Matthew Weiner always asks critics to avoid very specific spoilers and, despite this demand sometimes going too far in what Mad Men’s creator thinks of as a spoiler, he’s given fans five exceptional seasons of the show and has earned the right to be protective. And since there’s no reason to ruin anyone’s enjoyment, this review will not reveal any of Weiner’s particular plot points or elements of concern.
And there’s really no reason to reveal what he wants to keep hidden anyway. Because Mad Men is wonderful at tempting viewers with eye candy — the clothing, the modern furniture, the smoking, the drinking, the illicit nature of certain relationships — while deftly keeping quiet about what the show is really concerned with. And that is and always has been Don Draper’s existential crisis.
What’s intriguing and partly amazing about the two hour “movie” called “The Doorway” that opens the season April 7 is that Weiner has not lost his touch at writing a beautifully crafted script — jammed with the sadness and humor and personal revelations we’ve all come to appreciate. But in addition to that, he’s decided to really hit home Mad Men’s key theme in the first two hours with a kind of ferocity of intent we’ve rarely seen from him.
The season kick off is heavily preoccupied with death. It’s roughly two hours of Don and Roger looking, for different reasons, into the yawning maw of death and wondering what the whole point of their lives is. For Roger, this is relatively new territory as he’s previously laughed off thoughts about the end, even though change has been pushing his character to new corners for the past three seasons. Since Roger’s more of a whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of guy, viewers aren’t given a lot of his self-reflective moments as he stares into the vast distance lost in thought. That’s a Don Draper specialty on Mad Men, however, and Season 6 wastes no time getting to it.
We see Don reading “The Inferno” from Dante while he and Megan lie on the beach in Hawaii. As the camera lingers on Megan’s bikini bottom, Jon Hamm’s voice over thoughtfully recites, “I went astray from the straight road (pause) and woke to find myself alone (pause) in a dark wood.”
Contrast that with the bright Hawaii beach scenes and you get the sense that maybe Don’s not fully getting the Paradise vibe.
Now, nobody ponders like Don Draper and Weiner has given him much to think about heading into Season 6, specifically after he witnesses the near-death experience of his doorman when he and Megan get back to wintry New York. Don will later, in a drunken, post-funeral experience, ask the doorman, “What did you see when you died? I want to know…what did you see when you died?”
There are various story arcs taking shape in the first two hours and I won’t get into any of those — you can experience the joy all on your own — because this table-setting introduction to season six has significance primarily for Don and Roger.
Of course Roger had some eye-opening LSD enlightenment in season five, which made him a bit more introspective than the man we met in season one who responded, when Don asked in all seriousness what women really wanted: “Who cares?”
(By the way, Don has wondered in every season what other people want, sometimes to better sell them something they don’t need and sometimes because he’s genuinely interested in what makes people happy, since he hasn’t been able to make himself truly happy over the course of the series.) If you’ll remember, back in season one when Betty was going to therapy, Don and Roger talked about happiness and therapy — which, in 1960, was partly a taboo topic and something so “new” as not to be trusted. Said Roger, on the concept of each: “Psychiatry is just this year’s candy-pink stove. It’s just more happiness.”
And while he said that with disdain back in season one, Roger finds himself needing therapy in season six — not because he believes in it, but because he’s finally coming to grips with the kind of existential crisis Don has pondered for years. In a great scene, Roger rants to his shrink about the notion of going through a doorway in life because you want to discover new things and grow. Then you go over bridges to find things and through windows, too. But there’s nothing there, nothing new about the experience, he says. “They all open the same way and they all close behind you.”
For Don, season premiere episodes hit on twin themes (again, this is the first time that Weiner has pushed these so aggressively). In Hawaii/Paradise – he definitely seems moved by something he can’t quite put into words – and he stares out a window (those of you keeping track of the window motif in Season 5, get ready again) and hears the ocean. But there’s a scene that is set up beautifully as a mini-detour. Unable to sleep, Don meets a drunk guy getting married the next day. Turns out, the guy is in the service, heading out for a tour of Vietnam. He knew Don had been in the service because they have the same lighter.
Weiner’s ability to bring that part of Don ‘s past back into Mad Men is impressively woven into the start of Season 6. Since the entire Dick Whitman/Don Draper exploration of identity and self is what has fueled the series, it’s nice to return to it so directly after all the Betty-Don-Megan and office storylines. Don inadvertently picks up the wrong lighter and there he is, facing his past, his lies and the reason he can’t ever stop moving in search of something that looks or feels, at least temporarily, like happiness.
Don is getting his picture taken when he first notices he’s got the wrong lighter. Stunned to see it, Don looks up and confusedly asks the photographer what he wants Don to do for the picture again? “I want you to be yourself,” he says.
Well, here we are again, full circle.
“The Doorway” is a beautiful episode and moves with ease throughout, managing to stare down the big existential issues and surprise viewers with new twists as well. It’s difficult to write overtly about death when it’s more of an abstract than a reality, but Weiner does a brilliant job here. There’s a moment where Megan tells Don to go back to sleep and sweeps her hand down over his eyes – a gesture we’ve all seen hundreds of times to indicate someone has died. And later, while trying to sell Hawaii (specifically the Royal Hawaiian Hotel), Don conjures up an ad that looks, to everyone except him, like it’s about suicide.
Based on that – and there are many more death references – Season 6 should really be special. Maybe with all that window gazing, someone might yet jump out of one like they do in the credits.
Here’s to Mad Men still being very much alive in Season 6.