Mad Men: Death Be Not Proud

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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?

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1 comment
  1. John Burke said:

    Great post. It’s getting harder to view Don as anything other than a bum and a creep. Just FYI, the townhouse that was destroyed by the accidental explosion of Weather Underground bombs was not a Lower East Side dump. It was on West 11th Street off Fifth Avenue, an elegant, historic federal manse owned by Kathy Boudin’s father, Leonard Boudin, a radical left-wing lawyer (oh, let’s face it; he was a Communist, even if not a Party member). The Weatherkids were making bombs with dynamite and nails in daddy’s house for use in such plans as blowing up a Fort Dix dance. There were multiple bombs that all exploded, destroying Leonard’s home and actually blowing through the living room wall of the adjacent townhouse — the home of Dustin Hoffman. Lucky for Kathy that they didn’t kill the movie star. She might not have got her early parole (from the Brinx robbery-murders), much less a slot on the Columbia faculty.

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