Review of Mad Men ‘The Doorway’

mad men 300x157 Review of Mad Men The DoorwaySPOILERS: Do not read this if you have not seen episode 1, season 6 of ‘Mad Men’

This series blog is following the Sky Atlantic broadcast schedule of ‘Mad Men’ in the UK

If people tuning into the latest instalment of Mad Men were hoping that Don Draper’s much publicised trip to Hawaii would lend the opening episode a warm and upbeat feeling then they were sorely mistaken – the two-hour series premiere was bleak but compelling watching.

The overall tone of things was fairly heavily signposted from the very beginning, opening with someone having a heart attack before presenting us with the ominous sight of Don reading Dante’s Inferno on a Hawaiian beach. Considering that practically the first thing we hear is Don’s voiceover, reading a quote from a book detailing one man’s journey through the nine circles of hell, there should not have been much surprise about the dark, existential direction that the episode would take.

The early voiceover aside, the beginning of the episode is given a further dose of melancholic suspense by the complete lack of speech from Don. His seven-minute opening silence oozes misery and creates a fantastic juxtaposition with the postcard paradise scenes of Hawaii. At the centre of the episode’s darkness is the continuous reappearance of death as an underlying theme. There are real deaths in the episode, from Roger’s mother to the man who shined his shoes, while the recent death of Sandy the teenage violinist’s mother is discussed.

Elsewhere the threat of death has a recurring presence, from the near death of the apartment building doorman to the very brief but still fairly unsettling glimpse of the war in Vietnam that emerges through the conversation with PFC Dinkins. Even Sandy’s violin case is described as a ‘little coffin’ at one point. Where all these allusions to death are leading will presumably be revealed as the series progresses but tellingly Don seems oblivious to the obvious suicide connotations in his Hawaiian hotel ad pitch and preoccupied with thoughts about his own mortality at various other points.

Another theme at the heart of the episode is one that runs through the core of Mad Men, identity. Don’s ongoing existential problems regarding his own identity resurface with a vengeance, from his interaction with PFC Dinkins and the questioning about his time in the army – where his dual life began – to the accidental swapping of army lighters, another obvious reference to the original Don Draper/Dick Whitman identity switch.

Questions of identity crop up with other characters too, from Megan being recognised as her assumed identity, a character in a daytime soap, to the tragi-comic failure of Don or Dr Rosen to know the real name of their building’s doorman. However for Don it really is the overriding concept that drives the episode.

Just as there was a wry irony to a reporter’s question ‘Who is Don Draper?’ early in series 4, the photographer telling him ‘I want you to be yourself’ touches on the same idea. As the viewer we know who the ‘real’ Don Draper is but throughout the episode there is a sense that he is no longer quite himself – his ad pitch fails and even his previously unquestionable ability to hold enormous amounts of alcohol takes a battering when he unceremoniously throws up at Roger’s mother’s funeral. This is Don Draper but not quite as he was.

In fact the idea of change is another recurring idea in the episode and one which looks set to dominate the series. Change is everywhere, from the fantastic array of new facial hair, to the layout and design of the office itself, while elsewhere it is clear that deeper societal changes are taking place.

Importantly one of the only characters whose appearance hasn’t really changed is Don, he still looks very much the same, even down to the hideous tweed sports jackets he likes to wear when dressing casually. Don is clearly struggling to cope in the face of the changing world and his own ageing. The rearranging of his office is fairly obvious metaphor, and it will be interesting to see how this develops throughout the series. The success of Peggy and her emergence as the new Don, coupled with the Julius Caesar reference and its clear implications of usurpation, was also very interesting and promises much for the rest of the series.

Despite the undeniably bleak overall tone of the episode, there were nonetheless a few moments of comedy, with Sally Draper seemingly emerging as a rival to Roger Stirling the character with the wittiest lines. Her cutting treatment of her mother is a real highlight, particularly as she herself is no stranger to the withering put-down and also plumbs new depths of depravity when talking about rape.

Roger’s teasing of Don asking whether he ‘got all his vomiting done’ at his mother’s funeral also briefly lightened the mood, as did the inclusion of Don and Megan’s New Year’s Eve fondue party and the belief that Don had perhaps finally got a real friend in his heroic, street-skiing, neighbour Dr Rosen – a man who ‘the whole life and death thing doesn’t bother’ – but even that was almost instantly shattered by the revelation that Don was having an affair with his wife.

Considering all the foreboding omens from the series’ two-hour premiere, it looks like we are set for an interesting if perhaps fairly desolate ride for some of the programme’s protagonists throughout the rest of the series. Overall I don’t think I share the same confidence as Betty’s mother-in-law when she said, “I can’t imagine it getting any darker than this.”

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