Spoilers for the season 6 premiere of "Mad Men" below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.
This week's episode had everything you've come to expect from a "Mad Men" season opener -- length, meaningful glances, people staring out of window and, of course, heavy, heavy symbolism. As we get late in the series run (next season is purported to be the last), the cloud of mortality hangs over both the series and its characters.
Oh boy, does that cloud hang. This week's episode saw Don (Jon Hamm) reading Dante on vacation (and seriously, who does that? I realize it was to impress Linda Cardellini of TV's "Freaks and Geeks," but still), Don pitching a campaign that hinted not-so-subtly at suicide, Roger losing both his mother and his shoeshine man, Don and Megan's doorman Little Carmine having a near-death experience, Peggy's ad campaign being haunted by the Vietnam war, Betty futilely trying to keep a young girl from losing her innocence -- the list goes on and on. I haven't even spoken about the poor cuckolded doctor who tries to be calm and cavalier about the life and death situations he faces every day.
It's no wonder that death is haunting everyone. As the season opens, we're on the cusp of 1968, and the Vietnam War is looming large. Also, the relationships and hierarchies that existed when the show opened are hanging by a thread. Pete is no longer the eager upstart desperate to be acknowledged by Don. Instead, he's turning into a snarky manager who treats Don with much of the impatience and disdain he was once treated with. Roger, of all people, is in therapy, though he doesn't seem to be getting much out of it (anyone else see hints of Matt Weiner's old show, "The Sopranos" in Roger's guarded push-pull with his therapist?). Peggy is leading her own team over at Teddy ChuggaChugga's agency (yes, I know that's not his name. My version's easier to remember), and morphing into a seemingly more stable version of the young Don. There's even a new, puppy-dogish accounts guy at Don's shop, who resembles a less angry version of the young Pete.
Yes, everything is in flux, which explains why Don is haunted by death at what should be a happy time. The episode starts with him and Megan in Hawaii, having a ball in paradise. But, as usual, Don's past is inescapable. He runs into, Dinkins, a Vietnam soldier who recognizes in Don a fellow serviceman. The younger man sees in Don a vision of what he someday could become. Don sees in the younger man the shameful secret he left behind in Korea. Though Don gives away Dinkins's bride, the seemingly joyful event is overshadowed by the fact that Dinkins (a) doesn't have anyone he actually knows who can stand up and his wedding and (b) that Dinkins will be headed back to war, and that the main reason his honey is marrying him is that she's heard married soldiers live longer.
Still, Don's moved by his experience and, like most of us, tries to carry it with him when he returns home. It proves futile, as he's quickly overwhelmed by work, Megan's frequent absences due to her soap opera gig and the fact that he Dinkins inadvertently switched lighters. Oh, and that's to say nothing of the fact that his chatty doorman nearly drops dead the minute Don returns home. No wonder his ad campaign for the Hawaiian resort -- which is supposed to be a paean to leaving your cares and woes behind -- looks like the aftermath of a suicide attempt. Of course, he deals with this all the way that Don always does -- by drinking, puking in public and sleeping with an inappropriate woman (this time the wife of his seemingly noble doctor neighbor).
He's not the only one dealing with death. After years of trying to outrun his own mortality with younger women and LSD trips, Roger slams into it head on, with the death of his mom. As Roger would, he tries to act detached, shelling out wisecracks. But he starts to unravel -- first when his ex Mona brings her new man to the wake and then when his shoeshine man Georgio dies.
And then there's Betty, who seems marginally more interesting than usual in this episode, though they still have January Jones donning that terrible fat suit. But at least she has something interesting to do. She bonds with Sally's friend, a young violin prodigy who lies about getting accepted into Juilliard and runs off to the city, in spite of Betty's advice. Betty's trip to a Greenwich Village flophouse was fairly haunting, with shades both of Wesley Snipes' trip to the crack house in "Jungle Fever" and Walt's odyssey through junkie hell to find Jesse in the end of "Breaking Bad's" second season. Betty, of course, is woefully out of place in this environment (though she does, apparently, know how to make goulash. That was a surprise). Still, she's been knocked around enough in life to know that her trip is pointless and that the young violinist is gone. And, being Betty, she deals with it not by talking about her grief, but by changing her appearance. She dies her hair brown, going from Betty to Veronica.
Not everyone is quite so haunted by mortality. Peggy is doing well in her new job, even though it initially seems like Teddy Chugga-Chugga has abandoned her during the Koss headphones crisis. But it seems like he was just testing her mettle (and bowing to his wife's wishes to spend less time at work), and was impressed with what he saw. There also seems, at least to Peggy's old pal Stan, to be some chemistry between Peggy and ol' Mr. Chugga-Chugga. We shall see.
All in all, it was a strong start, though a bit heavy-handed with all the death symbolism (seriously -- NO ONE READS DANTE ON VACATION! That was less believable than Ben Linus on "Lost" selecting James Joyce for a little light in-flight reading.) But I like the idea of watching Peggy morph into Don (hopefully, with a bit less of the baggage that her mentored carried with him). And Don's retreat back to his old drinking and philandering ways is a bit more poignant than his past descents into bad behavior, because we know he so desperately wants to be a better person.
Anyway, here are a few more thoughts on "The Doorway":
- Some fun guest stars in this ep, particularly the aforementioned Cardellini as Don's paramour and Ray Abruzzo, who so memorably played malaprop dropping Little Carmine on "The Sopranos" as Don and Megan's doorman. Though I must say, between Don romancing Lindsay from "Freaks and Geeks" and Pete's fling last season with Rory Gilmore, it seems every female lead of TV shows I loved in my 20s is getting groped by a Mad Man. If she weren't busy with her Showtime show and her role in the Kickstarter revolution, I'd say it was high time for Kristen Bell to start canoodling with Roger Sterling.
- OK, we have to talk about this episode's excellent hair choices. Pete looks like a side-burned Hitler; Roger looks like a silver-hued Ed Grimley and Stan looks like Zach Galifianakis with marginally more stylish clothes. I don't know what the hell Ginsburg looks like.
- Hey, it's Burt Peterson, former Sterling Draper head of accounts, now working with Peggy at Teddy Chugga-Chugga's shop. Good to see him (and Michael Gaston) again.
Well, what did everyone else think?