Mad Men, Season 6, Episodes 1 & 2: “The Doorway”
Written by Matthew Weiner
Directed by Scott Hornbacher
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on AMC
When Don was asked “Are you alone?” at the end of Mad Men’s fifth season, there was a moment when I expected him to respond “Isn’t everyone?” Season six opens as Don reads Dante’s Inferno on a Hawaiian beach, surrounded by people but desperately alone, even his own wife (now a star on a soap opera) appears alien to him. Seemingly in response to the question left hanging at the end of season five, the voiceover, quoting Dante, intones “Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” Later in the episode, in a drunken stupor, he asks his doorman what he saw when he died (a shot of Dr. Rosen attempting to resuscitate him precedes Don’s Hawaiian vacation). As Don leads him along, trying to guide his recollections, he describes a place that sounds very much like Hawaii. The ad that results from his trip unintentionally evokes suicide.
The specter of death loomed large on the show last year—one of the season’s iconic images featured Don staring down an empty elevator shaft—and if anything the characters’ obsession has only intensified over the intervening eight months. Roger is deep into psychoanalysis, and while he seems to be developing a few meaningful insights (the episode’s title comes from his exegesis on doorways), there is a feeling that he isn’t taking it very seriously. He seems to revel in the attention he receives, performing for his analyst, increasing his self-importance in a way that only intensifies his fear of his own mortality. “You’re obviously not afraid that you’re boring,” the analyst quips. Perhaps he’s trying to mask his vulnerability. When his mother dies, his secretary is significantly more distraught than he is. When Giorgio, the shoeshiner, passes, the façade comes tumbling down.
Despite often seeming like nothing more than an afterthought following her split with Don, Betty is given much of the strongest material in the episode. The talent on display as Sandy performs on the violin seems to intimidate her. In a fit of pique, she suggests Henry rapes her. Whether she is feeling out the degree to which her husband desires the nubile 15-year-old or coaxing him into exacting her own desired revenge remains unclear. She seems to possess some guilt when she encounters her in the kitchen, sitting idly by as Sandy ridicules her lifestyle, not mentioning the cigarette she defiantly smokes. As she attempts to find Sandy in the Village it’s difficult to tell whether she is driven by her mothering instincts or a desire to rewrite her own past. Maybe, as the kid who bought Sandy’s violin suggests, she’s trying to exercise control on a world that is changing faster than she would like.
Peggy is the only one that seems to have a grasp on her surroundings. Her relationship with Abe seems to have matured. She commands a respect at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough she never did at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She is able to talk down anxious clients in a manner that recalls a younger version of Don, possessing a confidence that seems to have left him. Where he seems lost in the aroma of pot smoke that enshrouds his writers, criticizing their generation for stripping the word love of its meaning, the creative team at CGC is clearly in awe of Peggy. Ted Chaough compliments the way she turns around the Koss campaign showing true appreciation for her work. Unlike Don, he seems to realize good work deserves more than just money. He questions her treatment of her subordinates, treatment she never thought twice about because it is how Don treated her.
It is sometimes strange returning to a show you love after a prolonged absence, especially a show like Mad Men that has made a habit of improving on perfection with each successive season. It is much like seeing an old friend after several years. Often it feels as if the time in between has disappeared, you pick up right where you left off. On occasion the interactions are stilted and awkward, you frequently think your friend has changed, you rarely entertain the notion that it is you yourself who has changed. The answer most often is that you both have. “The Doorway” seems to invite this kind of rumination. It is ten minutes into the episode before Don speaks a word. He remains mute as life goes on around him, the audience feels as alienated as he does. By the end of the episode, it is clear Matthew Weiner hasn’t lost a thing between seasons. Don sees Dr. Rosen to the door, listening to him claim men like them aren’t bothered by life and death, that other “people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety” before Don climbs into Mrs. Rosen’s bed to do just that. He says “I want to stop doing this,” but he does it nonetheless.