Mad Men: “The Doorway”

With the new season of Mad Men starting up again, I’ve decided to do a weekly post reviewing each episode. Well, not really a review so much as a critical consideration. Well, not really a critical consideration so much as a rambling bunch of thoughts. Either way, there will be spoilers.

mad-men-season-6-promo-01

So, we’re back.

I find it strange how AMC does the whole two-hour Mad Men premiere, because MM‘s season openers aren’t what you would normally call events. The first episode of a MM season is normally quite slow plot-wise. Compare this to something like The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad where the new season picks up after the previous season ended with a cliff hanger.

That being said, season six’s first episode, “The Doorway,” even by MM‘s standards, was especially slow.

The plot line that worked best in this episode was Peggy’s. With an ad campaign for headphones about to go into circulation, Peggy’s new team are dealt a dookie: a stand-up comedian on the Tonight Show makes a crack about GIs using Vietcongs’ ears for decorations on their necklaces.

This creates a negative connotation for her headphone campaign, which samples Marc Antony’s famous line, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.” Peggy, channeling Don, pushes her team  and works through New Year’s Eve to find a solution.

Peggy may have the best character arc in the entire series. Sure, Don is interesting because he doesn’t change, but it’s fascinating to see the transformation of this once office mouse who wanted only Don’s approval and was seduced by Pete Campbell to the no-nonsense head honcho she is now.

The rest of episode concerns Don, who has returned from a trip to Hawaii and is preoccupied with the near-death of his doorman, a character we’ve never seen before, Roger, who is processing the death of his mother, another character we’ve never seen (nor will ever see) who dies off-screen, and Betty, who tries to track down one of Sally’s friends, another character that’s only just been introduced, in the hippie/squatter-filled ghetto of New York.

Needless to say, it was hard to feel invested in these plot lines.

Mad_Men_Season_6_betty_dark_hair(personal highlight: when Bobby reacts to Betty’s new do, “You’re ugly and I hate it!”)

However, by this point, I’ve learned not to put too much stock into Mad Men‘s season openers. Show runner Matthew Weiner likes to starts things off not with a bang but with a whimper. Mad Men tends to slide into its grove. It builds slowly, unlike Breaking Bad, which starts fast furious, sputters out, then finishes with a bang. MM‘s season openers are more about situating characters in the particular milieu Weiner wants to explore.

That being said, I still felt this episode was a wasted opportunity. It felt far too heavy handed. Mad Men is a show that delivers by subtle, oblique suggestion, not demonstrative ham-fisting. The opening scene, for example, Don is lying on the beach like a corpse. Normally, that’s as far as the show would go. But this time, he’s reading Dante’s Inferno, narrating the famous opening lines in voice-over.

Then you have Roger sitting in psychoanalytic therapy, basically spelling out what we are obviously meant to interpret as this season’s raison d’être. The characters, we are meant to gleam, are going to be especially preoccupied with their mortality this season.

Why just death? Because it’s so deep? Normally, Mad Men wouldn’t limit itself to such a singularity; it explored all kinds of ideas.

Contrast this to the first episode of season one. A researcher comes to Don with Freudian ideas about the death drive to help explain why there is a market for cigarettes. Don dismisses the research. This exchange, which fits so nicely into the context of the plot, worked extraordinarily well to advance the show’s thematic concerns: recklessness as a means of denying or repressing existentialist angst.

That being said, there was a lot I liked about the episode. This is Mad Men after all. Despite all its didacticism, I liked how they explored the way Don’s channels his anxiety into his work. Confronted with something inimitable, he throws himself into the field of symbolism and metaphor, creating an ad for a Hawaiian getaway that sells hot sand and soft waves as a transformative experience that lets you step briefly into the netherworld.

Whether or not you agree with Freudian ideas of the death drive, it isn’t controversial to assert humans are obsessed with their own mortality. Moreover, whether or not you’re religious and believe in the afterlife, the question of what happens when you die is monolithic. It is the ultimate limit of knowledge. Thus, in the absence of language, we fall back on symbolism. We flirt with these mystifying ideas in chunks that we can digest. We once had mythologies, now we have advertising. Accordingly, our existential angst manifests itself into something as banal as an advertisement for an island getaway.

Enter Don Draper. As his neighbour points out, while he as a doctor is paid expressly not to think about life and death, Don is paid to precisely think about what we don’t want to think about. Don’s genius is his ability to penetrate our archetypal fears and desires and sell them back to us. The power of advertising isn’t to move product, it’s to exchange ideas. Advertising is exploitative and capitalistic, but it’s also art.

 mad-men-season-6-set-jon-hamm1(Don probably just got to the second Bolgia in the eighth circle. Google that *shit*.)

Cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on April 10, 2013.

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