About ten minutes before the premiere of season six of Mad Men, I asked Alex, “Do you think we’ll ever see Don’s literal death? Or just figurative?”
Mad Men, as a series, is auspiciously about decline, about a great fall, as seen from the opening credits. Death stalks Dick Whitman/Don Draper. As the show grows, it delineates its themes so that the what, who, and why become clear: Don Draper or Dick Whitman will fall, because it is destiny, because the world changes. The questions that remain are when and how: an empty elevator shaft, a noose, Pete’s gun, Don’s large window.
If Mad Men’s obsessions with death, honor and identity threaten to still the action, in later seasons, it has avoided being backed in a corner by taking creative structural risks. I got cable this week, so for the first time ever, I was able to watch Mad Men live on Twitter.
So we’re supposed to feel lost, disoriented, as if we’ve stumbled from 1 generation to the next, confused, like Don? It’s working. #MadMen
— Amorphous Funk (@amfunknola) April 8, 2013
The season six premiere throws off all expectations–and also fulfills them–by beginning with what looks like a death, a man trying to revive someone lying on the floor, Megan’s scream. The thing that audiences have been waiting for–Don’s Death–is also the thing that we tell ourselves cannot be yet. He cannot die because there are season 7 contracts. It is a narrative impossibility.
“The Doorway” delivers plenty in the way of Death imagery, with the ad that Sheraton rightly sees as a suicide reference, the image of Don staring out his office window as waves crash, and Roger’s grief (for his mother, Giorgio the shoeshine, or just the end of possibility). We even get a callback to the season one finale, “The Carousel.”
Don calls the carousel, the photos, a “time machine.” We’ve seen daring episodes of Mad Men before, and we’ve played with chronology. But this episode still felt deliberately disruptive. We are not where we seem to be. Even the allusion to the carousel circles back upon itself, calling back on Roger’s monologue about doors, windows, bridges and gates.
I also noticed for the first time how the credits seem to include snapshots. Look at 24 seconds. Those pictures that the man is falling into are hard to see–one appears to be black and white, one appears to be a family. They don’t look like advertisements. They look like family photos. Maybe this is the sense of a man falling back into what he came from–that is, these could be advertisements that just appear to be more static–a return to the past. But their quickness on the screen reminds me of life flashing before your eyes, especially how utterly they’re swallowed by the man’s jacket.
These are quick notes, so I’ll have more later, probably after I watch The Orange Couch.
7 minutes 45 seconds into Mad Men & Don Draper finally uttered his first line: “Army.” (Thanks to @dansaltzstein for the analysis.)
— Anna Holmes (@AnnaHolmes) April 8, 2013
–“One day I’ll be the veteran in paradise. One day I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.” PFC Dinkins.
–The “death” that starts the season is Jonesy. We see his POV as he is revived, and we hear Megan’s scream for him. The screen goes to black, and we wake up in Don’s “paradise,” Hawaii, where he’s reading Dante’s Inferno.
–Even the fact that Don, Megan et al. “miss midnight” plays with this sense of chronology. Just as they missed watching the numbers tick to midnight, we missed seeing Don’s figurative death. But we’re all certain what happened.
—Betty goes dark. (A nod to Megan?)
–Don is reading Dante’s Inferno, cheating on his wife, giving away a bride, and puking at someone’s mother’s funeral? Not to put too fine a point on it. “The man never tires of embarrassing himself.”
–Don is many men, and when he sloughs off one skin, he likes it to stay gone. That’s why he pushed Adam away — one of the haunting images from the close of season five. It’s also why he throws away Dinkins’ lighter.
–Loved seeing Peggy, even keeping in touch with Stan. I was happy to see her get a better touch with clients, and also happy to hear her boss acknowledge she’s good in a crisis. I’m sure she’ll go through her own obstacles this season, but she’s starting on pretty solid ground.
—Todd VanDerWerff notes that this episodes focuses closely on Don, Betty, Peggy and Roger. I think that contributes to some of the “circling the drain” feeling that pervades the episode. Peggy is the only one of these characters who we can hope for something greater–for a new, unpredictable future. Roger’s death march is almost comical, as he hams it up with his shrink. Betty’s unhappiness is so constant that we see hardly any change in demeanor as she waits in a flophouse for her daughter’s rude friend (who is surely, we know, not coming). Don’s death–literal or figurative–is written in the credits. Peggy is the only one with a whiff of a future, but the show has been careful to always treat her as semi-conservative. Catholicism and Don’s influence aren’t entirely undone by pot-smoking feminism. Even with the tight character focus, by playing with time and place (not to mention life and death), the episode still feels sprawling.