Like everybody else I’d say I’m excited to have Mad Men back, but that wouldn’t be terribly honest of me because last night was the first time I actually watched the show on AMC, not Netflix. I am excited to see what happens to the characters, and am eager to see what tricks Matthew Weiner and his directors (though let’s be honest, it’s really just Matthew Weiner) have up their sleeve—Mad Men is the most cinematic of TV shows in terms of its production value and its plays on traditional narrative structure that allow a lot of episodes (especially episodes from Seasons Four and Five) to stand on their own. I’ll be up front with you: I like Mad Men, though it isn’t my favorite thing on TV, and hopefully I’ll be able to somewhat elucidate why that is in my review of last night’s season premiere, “The Doorway.”
One characteristic of Mad Men that I doubt anyone would dispute is its status as the most written television show. Notice that I didn’t say the most well-written show, though at times it can be. What I mean is that Weiner is not shy to fill his scripts with innuendo and symbolism, and at it’s worst, this is a form of patent overkill. At least once an episode, it seems, there’s a round of dialogue that is so unsubtle as to crush your skull with a sledgehammer and splatter your brains against the far wall; last night’s example involved the photographer directing Don: “I just want you to be yourself.” (I must confess that among the least interesting details of Mad Men, to me, is Don Draper’s discarding of his Dick Whitman identity. Don Draper post-name change contains enough multitudes for a perfectly suitable character study of a man going through an identity crisis, and despite the several flashbacks I don’t think we have a lot of baseline knowledge about Dick that would be useful to compare to Don now, other than his mother’s being a whore and father a drunk. Too often I think Weiner believes he must pay lip service to this simply because it was the original hook of the show, and this might be a reason for why I always roll my eyes at the obligatory Draper/Whitman “Who Are You, I Mean Who Are You REALLY?” lines.)
Mad Men does benefit, though, from Weiner’s throwing as many metaphors and symbols against the wall as he can, because it’s usually the case that his writing style enhances the material more than it annoys me. One of Weiner’s gifts is for alluding to moments in past episodes (and past seasons) in ways that either foster continuity or slyly further a running joke. As an example of the former, the slide show of Don and Megan’s Hawaiian travels recalls Don’s presentation from Season One’s “The Carousel.” You wonder if Don is at a similar point in his current marriage as he was in his previous marriage with Betty, and all indications would point to the conclusion that, yes, he is. As an example of the latter, I enjoyed Pete’s recitation of Don’s typical work day, which requires a nap, of course—Don above all is a man of habit, for better, for worse, and in ways that are easy targets for mocking.
Weiner is still able to augment his story with the less subtle written flourishes, too. Don’s dislike of his minions’ kitchen campaign—for its trivialization of the meaning of love, when “love” is the keystone of the campaign’s tagline—certainly stands out for the same reasons that any “Who Is Don Draper?” dialogue stands out so starkly: we know that Don is as committed to love as a drug addict is committed to rehab, in that it’s something you’re obligated to say you want even when your words don’t match your actions. What I appreciated, though, was the dramatic irony underlining the scene: even though Don’s words have an empty eloquence (because we know how little they mean to him), he’s earnest in his disappointment with his underlings and in the rightness of his creative ideas. That what Don wants for the campaign is over Stan’s and Ginsburg’s heads only adds to the dramatic irony: the viewer, not Don, Stan, or Ginsburg, has the closest thing to a complete understanding of Don’s vacuousness and inanity.
This brings me to last night’s eponymous symbol, and I think there’s two ways to look at the doorway. The first largely tracks Roger’s soliloquy to his therapist, namely that life is your taking your time through one doorway before it closes when you die, with your pennies of experience, to paraphrase Roger, little more than pocket change to collect for your passing through. This metaphor seems apt for Roger—he’s a guy who really hasn’t changed despite plenty of experiences and heart trouble, but rather has just continued poisoning himself with cigarettes, drink, and sarcasm. (Here’s where I’ll add that I dislike that Roger is the character on Mad Men with the most hollow soul; it’s as if Weiner is arguing that sarcastic and genuinely funny people can’t lead fulfilling lives, to which I say FUCK THAT. Just because funny people have sadness doesn’t make their failures any more extreme.)
The second interpretation, I think, suggests that the doorway is the front that people put up to disguise what they’re really like. The doorway (whether it’s a literal front door or a person’s mind) that a person steps through on the way out is the plane that separates their true existence from their fabricated or exaggerated one, I’d argue. More or less every character on Mad Men is an actor: Roger puts on his facetious airs even though the most business he’s bringing in these days is from Stolichnaya, by purchasing their product; Peggy, working in a man’s world, often feels pressure to act like one of the guys, to the point where she now, despite her talent, risks losing touch with those working for her. Roger’s bottled-up emotions spill out not after his mother dies but after his shoe shine man dies. That Roger was this hard to crack shows how difficult it is to open our doors; it’s usually easier to keep them closed. It’s interesting that the most honest character on the show, Megan (I think the closest she’s come to actually lying is when she told her actress friend that she couldn’t promise that Don would secure her the commercial gig before asking Don herself), is an actress, and someone who uses her maiden name and the name of her soap opera character when greeting fans.
Don, moreover, is living an inversion of this second interpretation—the act he puts on is at home, first for Betty and now for Megan, rather than outside like everybody else. Don is most at home in the office and alone at the bar sipping an Old Fashioned. It’s in these two places, not in his apartment, where last season he literally had to wrestle Megan to the floor, that Don is most in control.
Betty’s search for her daughter’s friend Sandy served for me as another embodiment of this idea. Sandy had an idealized vision of what living in squalor in the Village would be like, but of course it turns out that St. Mark’s Place is as groovy and full of people just liiiving, man, as the Francis home is welcoming, which is to say not very. Both Betty and the goulash-needing hobos are putting up a front, too. They’ve rhapsodized and pondered over a trumped-up idea of what life should be like for too long to realize that neither way of life is definitively better. (Everybody in this scene is as in love with their own voices as Don is when he speaks about love.)
The tragedy is that these people are more or less stuck in the lives they’ve chosen; once you step out of your doorway, you’re expected to act a certain way. Unfortunately, Weiner would say that people are inherently conservative—they don’t like their expectations changed. This is why Roger, who loved his mother, doesn’t know how to properly memorialize her because he’s been so outwardly sarcastic for so long and people, except perhaps for his first wife, don’t know him any other way. It’s why Betty’s children laugh at her when she comes home a brunette. These people are fearful upon realizing that they only get one journey through life’s doorway and finding that there’s not very much time to change appearances.
It’s for that reason that Mad Men is basically about our fight against an inability to change. Life on the show is basically linear decay—only Benjamin Button figured out how to do it right, I guess—from innocence into hardened personality traits, guilt, and the false conviction in the superiority of your way of doing things. Everybody is falling about as fast as Jon Hamm’s silhouette during the opening credits. Peggy had her innocence in the show’s first episode, but she’d essentially lost it by the time those forty-seven minutes came to an end. Don has had some peaks and valleys, and now that he’s sleeping with the good doctor’s wife a touch of remorse, his identity crisis has him bolting down the mountain much faster than the doctor’s cross-country skiing on Park Avenue. Betty and Sally have (d)evolved from naive eight-year-old children to prickly adolescents who think they know much more than they do. Pete hasn’t changed at all; he emerged from the womb an entitled douchebag. As Andy Greenwald put it last week, “we know all too well how Mad Men will end.”
Finally, I have two questions for Kyra with regards to a couple things I couldn’t get my head around. First—what did you make of Don’s lengthy silence, apart from his Inferno voice-over, to open the episode? I admired the cinematic touches of this sequence, but wasn’t sure what to think. Don’s a guy who is paid to, and does, talk his way out of anything. Is that a sign of Don’s guilt, do you think? Second, why did Don throw out the private’s lighter? What’s he trying to remove from his memory, if anything?
[kyra response]: first I’ll respond to both of your questions Buckeye, and then I’ll go on with a couple thoughts about the opener and general thoughts on the show (since is the first time we’ve written about it).
I liked Don’s silence during the opener, which to me was a strong continuation from the end of last season when he used his connections to get Megan an acting gig. To me, and I believe to Don, that was the end of their loving marriage (really the end was when she left the office–he loved having her there and she was good!). His silence as he looked at Jessica Pare’s stunning figure on the beach and in the bedroom conveyed a sense that he was done with her. I would almost even say it was disgust with her at having accepted his offer to help. He’s now going through the motions just like he was with Betty, but there is no longer love. Ironic considering his great monologue on the subject in the office later. Despite basking in paradise, it felt like Don would much rather be in bed with his new paramour who gave him a book for the vacation. She is the one who inspires him to emit actual words in the opening.
On the subject of the lighter, I want to explore something that Private Dinkins said to Don. He said he had heard that married guys are more likely to make it through the war. Don knows this to not be true, as he watched the real–and married–Don Draper die. I think following the lighter mix up every time Don looks at Dinkins’ lighter he is reminded of the many untruths in his life, but mainly that the real Don died in the war (and Dinkins probably will too). Don is, like Roger, depressed, which is why he doesn’t realize his ad campaign can be construed as suicide. I can’t help but think that even after Layne’s death last season, suicide and depression will likely be a strong theme on the show for the rest of its spectacular run.
One brief point I want to make that reviewers and writers often argue is that the show’s characters are all evolving into the next-oldest character: Pete into Don, Don into Roger, Roger into Cooper. I couldn’t disagree with this more. Besides the fact that this is an easy and lazy argument, there are many flaws. Superficially this may be happening to some extent–Roger becoming less relevant at the agency like Burt, Don heading that way due to his age, and Pete becoming the most valuable partner at the agency–but all the characters’ personalities are very different. The main point I want to contend though, is that it is not Pete who is turning into Don Draper, but Peggy, and I think this episode did a perfect job encapsulating that. While Pete is busy posing magnanimously on the stares for his photo, Peggy is both working hard and working her employees hard on New Year’s Eve. She treats them just like Don treated her, and to me it is obvious that Peggy is Don’s protege, not Pete.
One final note on Betty. What the fuck was that rape joke she made to Henry Francis? I can’t believe that either she thought that would be funny, or she thought the proper Henry Francis would think it is funny. That was a dark, dark joke. It makes me think there was some part of her that actually was turned on by the possibility of being raped when she entered the depraved and disgusting house on St. Mark’s Place. They clearly left an impression on her given she changed her hair color in response to the ‘bottled blonde’ comment. I know it’s a somewhat bold suggestion, but I stand by it.