Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Doorway" (season 6, episodes 1 & 2)

Mad Men - "The Doorway" (season 6, episodes 1 & 2)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 7, 2013/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Scott Hornbacher): We begin in Hawaii...well, not quite. There's a brief, blurry opening moment before that shot of Megan's bikini and belly on the beach (during which we hear Don read Dante: "Midway through our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood..."). In that moment a man appears to be dying or at least suffering a serious heart attack which we witness from his point of view; a bald man leans over him, a siren sounds in the distance, and we recognize Megan's voice in a panic: "Oh my God, oh my God..." In an episode full of deflection and displacement, we will find out later that this man is not Don, but a doorman known as "Jonesey" (Ray Abruzzo) whose collapse Don and Megan witnessed earlier in the year when entering their apartment building. It is hinted ever so slightly that perhaps this moment was as fateful for Don as for Jonesey. Certainly the memory plays out in Don's psyche throughout "The Doorway," intermingled with the subtle agitation caused by a cigarette lighter, accidentally left in Don's possession by a young man (Patrick Mapel), on leave from Vietnam and about to be married, whom Don meets at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel bar before agreeing to be his last-minute best man. (Wikipedia's recap describes this PFC Dinkins as "slightly drunk," a wild understatement.) Both hauntings lead Don to design one of his less successful campaigns for the skittish Sheraton, in which a suit, tie, and shoes strewn across a sandy shore imply that a desperate traveler has found release in the balmy ocean. "Hawaii...the jumping off point," Don rhapsodizes, somehow not realizing until it's too late that his spiritual epiphany looks a hell of a lot like suicide.

Death haunts not just Don's drama but all of the storylines in the episode. Betty has taken in a teenage companion of young Sally, the brilliant and newly orphaned violinist Sandy (Kerris Dorsey). It's actually not entirely clear if her father is already dead and the Francis family is truly looking after her, or if she's just visiting in the wake of her mother's confirmed passing. Either way, a patriarch is never mentioned and Sandy's brief presence in the household under Betty's fond, surprisingly lenient oversight, is all about motherhood. Indeed, Henry, far from being a benevolent father figure, is suggested as her would-be rapist in one of the most shocking "jokes" made by the usually uptight Betty - or any character on Mad Men for that matter. Speaking of sick humor, Peggy's new job is made more complicated by the revelation of U.S. atrocities in Vietnam; a late-night comedian's bit about soldiers cutting off Viet Cong ears wrecks Peggy's Julius Caesar reference in a stereo headphones ad. And the fourth narrative on display, Roger's, is the most obsessed with mortality of them all, driven by the death of his 91-year-old mother in the midst of his own endless midlife crisis. All of these death drives resolve themselves differently (if "resolve" is the right word). Betty's ward confesses that she lied about getting into Julliard and then flees to a run-down squatter house on St. Mark's Place. The housewife traces her that far before being ridiculed by the alienated youths who purchased the violin so she could buy a bus ticket for California. Betty, as if in mourning, dyes her hair and becomes a brunette. Peggy dodges her now-controversial "lend me your ears" line by embracing the life force of her annoying actor, whose silent mugging in outtakes is converted into a curiosity-spurring gag that's better than the original concept. And Roger, prone to alternating belligerance and apathy at his mother's funeral, finally breaks down in tears when he discovers the SCDP building's shoeshine man has died and his family left the shinebox to him.

As for Don, his queasy sense of a shadow crossing the horizon comes to no resolution: twice asked troubling questions ("Is your mother still alive?" by Ken at the funeral, and "How did you meet the soldier?" by neighbors during a New Year's slide show), he simply ignores the inquiries and moves ahead. Don tosses Dinkins' lighter in the trash after it's discovered, only to ask Dawn if she can ship it back to the private's unit after a maid returns the stubborn item to his possession. Drunk in order to avoid trouble, he makes a spectacle of himself during Roger's aged aunt's eulogy, puking all over the polished floor and into the umbrella stand; escorted back to his building, he irritates poor Jonesey by badgering him about what he saw when he "died." And he seems truly befuddled, defensive to the point of denial, when his pitch is rejected by the equally wounded Sheraton reps. "Anyone can show a picture of a hotel," he snaps in response to their discomfort, and the older man murmurs, "I don't agree." There is a bit of a head fake going on here, or rather an underlying motivation (anxiety about mortality and his place in the world) revealed to us before its more concrete manifestation (which "The Doorway" withholds until its final moments). Don's relationship to Dr. Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson), a brilliant surgeon who lives a floor below, is developed throughout the episode as a warm, mildly jealous but mutually admiring camaraderie. Arnold's wife Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) is finally introduced at a small New Year's gathering in the Draper apartment, and it is she, not Megan, whom Don visits after helping Arnold respond to an out-of-the-blue medical call (the doctor chooses cross-country skis rather than a cab to take him to the hospital, buying Don some extra time).

In an exchange before the unknowing cuckold leaves his supposed friend behind, Arnold tells Don that a doctor is paid not to think about things that other people are anxious to avoid while an adman is paid precisely in order to think about them. It's an odd diagnosis, professionally but not personally accurate. Don is one of the anxious avoiders rather than a stoic burden-bearer. And if Sylvia (who lent him the Inferno) has become an outlet for this anxiety, she also exacerbates it: the cure may be worse than the disease. Asked what he wants at the dawn of '68, Don replies, "I want to stop doing this." She says she knows before telling him, with a kiss, what else she knows.

My Response:
A moment early in "The Doorway" startled me, briefly encouraging a belief that I was watching a bold experiment in the spirit of last season's "Far Away Places". Don and Megan are returning home from Hawaii, all bundled up as winter hits the tanned tourists hard. Jonesy leans over and we cut to a reverse shot of him falling to the ground, with an expression that reminded me of Vincent Price's shocked visage in his Edward Scissorhands death scene. Don and Megan rush to his side, another character (Dr. Rosen, as it turns out) races in, offering mouth-to-mouth and ordering Don to open his jacket and then...Jonesey and the Drapers are standing up and laughing once again as the doorman takes their suitcases. What??! Possibilities raced through my mind. Could Mad Men be engaging in bizarre, dream world alternate realities? The surreal effect is only heightened by Sandy's Chopin solo on the soundtrack. When I rewound the scene I discovered another wrinkle in the Drapers' costumes, which change completely during Jonesey's collapse - admittedly something I probably should have realized right away, but the sharp shift in clothing was disguised for me by the flow of the action, masked like a magician's slight of hand. Perhaps, I wondered, we are skipping around through time - peeking into Jonesey's dark future - and the whole episode would proceed like this, yet another Eurocinema-inspired puzzle (in this case, taking Alain Resnais' Muriel or the films of Straub-Huillet as inspiration), possibly joining two divergent timelines in their middle by episode's end. My mind raced to piece this together: using the earlier point-of-view shot that opened the episode as a starting point, which in-between scenes could plausibly take place in this timeline?

But no - this is just a straightforward flashback presented in eye-catching avant-garde fashion, nothing more. Or is it something more? The moment unfolds so quickly, in such jarring fashion, that it's hard to recognize who's who (especially since the Rosens have not yet been properly introduced). Could this be the moment when Don and Sylvia first met? And while season five ended with the implicit near-certainty that Don was back to his cheating ways, might he have actually held off until he met the neighbor below, his Virgil to guide him through the darkness? Is Don's own moral collapse fueled by the anxiety of this confrontation with sudden death, evoking the memory of watching his own father kicked by a horse (making him, like young Sandy, an orphan - perhaps this as well as female solidarity explains Betty's drive to protect her?). This may all be too grandiose for the simple truth that Don has a nature he can't escape. The real moment of truth for him probably was when he gave Megan an assist at the end of the last season, releasing himself alongside her. In that light, Sylvia is just another in a long line, more significant as a signal than as an individual, although she does convey a wry, wise persona shared by Rachel, Suzanne, and Faye (Don has a type: he marries trophy wives but beds soulmates on the side). If each season offers Don a new thematic throughline, then this premiere pulls double duty, closing one curtain and opening another by confirming what we already suspected at last season's end and offering tea leaves for the new season which I'll admit I can't yet read.

"The Doorway" wraps with a similar flourish to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" six years earlier (offscreen...onscreen, nearly eight). In both season premieres, only after receiving a particular impression of Don do we discover a life that the episode hid from view until its final sequence. This time, however, the mistress rather than the wife is positioned as the big twist. In the pilot, the cynical Manhattanite (with a girlfriend in the city and a cynical detachment from love) plunges into the warm suburban womb of Westchester with a beautiful wife and two children. The contrast is less stark here, not least geographically, but far more heartbreaking. Like the series' first and only other double episode, "A Little Kiss," this premiere is less interested in humming along a high-concept narrative and more interested in patiently immersing us in the drip-drip-drip of Don's marital angst as well as the the current SCDP milieu (by now they have a second floor, a far busier workplace, and a sterner hierarchy). However, the season five premiere also paid more attention to Megan's half of the relationship. In "The Doorway" we learn that she's becoming a soap star - she signs her first autograph, it seems, during a luau before her character is quickly de/promoted to "lying, cheating whore." Otherwise, however, Megan is cheerfully pursuing her career offscreen while Don's struggle is foregrounded. Not that he's "driving the action" - Betty, Peggy, and Roger are all far more active protagonists although only Peggy among the trio is effective.

It's interesting to consider as well that with Peggy out on her own, the story's strands are becoming more unwound from one another. Mad Men always used Sterling Cooper as springboard to explore separate lives but now it feels more like two or three different series, less overlapping than very thinly conjoined. These are not fingers in a glove, expressing the same central idea in different forms - despite thematic links like mortality in this two-parter. The worldviews on display seem irreconcilable. Roger's limpid nihilism is particularly potent (if that's the right word to describe a sensibility so resolutely unimpressed) but only when it's front and center. When it's not, that mood dissipates completely, allowing us to inhabit more urgent modes (although admittedly all of these characters seem a little lost, with the youngest - Peggy - perhaps still too preoccupied to realize it). The doors Roger opens are not necessarily as unfulfilling for the others as they are for him, although a contemporaneous IMDb review employs Roger's ethos to criticize the show as aimless fragmentation, a once-great story declined into "blackout sketches." Others consider the early seasons mere groundwork for later masterpieces. There are twenty-five episodes to go - with some of the most intense crises, crucibles, and cultural transformations of the sixties still to come (although God knows the decade's fashion has passed its peak and is already headed into garish seventies territory by now). I don't think the Megan/Don relationship can afford to simply re-trace the Betty/Don divorce route with a different personality and locale in play but I'm also not sure what else the show can offer. Don has found himself in that particular dark wood already...better to show us what other wonders and horrors are offered in heaven and hell.

Next (active on September 20, 8am): "Collaborators"Previous: (season 5 finale) "The Phantom"

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