The article below contains spoilers for “The Doorway,” the April 7, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) hasn’t really changed. He’s gotten older, wiser in some ways and not in others, more introspective. He managed to do what many people have idly fantasized about at some point in their lives — to shed an old identity and start fresh, to build himself a new, successful life from the ground up. When his marriage to Betty (January Jones) fell apart, he found himself another love with the vibrant Megan (Jessica Paré). But deep, lasting happiness eludes him. Don’s so good at telling people what they lack, what product will fill the need they didn’t know they had, because he’s always been missing something himself, and that lack is a part of his identity, something he won’t be able to remedy with things, with work, with romance or sex.
That’s why it was sad but by no means surprising to see Don’s taken up infidelity again, ending up in the bed of his neighbor’s wife Sylvia Rosen (“Freaks and Geeks” star Linda Cardellini, a very welcoming addition to the series) toward the close of last night’s premiere “The Doorway,” a moody, subdued start to the season written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher. The show made it clear that this wasn’t a first time fling, either, even as Don stared at the ceiling afterward saying that, for his new year’s resolution, “I want to stop doing this.”
The episode was set at the end of 1967, turning into 1968, in that deflating period between Christmas and the start of the next year, and was filled with heavy mortality themes as well as the general melancholy that comes with the season. Another year over, another opportunity to vow and eventually fail to improve yourself, another step closer to the end. And it wasn’t just Don who was feeling detached from things, stuck, dwelling on the meaning of things — Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was jolted from his own sense of malaise only by the (ultimately) wrenching loss of his mother.
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The last season of “Mad Men” was shadowed with death imagery, from Betty’s health scare to Don’s murder dream to the actual suicide of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), but the idea was explicit and central in “The Doorway,” that name referencing the transition of the year, the entrance to the Rosens’ apartment on which Don knocks, the dark opening into the squat on St. Mark’s, the demarkation between life and whatever’s next. “That’s all there are, doors and windows and bridges and gates, and they all open the same way and they all close behind you,” Roger ranted to his shrink. Roger, in his own unique way, mourned the passing of this mother in this installment, but there was also the scare with Don’s doorman, from whose point of view the episode began. This season premiere was defiantly morbid.
What Roger seems to want, in his own version of Don’s quiet crisis, is the ability to move forward but to have all those past options remain available, including his ex-wives. It’s the late shoe shine man’s kit (delivered to Roger, because Roger was the only one who still called for him) that prompts his tears, along in his all-white mod office, but they’re for a bereavement of a broader sense, for the “invisible parachute” of his mother’s love, now gone, for his realization that his daughter’s taking him for granted in the same way, for the fact that he’s running out of new experiences to have.
“Mad Men” is in the turbulent heart of the ’60s at this point, and the gap between generations and between mainstream versus counterculture is evident in the way pot-smoking has replaced working drinking amongst the younger creatives at Sterling Cooper Draper (Pryce no longer?), and in Betty’s venture into downtown Manhattan. Betty will never be the most likable character in the show — as her horrific jab at her husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) about helping him rape Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka) violin-playing friend Sandy (Kerris Lilla Dorsey) reminds — but her attempt to find the girl after she runs away offered an interesting insight into the mind of Don’s ex. Betty saw herself in Sandy in some way, promising but not promising enough, anxious to start her life by herself and sure the clock is ticking. She was concerned enough to drive her down to the East Village in the snow and to have her advise one of young men in the building on how to attempt goulash, but not enough for her to tell the police or the girl’s caretakers. And when she went to talk to Sally about her brush with this new movement based on rejecting the lives they lead, she gets the door shut in her face.
Over at her new gig at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) is providing a sort of bridge between those two worlds, with her hippie boyfriend Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer) and her stable of underlings and major account to save from “Tonight Show” jokes about Vietnam. The show cut to her apartment immediately after Betty’s late night talk with Sandy about the girl’s desire to run off to the city, as if to demonstrate a version of that urban life, though its mild bohemianism (vegetarian food! facial hair!) was cut through by a late night call from Peggy’s boss. In the office, Peggy has become strikingly like Don, from the harsh treatment of her department to the smooth-talking the client and the crisis leading to inspiration sparked by Abe’s listening to music on the headphones. Ads are changing too — and Peggy’s working in a new frontier both in making a Superbowl spot and in doing something light-hearted and relevant to a shifting culture that demands a different approach in a sale pitch.
Don, though, turned out to be less in touch with his clients’ needs. What happened during that stay in Hawaii? It wasn’t the ocean or the luau that unsettled him, it was that encounter with PFC Dinkins (Patrick Mapel) at the bar that did it. Like Betty, he was seeing himself on the other side of the mirror. He’s no longer the young man fresh from combat — time’s moved on, and there’s a whole other war going on, and as the kid puts it, “one day I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.”
That’s who Don’s become, and though he doesn’t seem to realize it, the fantasies of escape he’s having now seem more like suicide, a truth that surfaces in the concept he presents to the men from Sheraton. Shucking off your suit, your sense of self, and leaving it all behind at “the jumping off point” — it doesn’t bring to mind a beach vacation escape but a more permanent one. It doesn’t seem likely that Don’s considering offing himself, despite his tagline bringing to mind the show’s opening credit sequence, but he’s restless, having trouble engaging and staying grounded in the present.
“In life we often have to do things that are not our bag” said Dinkins’ lighter, the one Don accidentally ended up with and that kept coming back to him despite his best efforts to leave it. Accepting that has always been a problem for Don — he prefers to check out or leave when things come around that don’t hold him or that don’t live up to his expectations. But he wants to change, wants to be content, even as he found himself in the bed of the wife of a man he seems to genuinely like, even as he looked out into that dreamlike empty city street in the snow, and as he eventually returned to Megan, asleep with her script. Leaving everything behind may appear easier than dealing with what you have, but at a certain point in life you have to let go of the dream of starting over.