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'Mad Men' Premiere Recap: Walking Through 'The Doorway'

More than ever, it feels as though we're supposed to "solve" "Mad Men" episodes these days; each meaning, symbol, allegory and metaphor is as neatly arranged as a Japanese bento box, one we are supposed to unpack with proper care and reverence.
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Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen the Season 6 premiere of AMC's "Mad Men," titlted "The Doorway."

"I want to stop doing this."
- Don Draper

I must begin this review of the Season 6 premiere of "Mad Men" by discussing what Don said when he was in bed with his neighbor Sylvia, and not just because my first, second and third reactions to that scene were, "Oh my God, Don Draper is sleeping with Lindsay Weir!"

Linda Cardellini (of "Freaks and Geeks," among other things) is a wonderful addition to "Mad Men"; she's always brought a slightly haunted, brave self-awareness to her characters, and self-knowledge is something Don still lacks -- possibly more than ever, these days.

"Mad Men" is still a Rorschach test of sorts; the fact that we can all find different meanings inside each episode's ambiguities is one of the reasons we love it. But over the years, it seems to me that it has become an increasingly formal and symbolic affair. That created a certain amount of controversy last season; those who enjoy that kind of structured aesthetic were thrilled, and while I enjoyed the season as a whole, it wasn't my favorite year for the show. It certainly had its moments, but I thought that some of the symbolism was a little too simplistic and hammered home a little too hard.

But the important thing is that the show is still changing -- it's not standing still or resting on its laurels. "Mad Men" is not the show it was in Season 1, tonally or even thematically, though some core ideas are always there under the surface. It's appropriate that the show has evolved so significantly, because much of the narrative has been concerned, in recent seasons and certainly in "The Doorway," with how much people have or haven't changed. What are they becoming and what kinds of alterations have they resisted?

As Pfc. Dinkins' lighter said, "In life, we often have to do things that are just not our bag"; we don't always get to choose the circumstances that encourage us to evolve. But some have dealt with the changing times with grace, and some look less ready than ever to embrace this stranger, dirtier, less rigid world. So which characters have embraced new "bags," and which ones have been consumed by their baggage? It's worth taking a look at a few of the characters and thinking about how different they are these days -- though in some cases, qualities that were always there have just become more pronounced (and maybe that's the definition of change when it comes to this show?).

Of course, we have to start with Don, whose evolution is taking on an ever more tragic air. One of the key moments of "The Doorway" comes toward the end of the rather melancholy season premiere. We see Don in his natural habitat: a pitch meeting with new clients. it's almost embarrassing to see Don, who so expertly mined consumers' latent death wish for years, so unaware of how much his own death wish had seeped into his campaign for Sheraton's Hawaiian hotel. See how the mighty have fallen.

More than ever, it feels as though we're supposed to "solve" "Mad Men" episodes these days; each meaning, symbol, allegory and metaphor is as neatly arranged as a Japanese bento box, one we are supposed to unpack with proper care and reverence. (I'm not complaining, not this week anyway; anything made with this much craftsmanship deserves careful attention). Or maybe the show's more like a math problem, and when I solve for "X" -- when I strap on my symbol decoder, fire up my semiotic translator and haul out my Freudian/Jungian/"White Album" meaning generator -- here's what I get:

I think Don wants to die.

Think about what he said to Sylvia: He wants to stop sleeping with her. The ending of Season 5 gave us a pretty broad indication that Don was going to get back to his hound-dog ways, and, sure enough, he did, with Dr. Rosen's beautiful wife. The Megan marriage was a sort-of noble experiment, but none of us really expected him to be monogamous. We know by now how he operates. Don wants to find that one relationship, that one love affair that will sustain him, give him peace and sate the hunger that lives inside him, but he just can't find it. Probably because it can't be found.

Nothing on "Mad Men" happens by accident, and it's not a coincidence that Roger lost his mother in this episode. Think about how wrecked Roger was when the loss of his mom finally hit him. He was torn apart, because all his life, he really did feel cared for. Even if he didn't spend much time with his mom, he knew that she loved him in a profound way and that only her death ended that.

That old lady at the post-funeral reception may have sounded like a soppy Hallmark card, but the sentiments she invoked were part of what made Don lose his lunch into the umbrella stand. (It's a typical -- and pretty brilliant -- move by "Mad Men" to occasionally undercut moments of deep meaning with something goofy or silly. Tragedy underlined by comedy somehow seems even sadder, if that makes any sense.) Don never had what Roger took for granted, and that fact means Don's been broken in some fundamental way all his life.

Of course, his ill-timed puking was also driven by the fact that he'd had way too much to drink. But why had he gotten so liquored up that day? Because, from his perspective, Megan had abandoned him, again. She'd been nervous about her job when they returned from Hawaii, but things were looking up for her at "To Have and to Hold." So she left Don by himself and went off and happily did her own thing, and that moment recalled the final scene of Season 5, in which a moody Don strolled off to a bar when he saw how excited and fulfilled Megan was on the set of her commercial.

Don needs women to love him completely and fully; he needs them to be everything to him, all the time; he needs them to not want or need anything or anyone else. He needs a bond that will cut through searing loneliness and rejection that the hated, rejected whore's son has felt all his life. But of course, given that he grew up a wary, abused outsider, when he finds those kinds of immersive relationships, they eventually set off his boundary alarms. When the glow of comfort wears off, when the woman he's with begins to assert her individuality and her will, the cycle of despondency begins again. And the irony is, he likes independent women -- the side of Don that enjoys pursuit is ultimately disgusted by the kind of dependent woman that another part of him craves.

The state of bliss that he has had briefly with so many women can never, ever last, because the women can't fix what's broken in him. Subconsciously, Don knows this, and doesn't think anything or anyone can ever fix him. It's too hard to keep going through the same cycle of search-find-connect-reject-replace, and he's sick of it. He's traversed that circle of hell too many times, and his soul is tired. He just wants out.

"There is no man. Just footprints."

That phrase is just one item on "The Doorway's" death-obsession list. The season begins with images shot from the point of view of a man having a heart attack and going over to "the other side." We find out later that the heart-attack victim was Don's doorman Jonesy, but Don is obsessed with Jonesy's experience, and not just because he and Megan witnessed it.

"What did you see?" a drunk and desperate Don asked Jonesy at one point. Don wanted to know if it was hot and sunny and if Jonesy could hear the ocean. Those are important images, similar to what Don brings up to the Sheraton executives; he talks about a blue sky, the balmy temperatures and the breeze in Hawaii.

The images and ideas he asks Jonesy about and mentioned in his pitch are familiar because they opened the episode: After we see Dr. Rosen from Jonesy's perpective, Don looks at Megan's tan body (Heaven), then we see him reading "The Inferno," the story of one man's journey through Hell. We hear the ocean, soak up the silence and soon, a blue drink is delivered. (Note that we go from Jonesy's perspective to Don's without a break -- we shift from the point of view of a man who's dying to Don's point of view seamlessly. Is he dying too? There's no definitive answer, of course, but the visual and thematic connection is too strong to ignore.)

Later, when Don has returned from vacation and is in his office, there's a long, lingering shot of the back of Don's head (always a moment that indicates something important is happening). At one point, we see Don from a long way away, and very softly, we hear the sound of the ocean. The moment is both peaceful and ominous. A bit later, we see Don in bed and the way his body is arranged, he looks as if he's dead.

"I had an experience," Don tells the copywriters of his time in Hawaii. The experience, I think, was the glimpse of a "doorway" into the next world, one where the endless, repetitive cycles of punishment Dante described -- and Don feels he's experienced -- would finally stop. Don is obsessed, not with a woman, an account or any material trophy, but with "experiencing" the peace that Jonesy may have felt when he nearly exited this world.

What's sad is that Don can't see how much real estate this death obsession, this desire to give up, is occupying in his head. The superstar who was always five steps ahead of everyone else, the executive who was so inscrutable that the junior staffers thought of him as Batman, had his team come up with an ad that is more or less about committing suicide. And he didn't see it.

Far from being able to divine what others are thinking, the clients had to tell Don what he was thinking but hadn't seen. Don and Peggy both had to deal with clients who were concerned about problematic associations customers might make when looking at their ads, and the student learned only too well from the master. Peggy told her client that the problem he saw wasn't real, but she ultimately figured out how to address his concerns without diluting her work.

Don, on the other hand, was caught flat-footed by men who were paying him to think outside the box. Turns out he can't stop thinking about being in a pine box, six feet under. And he couldn't convince the Sheraton guys that they were wrong.

So Don has changed; he's no longer grabbing for the brass ring but looking for an exit, and this means he's distracted from everything in front of him. As we've seen in the last few seasons, he may be changing in ways that will doom him, either professionally or personally. But Don is so complex that we can't count him out quite yet. He's pulled out of many tailspins, but this feels a bit different. He's functional, but he's a very weary man. In bed with Sylvia, we see no joy on his face. We see that even he knows the mild contentment he feels with her will be fleeting. He may want the charge of Eros, but the pull of Thanatos is strong.

Nothing lasts, and he's not like Roger; he's never going to want an analyst poking around in his head, explaining to him that he needs to love and accept himself in order to stop this endless round-robin of infidelity, brief pleasure and loneliness.

"It's not just a different place. You are different." It's actually a good tagline, but is Don really different, or are his self-defeating qualities just winning this round? Is Betty really different, or has she just dyed her hair in order to make herself feel that she is? Is Roger being changed by therapy, or does he just have a new audience for his material? The show Matthew Weiner worked on previously, "The Sopranos," was ultimately about how hard it is to change, and though I think "Mad Men" is a little more optimistic on this score than "The Sopranos," the AMC drama is clear-eyed about the fact that some changes are for the worse.

But Peggy has certainly changed for the better, and a few of my favorite segments revolved around her. Her brisk scolding of her employees was a thing of beauty, and it was vintage Draper, of course. Peggy had learned well how to see through her staff's inadequacies, and she had no trouble asserting herself with them.

She could take them to task without fear of reprisal, because she has the power in that situation. With clients, however, she's had to moderate her tone and demeanor, not just to keep them as clients, but because she's found out the hard way that male clients don't want to be yelled at the way Don could yell at clients. They're just not prepared to accept one of Don's patented "Do it my way because I'm the best; you're welcome" speeches coming from a woman, and that may be unfair, but she's accepted it. You could see her struggling to retain her composure in the Koss scene, but she hung on to her cool. And she nailed the new ad.

Does her new boss, Ted Chaough, have a thing for her? Or is he one of those bosses who is constantly seducing his staff -- probably only in theory -- in order to keep them in line? Hard to say, but the slippery Ted Chaough-gh-gh is no Stan Rizzo. I could not love Peggy's phone chat with Stan any more. "For the love of God, Pegs, marry that bearded bastard!" I wanted to shout at the screen. I mean, these two just get each other, and there's just the right amount of camaraderie and sparkiness between them.

Yes, he's a bit of an oaf and his beard is getting so epic that he's probably about to be shipped off to The Wall on "Game of Thrones." But he has a good heart, he's funny and he understands the work she does; that all counts for so much. (Her current boyfriend, on the other hand, has facial hair that makes me distrust him. I can't explain this.)

When we -- and Peggy -- were reminded he was on the phone with that half-whispered, "He likes you!" I just about died. That was a terrific moment, and an example of how "Mad Men" keeps us around (in part) by depicting moments of friendship, intimacy and true affection so well.

The rest of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has evolved in ways large and small (aside from Bert Cooper, who doesn't need to change a damn thing). Ken Cosgrove still plays his cards close to the vest, but he plays the game quite well when he needs to, as evidenced by his smackdown of the new, over-eager accounts guy, Bob Benson (James Wolk). As he has ever since his fiction career took off, Ken gives the impression of a man whose heart is elsewhere and who's just using his day job to pay the bills. Still, no newcomer is going to get in the way of him doing that as efficiently as he possibly can.

Harry Crane's evolution is the creepiest of all, of course; once the '70s roll around, you just know he'll be the first guy in the office to wear a lime-green leisure suit. As it is, his sideburns are almost out of control; I fear if they escaped his face, someone would call Animal Control to exterminate them. He's also got a pair of Ari Onassis glasses that could be used as a lethal weapon. Creepy Harry needs the big glasses to ceaselessly ogle any female under the age of 80 in his vicinity, which is just ...yeeuch. Oh Harry, you were such a timid little rabbit back in Season 1. Now, as his success and sideburns grow, so does his ickiness.

Pete was always icky, and though his hairline is receding, he's pretty much the same old Pete, though we didn't spend enough time with him in the season premiere to see how he's changed (or not) since Season 5. Same goes for Joan and a few other characters, who I'm sure will get their moments to shine as the season rolls on.

What we did get a lot of was Betty. Every season, saying anything about Betty at all ignites a firestorm of controversy, so I'll try to be as brief and as clear as I can be about her (if you want more of my thoughts on Betty, they're here). First, the segment of her visiting the hippies on St. Marks Place was just not all that interesting; the hippies felt as though they came straight out of central casting, and the whole incident reminded me of that time Dr. Quincy investigated the punk rock scene.

Nothing about the sequence told me anything new about Betty. We know that she never really let herself take the kind of chances that Sandy took with her young life, and Betty regrets that her trajectory followed the exact sequence of events that Sandy described -- a brief window of freedom in New York followed by a lifetime in dull suburbia. So Betty dyed her hair, the better to distract herself from the fact that she's slowly turning into Henry's waspish mother, Pauline Francis, right down to the dowdy hair and the dresses that look like they were made from upholstery fabric.

For the 800th time, I don't get impatient with Betty because she's female or because she's the wife of a rule-breaking man/anti-hero. I get impatient with the character because Weiner seems to think she's far more interesting than she is. She's just not that interesting, and that's been consistently true for a few years now. When it comes to Betty, we've seen the same character beats over and over again, and January Jones doesn't have the innate charisma to make them interesting every single time. I am not saying Jones has no talent, but she has a very narrow range, and when "Mad Men" forces her outside it, the results aren't pretty. All things considered, her storylines, for me, are often the weakest part of the show.

Case in point: One of the most "off" scenes in "Mad Men" history transpired during the Season 6 premiere, when Henry and Betty were discussing Sandy. Betty "jokingly" suggested that Henry rape the 15-year-old girl, and offered to "hold down her arms." "You can stick a rag in her mouth and you won't wake the boys." Henry was horrified, but not nearly as horrified as I was.

After unleashing this extremely disturbing conversation, Betty smiled broadly, as if she'd just made a few amusing, slightly barbed remarks. It looked as though Betty thought she was just giving Henry a hard time, and it seemed as though Weiner, who wrote the episode, was trying to convey a bit the jealousy Betty felt in what he may have thought was semi-humorous, semi-aggressive language. That was so far off from how the scene actually came off.

What that whole scene said to me is that Betty is a mentally disturbed person who has no sense of what is appropriate and that she has serious emotional issues. We know that, but does the show know that? There has always been a mismatch between how the show thinks Betty comes off and how she actually comes off. I think the show views her as misunderstood, immature and occasionally cruel, but basically someone who's more or less sound and someone we should empathize with. The character doesn't come off that way at all, and the mismatch between the intent behind Betty and the reality of who the character actually is is often grating.

If Jones had had the ability to infuse that kind of scene with ambiguity and multiple layers of meaning, perhaps it would have been less jarring, but she couldn't pull it off. Even if she could, why is "Mad Men" so fascinated with this woman, who is basically disturbed, angry, petulant or unhappy in very similar ways over and over again? I don't know. I do know that I simply don't share that interest.

Having said all that, despite the segue in the Village, the focus of the season premiere was clearly on the lost boys. Roger and Don are forever looking for the bountiful, beautiful mother/wife who will make them feel eternally safe and taken care of ("This is my funeral," Roger petulantly declared, and in a way, it was; it was the death of the only woman who never grew tired of him). It's no accident that Roger finally cried when he saw the shoeshine man's box. That guy made him feel good about himself, just as his mom always had.

Don found another lost boy in that bar in Hawaii -- a young soldier whose lighter he accidentally took, an act that revived all his feelings of being a fraud and a fake. You'll recall that Don -- or rather, Dick Whitman -- lit a cigarette with a similar lighter years earlier, just before the accident that allowed him to steal Don Draper's identity. Dinkins' lighter is a symbol of everything he feels he's not entitled to and everything he's taken without asking. Try as he might, he couldn't seem to get rid of the soldier's lighter -- like his death wish, he just can't shake it.

Don kept pressing Jonesy and Dr. Rosen about life and death; What was on the other side? What did it feel like to be able to give life and to end it? Was it peaceful? Was it easy to walk through that doorway, or watch someone exit through it?

Don's last conversation with Dr. Rosen took place in a doorway -- a portal into a cold, snow-covered landscape, not a breezy, balmy paradise. People will do anything to relieve their anxiety, Rosen said, as if that's something Don hasn't known forever.

Will Don ever be able to relieve his own anxiety? Or will this moment be one more doorway that closes behind him, leaving him unchanged?

I'll close this with a bullet list of additional observations and quotes:
  • The last line of Season 5 involved Don being asked if he's alone, and Season 6 begins with a voice over from Don reading from "The Inferno" about being "alone in a dark wood." The show may have jumped forward about eight months, but Don's more or less in the same place. It's also interesting to note that he doesn't speak for about eight minutes after that voiceover -- he is merely observing everything around him, until he meets the soldier in the bar. So many moments in this deeply existential phase of "Mad Men's" existence feel so weighted and freighted with meaning. As is appropriate for the dawn of 1968, the year of the Beatles' "White Album," soon we'll be watching "Mad Men" episodes backwards and listening for hidden "Don is dead" messages.
  • "You some kind of astronaut?"
  • Speaking of the young soldier in the bar, I couldn't get over how much he looked like a young Roger Sterling. And like Roger, all he wanted to do was get into some trouble. Even when it comes to wingmen, Don has a type. (By the way, Patrick Mapel, who played Dinkins, is actress Mare Winningham's son.)
  • That was some serious Priscilla Presley hair on Dinkins' bride.
  • Stuck in that mausoleum of a house with her unhappy mother, Betty's daughter has certainly changed quite a bit from the Sally we met six years ago. She's a sassy gal, and entertainingly so, given that Kiernan Shipka has a deft hand with pretty much everything, including teen defiance and sarcasm.
  • Don doesn't want his staff to cheapen the word "love," which is pretty rich for a guy who's used words like it to sell nylons, booze, furs and cigarettes his whole adult life.
  • I loved our first glimpse at this season's crop of copywriting employees, who look like alien creatures compared to the stiff, starched employees who toiled away for Don back in Season 1. The late '60s SCDP staff was just smoking weed right there in the office, and I was mightily amused that the sleeping guy never got up off the couch. I say Sleeping Guy stays there all season.
  • Who else thought the water in that jar that Roger gave to his daughter looked like pee? Who else thought Roger's daughter would stick that jar on a shelf in the garage and never look at it again?
  • Welcome to the show, James Wolk of "Lone Star" and various other shows. I'm looking forward to Bob's ingratiating ways shaking things up at SCDP.
  • Where you've seen Jonesy before: He was Little Carmine Lupertazzi on "The Sopranos."
  • So it's 1968, and there's a second floor at SCDP (those facts were on the list of things Weiner didn't want critics to reveal before Season 6 began). Now don't you wish I'd revealed those things to you ahead of time, before the season began? I'm kidding! Or am I??
  • In his post on the season premiere, my colleague Mike Hogan wrote more about the tragedy of Don's infidelity. And by the way, I'll be reviewing "Mad Men" each week, so I hope to see you in seven days, my fellow SCDP enthusiasts.
HuffPost TV has a ton of "Mad Men" features, exclusive supercuts, interviews and more; check out all our offerings here. Below, you can find a clip of me and critic Matt Zoller Seitz talking about "Mad Men" on HuffPost Live.

"Mad Men" moves to its regular timeslot on Sunday, April 14 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.

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