois and is indifferent to the fate of the 15-year-old Sandy, a confused motherless girl.  Here we see the first stirrings of the SDS and Weather Underground, which will culminate in radicals accidentally blowing themselves up while trying to make bombs in a townhouse just like this.

At this point in the season, there doesn’t seem to be any answer to the problem of death.  Roger can talk about it with his psychiatrist (“Life is supposed to be a path, but experiences are nothing – just going in a straight line to you know where”) but he’s not getting much help.  He points out to Don that “We sold death for 25 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it?  We ignored it.”  Don doesn’t even have a psychiatrist to talk to, especially now that things are shutting down between him and Megan.  His heart surgeon friend, Dr. Rosen, says that he doesn’t worry about death but that his patients do.  Dr. Rosen says that “people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.”  That’s certainly not the promise of “Mad Men.”  If there’s one thing “Mad Men” is designed to do, it’s to RAISE your anxiety.

Some other random thoughts on the show:

  • This episode was more interesting to talk about than to watch.  This is the curse of the two-hour episode.  It seemed to be moving at half speed.  It wasn’t boring exactly, but it was meandering and not as sharply focused as a typical one-hour show.
  • The episode did do a good job of capturing how crazy it was to be alive in 1968.  In less than a year all the creative types have gone counter-culture. Peggy’s boyfriend Abe is barely recognizable under his beard and shaggy hair.  And Stan, who used to look like a Beach Boy could now be Zach Galifianakis’ twin.  Within the same office we have the creative team smoking dope and looking like slobs and the buttoned-up accounts team (Pete and Ken) still wearing ties and short hair.  These two tribes don’t even look like the same species, never mind office-mates.
  • Also evocative of the Sixties: the fondue pot from Bloomingdales, the post-prandial slide show of vacation pictures, and the introduction of the liqueur Galiano, which we had in our house.
  • The plot point about how a comedian on The Tonight Show made a joke that ruined Peggy’s ad reminds us of what life was like before Tivo, VCRs, Hulu or YouTube.  No one could figure out exactly what the comedian had said and they had to rely on an account from a staffer who just happened to be watching, but couldn’t remember all the details.  How did people live back then?  And no cell phones either!
  • Directive least likely to be obeyed?  When the photographer tells Don, “I just want you to be yourself.” And who the heck is that supposed to be.
  • Don didn’t talk for the first eight minutes of the show, which can seem like an eternity on television. This showed his distance from Megan, who did enough talking for both of them.  His first words?  “The Army.”
  • Well, the lingering question of whether Don returned to his cheating ways was answered pretty affirmatively, although at least he has the decency to admit, “I want to stop doing this.”  Of course the specific cheating offense in this case is pretty bad – to be sleeping with his friend’s wife.  I don’t think he’s ever done this before.  The friend goes off in the snow at 1:00 a.m. to save someone’s life and Don slips into his bedroom for a quickie.  By the way, for Judd Apatow fans, the wife was portrayed by the actress who played Audrey Weir, the teenage daughter on “Freaks and Geeks.”
  • I laughed out loud twice. Once at the funeral for Roger’s mother when his aunt demanded to speak first and he responded, “Why don’t you roll on over here?” The second, when Betty and Sandy are sharing a midnight snack and Betty invents a story that Sandy can use to hide the fact that she was rejected from Julliard; instead of being grateful, Sandy marvels, “it’s incredible how fast people can come up with lies.”
  • The scene where Peggy was talking to her boss’ pastor about the Super Bowl and her own religious background was also pretty funny. It also cleared up one mystery – why she is both Norwegian and Catholic. It turns out that her father was Lutheran and her mother Catholic.
  • Roger’s musing about doorways to his shrink reminds me of one of his funniest lines in happier days: “When God closes a door he opens a skirt.” Ha ha. Of course now he thinks that when a door is closed you can’t get back to where you were before.  As we always suspected, there’s despair under those jokes.
  • Regarding St. Mark’s place, I used to work in that neighborhood and it is now a yuppie paradise.  The house where the hippies were squatting would probably sell for $2 million now.  Yet, the neighborhood really was this bleak in the Sixties.  This is where the musical “Hair” is set.
  • Speaking of that neighborhood, the funniest tweet of the night was from someone who said, “It looks like Betty has stumbled onto the set of ‘Rent’.”
  • Poor Roger, not that he doesn’t deserve it, but he’s really alone now. He blows up at the funeral when his ex-wife brings a date, yelling “It’s my funeral!” And when he tries to have a tender moment with his daughter, giving her the water from the River Jordan that his mother has been saving all these years, she could not be any less interested.  Instead she hits him up for a contribution to her husband’s start-up business.
  • Poor Bobby Draper. Playing Bobby Draper is a one way ticket to Palookaville for any child actor who gets the part.  I believe this is the fourth new Bobby, who never seems to age.  At this rate baby Gene is going to older than he is by the end of the series.
  • Peggy’s boss Ted Chaogh, turns out to be a pretty good boss after all.  In previous years we saw him as a pathetic Draper wannabe but it turns out he’s sensitive to life-work balance.  Peggy’s trying to out-Sandberg Cheryl Sandberg by leaning way in but Ted tells her to not to be so rough on herself or the staff.

Last word to Don. He throws up at the funeral when the crazy aunt is describing how Roger’s mother provided unconditional love. The words that send him over the edge are, “My son is my sunshine.” Don, of course, literally killed his own mother, a prostitute, when he was born, and he is now drunker than we’ve ever seen him.  So drunk that he starts asking the doorman if he saw the light during his near-death experience. This is what Don – and Roger too – want to know.  Is there a point to life?  Is there a paradise other than Hawaii?  Just where does that doorway lead?

You may have heard that “Mad Men” is returning for season six on April 7.  Those of us who have been waiting for this day since the enigmatic end of season five have a few questions on their minds, including:

1.     How far into the ‘60s has the series jumped between seasons?  Season five lasted from Memorial Day 1966 to the spring of 1967.  Normally six to nine months passes between seasons, but if the producers do so again they’ll miss the race riots of 1967 and “summer of love,” which introduced hippies to mainstream consciousnesses.   Then again, maybe we’ll just jump to 1968, one of the most tumultuous years of the last century.  Regardless of when the season starts, we can expect to see even more social conflict between generations, races, and sexes.

2.     Has Don relapsed? Last season Don tried to become a better man, staying faithful to his wife, trying to prevent Joan from prostituting herself, and living a cleaner life.  Yet there he was in the last scene of the season, at his old bar being hit on with that profound question, “Are you alone?” Are we back to the old cheating Don? Personally I hope not, on the “been there, done that” principle. On the “The Sopranos,” where Matt Weiner once toiled, it was a given that characters could not fundamentally change — but for me, it’s much more interesting to see more personal growth.

3.     How will they use music?  “Mad Men” has been masterly at using period music to comment on and enhance the impact of the show’s themes. Famously (and thrillingly) Don’s incomprehension of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” signaled that the youth culture was passing him by, while a blast of The Kinks’ “You’ve Really Got Me” launched Peggy’s departure from SCDP  with a surprisingly positive jolt.  1967/1968 saw the climax of psychedelic music, the dramatic increase in protest songs, and the mainstreaming of country and soul music. Matt Weiner will have a lot of great songs to pick from.

4.      Will race be an important theme?  The casual and unapologetic racism of Madison Avenue has been a component of the show from the start, yet aside from the first episode of season five, it was barely mentioned last year.  With the rise of Black Power and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., race will be hard to avoid this season.

5.     How much will we see of Peggy?  Peggy’s journey has been almost as crucial to the show as Don’s, but how does she stay integrated into the show when she’s no longer with the agency?  We last saw her trying to land the account for the soon-to-be Virginia Slims, which could potentially catapult her to the top of the ad world.  But what will happen if she and Don compete for the same client?  It could get ugly.

6.     Will there be a lot of politics?  1968 was a crucial election year, and Henry Francis is an old Rockefeller man.  Will he rejoin the team when Rocky runs for president, and will he then jump to Nixon (as Henry Kissinger did) when Rocky loses the nomination?

7.     Did SCDP ever win the Dow account?  At the end of the season, Don made a bold bid for the Dow Chemical business. Landing Dow would have put the agency in the top tier of niche firms and also change its internal dynamics, since Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law is the potential client.  Until now, Ken has been the only well-balanced character on the show, clearly separating his personal happiness from professional advancement.  But if he’s seduced by ambition that could change.

8.     How fat is Betty?  Betty’s compulsive eating in season five signaled her apparent unhappiness in her new marriage. In the season six promotions she appears to be thin again. Does this signal personal happiness? I hope not, because she’s the character we most love to hate.

9.     Who will personify the youth rebellion? As the Baby Boomers surged through the ‘60s, they dramatically changed society — but Peggy, Ginsberg and Megan are all too old for this.  The only Boomers on the show are Glen and Sally, and only Glen is really old enough to develop an anti-establishment ideology. It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets kicked out of Hotchkiss for smoking pot or demonstrating against the war.

10.  Will Megan’s career take off?  Don gave Megan the break she needed in her acting career by helping her land a commercial. If she starts getting roles on Broadway or even in Hollywood, can their marriage survive? And what if she gets a part in “Hair”?

All these questions pale before the big one: Will “Mad Men” be able to sustain the level of excellence it achieved over the past two seasons?  Shark-jumping and burn-out are always dangers on shows that are so feverishly creative.  Here’s hoping that Matt Weiner and his team have another two good seasons in them.