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'Mad Men' Premiere Review: "The Doorway"

Mad Men is back for its sixth season with a two-hour season premiere, “The Doorway.” Plot details may be revealed, so if you haven’t yet dropped back into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then watch out for spoilers.

It was a tightly woven episode, and didn’t feel bloated at its two-hour run time. I once recall hearing Mad Men episodes compared to a well-constructed short story. Like the masters of that particular craft, Matthew Weiner has a knack for using symbolism and strong visual cues. Take the opening seven minutes of “The Doorway.” Don is on vacation with Megan, enjoying the pleasures of the beaches of Hawaii. They lounge in the sun, attend a luau, smoke weed and make love in the hotel…yet never once does Don utter a word. He doesn’t speak until he’s away from Megan, hanging out at the hotel bar in the middle of the night, and is approached by a drunken soldier, in the islands to get married before returning to his tour in Vietnam. Don has always seemed like something of an outsider–even in his own life. He observes everything…the scenery, the people, and Megan in particular, with expressions that run the gamut from puzzled to annoyed to amused. The only words we hear him utter in those first seven minutes are in voiceover–a couple of lines from Dante’s Inferno, which he’s reading on the beach.

In an episode entitled “The Doorway,” it’s not surprising that death is a pervasive theme. (As it always has been…Mad Men is pretty ghoulish, despite the sleek packaging.) Roger got some great material in the premiere when he is told his mother, aged 91, has died. He gets off a few great lines when he comforts his secretary, who bursts into tears when she tells him. He doesn’t show much real emotion at first, taking it in stride. But in the bizarrely hilarious way of this show, the visitation turns into a nightmare. Roger’s ex-wife brings her new husband and Roger gets angry and orders him to leave. Don shows up drunk and vomits in the middle of the eulogizing speeches, and is promptly hustled out by Pete, Ken and Harry. And in a sweet turn, Roger learns from one of his mother’s friends that he was the light of her life, that she always talked about him, was so proud of him. Naturally, this prompts him to go into her room and lay down on a pile of furs and sulk, until his ex-wife comes in. Roger keeps saying through out, to his coworkers, family and therapist, that he doesn’t FEEL anything. But then, right at the end of the episode, in a nice bit of acting from John Slattery, we find out that Roger’s regular shoe-shine man has died, and since he was his last regular customer, the shoe-shine kit has been left to him. Roger sits alone in his ridiculous space age office, opens the kit and promptly starts sobbing.

Death touches Peggy in a much more tangential way. She is working on a major account–a Super Bowl commercial for headphones. (Peggy’s discussion of the Super Bowl, and the holiday season setting, has led most to believe that the timing for the start of season six is the beginning of 1968.) When a grim story out of Vietnam, of American soldiers cutting off the ears of the Viet Cong like trophies, is mocked by a late night comedian, Peggy’s go-to creative, Caesar wearing headphones and saying “Lend me your ears,” is nixed by the client. All her years with Don have paid off.  She’s a strict taskmaster with her employees, reaming them when they present lukewarm pitches and keeping them at the office through the holidays, but she comes up with a genius idea in the end. She impresses her boss and herself. Elisabeth Moss has turned Peggy into a very confident leader and a believably gifted creative mind. It’s an impressive evolution from the timid secretary, and I hope that she and Don get to share a few scenes this season. (I loved that she and Stan talk on the phone regularly, and have clearly remained very good friends.)

Betty and the family are enjoying the holidays…as much as Betty and the family can enjoy anything. A friend of Sally’s, a young girl named Sandy, is spending quite a bit of time with them. Once again, death plays a role. Sandy has lost her mother, and while she is a very gifted a violinist, she didn’t get into Julliard, so she reveals to Betty that she wants to run away and live in New York. Through a couple of minor plot twists, Betty finds herself trying to track Sandy down in abandoned tenement buildings inhabited by clusters of young squatters. It is a startling dichotomy. She couldn’t look more out of place–clutching her handbag and trying not to register her disgust on her face. (Nothing like walking in on a hobo when he’s urinating!) She doesn’t find Sandy–only her violin, which the girl sold to one of the squatters. This bright young woman has left behind the one token of her promise and talent, and while she’s long gone, Betty cannot bear to leave it behind in the squalor. Betty is still not a likeable character, and never will be, but it was an interesting change from her usual storylines of struggling with her domestic role and squabbling with her family. And one of the squatters, making fun of her privileged suburban style, insulted her to such an extent that towards the end of the episode she reveals a major physical change–the blonde snow queen is now a brunette!

Back in the office, we see Don at work with a creative team with some new faces. Ginsberg and Stan are old friends, but there is a new older woman, and a young man. We also get to see Don pitch–something that I’ve missed in the past couple of seasons where we drifted a little from the heart of who he is…a salesman. And indeed, the pitch, to the hotel chain that put him up in Hawaii, seems to be going well. He sets the stage in that intoxicating way he has, describing the other worldly zen quality of a visit to the islands. But when he shows the clients the mock-up, a picture of a suit and tie left on the beach, with tracks leading into the surf, they both come to the same conclusion: it looks like a man has tried to drown himself. Death comes knocking once again.

Don’s professional life may not be going so smoothly as he’d like, but personally, he and Megan seem to be getting along, as her soap opera career prospers and they make friends with other couples in their building. One couple in particular, the Rosens, seem like good people. Dr. Rosen is a heart surgeon, and he and Don get along well and understand and respect each other. Honestly, it’s a bit unusual just seeing Don with a regular friend. Roger was probably the closest thing he had to that, and theirs is still a friendship based on business. But the Drapers’ and the Rosens’ friendship is not what it seems. (Is anything on this show?) After Dr. Rosen is called away to the hospital on New Year’s, we see Don sliding into bed with Mrs. Rosen (played with charm by Linda Cardellini), all while Megan sleeps in the apartment upstairs. What’s that they say about old dogs and new tricks?

All in all, it was a pretty satisfying start to the season…and we didn’t even talk about the hair. I’ve never seen so many sideburns in one place!

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