Mad Men season 6 episodes 1 & 2 review: The Doorway

Mad Men returns with a packed multi-stranded two-hour opener brimming with quotable dialogue and existential angst...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 & 1.2 The Doorway

After waiting ten months to hear Don Draper speak, Matthew Weiner made us hang on a little longer. Eight and a half minutes longer, to be precise, during which time Jon Hamm frowned, smiled, chastised, got high, and drank, but said not a word. While Draper wasn’t talking, director Scott Hornbacher’s camera was saying plenty, mostly about Jessica Paré, and with an overriding take-home message of ‘humina humina’. The now-bearded Stan wasn’t the only one excited about the idea of Megan zou bisou-ing around the beach in a bikini.

Don’s taciturnity continued throughout the two-hour opening episode, broken only to decry over-use of the word “love” in ad-land (let’s hope he never lives to see that McDonalds campaign) and to chat up his latest fling’s husband, Dr Rosen. The camera niceties may have been guilt-driven of course, but you have to wonder which of the Rosens Don really wants to be close to. Did his affair with with the Doctor’s wife began before or after he witnessed that heroic rescue of doorman Jonesy? How fitting it would be, after all, for the moribund Dick Whitman to be drawn to a man not only able to rescue the dying, but also one who shares his ability to bring people back from the dead.

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It was a double-episode season opener that took in heaven, hell, and – to quote Arnold Rosen – “the whole life and death thing”, with particular emphasis on the latter. Don had swapped the grey flannel suit for a Hawaiian shirt and a death wish. Having sold laxatives, slide projectors, suitcases, and Jaguars, now he’s hawking oblivion. Again. He really should have thought twice before binning that Freudian research on Thanatos and Eros back in season one.

Though the clients were bemused by Don’s “poetic” vision of their Oahu resort as a doorway between being and not-being, it has to go down as one of the great Mad Men pitches for us, the audience. Darkly symbolic, subtle as a brick, and involving a sharp suit, “Jumping-Off Point” was vintage existentialist Weiner, perhaps the only TV writer working bar David Lynch who could make a beach paradise seem so damn noir.

Speaking of darkness, it wasn’t just the new goodbye Grace Kelly, hello Elizabeth Taylor ‘do’ that Betty shocked with, but that casually delivered line about holding down cuckoo-in-the-nest Sandy while Roger rape her. “We’re happy to include you in our family” Betty offered the young violinist over a midnight PB & J. Run to Haight-Ashbury, Sandy, run as fast as those fifteen-year-old legs will carry you. What was it Phyllis Diller called that Vietnam-criticising comic? A sick puppy? That’s our Birdie.

Peggy was getting slightly better feedback after the crisis over at Chaough, her new position suiting her as well as that choppy new bob (Mad Men’s hairstyles are its equivalent to rings inside a tree trunk for pinpointing the year). We’ve known the character had the ability to lead since her ponytail days, and The Doorway saw Peggy at her Don-channelling, no-nonsense, creative best.

Like so much of the opener’s dialogue, Peggy’s  “Listen to your music, kid” could sit happily under a character portrait on a t-shirt, mouse mat, or animated GIF. Better still, it could join the legion of lines from the episode that wouldn’t be out of place in an undergrad essay title: “’Listen to your music, kid’: Discuss the role of youth and subculture in Mad Men, with particular reference to the character of Peggy Olson”.

“Talk to Joan, she’ll know what to do” was the one I’d have engraved on my army-issue cigarette lighter, that or the portentous “I can’t imagine it getting any darker than this” – a very naive thing to say on the cusp of 1968…

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Roger “I don’t feel anything” Sterling had so many of those lines within the two hours that did we not love him so heartily, he – like Don staring back-turned-to-the-camera out of his office window – could be accused of falling into self-parody. “This is my funeral” he declared (hopefully too broad a foreshadow moment even for Mad Men), before sulkily admitting that a silent, vomiting Don “was just saying what everyone else was thinking”. Only the funeral of Livia Soprano could match that scene for bad behaviour, workplace tensions, and ostentatious décor.

Since Sterling’s Gold went into circulation, we’ve been bereft of intimate moments between Roger and his Dictaphone, so whoever decided to bring in the therapist’s couch into season six deserves to be poured a celebratory vodka. In the space of half a dozen seasons, Roger’s gone from shrugging off analysis as the latest feminine accessory to tormenting a shrink with sardonic bon mots. Terrific stuff. Finding out that Roger, like Jesus, was baptised in water from the River Jordan explains a great deal about that man’s ego too, wouldn’t you agree?

Don’s key line of course, was heard in the New Year’s bedroom exchange between he and squeeze Sylvia (Freaks and Geeks’ Linda Cardinelli). “What do you want for this year?” she asked him. “I want to stop doing this” he replied. “I know what you mean”, she said. No darling, unless you own the season one to five box-set, we don’t imagine you do. It’s not this he wants to stop doing, it’s everything. Don Draper wants out. Yes it’s a bleak position to find him in, but to borrow a phrase from Stan, “That’s what’s so great about it”.

The now-characteristic two-hour season opener may be necessary to settle us in to a show like Mad Men, a multi-character slow-burner that skips six months or more at a time between seasons, but it’s also too much too soon. This review’s over before I’ve even touched on ambitious newcomer Bob, those company portraits, the Betty Francis Investigates sub-plot, the ubiquity of weed, Ginsberg’s moustache, Megan’s career, Sally – unchallenged – calling her mother by her first name, or how great it would be if next week saw Trudy Campbell shopping in Bloomingdales and bumping into Sal on his way out of the men’s room.

At this end of its lifespan, we have so little Mad Men left that I could stand to see some of those elements separated out and given a little more air. Who’s complaining though, when the writing’s still this sharp, and the characters are still this inviting. For an episode themed around death, The Doorway was unusually uplifting, and I think I know why: Mad Men’s back. Who could fail to be cheered by that?

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