Could Mad Men Season 6 open with Don dying? Why not? Didn’t Season 5 finish with a funereal flourish as Lane Pryce commits suicide at the agency?
It’s a reasonable conclusion, as the premiere episode startles with a scream, then “Oh my God,” and a balding middle-aged man attempting to resuscitate a body on the floor.
We hope it’s not Don, though we suspect it is. And Weiner gives every indication that our intrepid hero may be hovering between life and death.
Cue the eerie, color saturated scenes in Hawaii, Don chain-smoking as Megan tries her hips at the Hula, and everyone speaks except Don himself – for a full eight minutes. Long enough to be dead and still brought back?
Eventually Don opens his mouth, responding to a stranger in the hotel bar of the Royal Hawaiian at 4 a.m. He is addressed by one Private First Class Dinkins, on leave from Vietnam to be married, who asks Don to give the bride away as he rambles drunkenly about marriage upping his chances of surviving the war.
Might we augment the anxiety with dishy Don lying on the beach, engrossed in Dante’s Inferno, as a voice over reads “midway in life’s journey I went astray?”
Who doesn’t love the doorway metaphor? (May I channel Thomas Wolfe? “A stone, a leaf, an unfound door?“)
As the episode progresses, Roger bemoans his meaningless life in his darkened shrink’s office, then hears of his 91-year old mother’s death in his whiter-than-white pop art digs. Glib as ever, he comforts his secretary who delivers the news, and talking to his shrink again, he says he feels nothing.
So is Roger the one who’s dead or dying, and not Don?
In one of his sessions on the couch, Roger waxes poetic:
What are the events in life? You see a door… you open a few doors… and realize that’s all there are – doors and bridges and gates and they all open the same way and they all close the same way behind you… Life is a path… it’s supposed to change you. Turns out that’s not true, the experiences are nothing… you’re just going in a straight line to you know where.
And that doorway. To the proverbial other side?
Compelling contrast to Don who is trying to express the substance of love and advocating for not abusing the term: “Why are we contributing to the trivialization of the word?”
It’s ironic coming from this world-weary womanizer, as we see in the closing minutes of this episode.
Stairway to Heaven, Elevator to Hell?
Thank you, Matthew Weiner, for invoking the near death experience of Don about to step onto the elevator as its doors open to a long fall down the shaft! Isn’t the SCDP elevator our very own transport through the hell of the 60s Ad World, or just Don’s periodic descent into personal turmoil over who he is at the core’?
How many times have we seen Don travel in that particular wooden box – worried, hungover, or in some sort of distress?
Elevators aside, we now have a booming agency with an impressive design, including a white stairway that connects the original floor to its expanded space. We may be three years away from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, but am I the only one who flashed that thought with each shot of the remodeled interior?
As for the other references to departing feet first – through any number of symbols or statements – I didn’t count. But off the top of my head there’s quite a list: the opening scene; Don’s conversation with Dinkins (including “How long do you have left?”); Sally’s friend in the car who says “My mom is dead;” aforementioned friend’s violin case, referred to as a coffin; Roger’s mother’s death and subsequent memorial; Peggy’s campaign, “Lend me your ear,” which cannot be used due to a ghoulish incident in Vietnam; Don’s campaign which conjures suicide.
Light and Dark
More tricks to keep us unnerved, off-balance, and in a slight state of dread? How about the deliciously Mad Men-esque visual cues that alternate light and dark as though we’re traveling between Heaven and Hell?
Item: The bright, white, airy offices of the remodeled and expanded Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Item: The addition of touches of red – fiery reminders of blood, of life, or just a little Christmas decorating?
Item: The dark bar in Hawaii.
Item: The dark Francis kitchen.
Item: The dark, abandoned building where Betty searches for Sally’s friend, Sandy.
Item: The darkened room where Roger talks to his shrink.
Scenes cut in and out quickly, juxtaposing the almost painfully light SCDP offices with somber spaces. Interspersed are highly saturated settings that seem surreal if not unreal – (hallucinogenic?) blues, reds, and oranges in the hotel room in Waikiki; similar colors in Don and Megan’s apartment; the heavy gold tones of the luxurious residence of Roger’s mother.
Is it any wonder we may wonder how much of this is dream sequence? Haven’t we been led down this (tropical) garden path before?
Roger. Lend Your Shrink to Betty, Please.
Betty, Betty, Betty. To think that Don once seemed screwed up!
Betty Dearest is seemingly tolerant one moment, kind the next, and utterly vile as she suggests to Hubby Henry that since he wants to spice things up in bed, he can rape Sally’s 15-year old friend who is staying the night. She adds:
You can stick a rag in her mouth and you won’t wake the boys.
Was I thinking Betty was popping too many diet pills? Does she have her own stash of Mary J in the kitchen cupboard of the Dark Manse?
Apparently Bryn Mawr Betty turned Burb Betty turned Fat Betty is well on her way to Crazy Betty, though she does put in a valiant (and strange) effort to find Sally’s friend, who has apparently run off to the Village.
Really, Mrs. Francis? Will you wander off to the Village at some point?
While doses of death and dying are dealt with a heavy hand in the opener, they do keep the viewer on edge throughout the episode. The addition of the macabre pitch to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel clients, who provide the freebie to the Drapers for the new campaign, emphasizes the possibility of suicide on Don’s mind – whether he’s consciously aware of it or not.
It’s a creative concept: empty clothes on a beach, footsteps in the sand, the man who goes missing.
The clients point out the missing man may have walked into the water and offed himself. Don may be selling Hawaii as an “experience,” a place to slip out of your skin, a “jumping off point” to almost anything – but no one’s buying, though we’re clear on one thing: Don-Dick is mired in his identity struggles again, somehow uncomfortable in this third successful life he’s fashioned for himself.
I find I’m wondering (again) if it’s Don lying in a hospital, though minutes earlier I was certain it was Roger, and this, despite the flashback of the doorman and suggestions that he suffered the heart attack. It’s only in the final scenes that we know what’s real.
Don and Dick, Drifting Again
You bet. Two hours of it, and notable flickers to past episodes, which I enjoyed – including the echo of “Who are you,” which has been a recurring theme throughout Mad Men’s previous seasons, as our protagonist works to merge his past as Dick Whitman with his present as Don Draper.
So what’s the problem now? The foggy future?
As 1968 begins, it appears we’ll see Don drift away from his refurbished self. Case in point – Don and Arnie are friends, the doc gets a call on New Years Eve in a snow storm, and he takes off for the hospital (on skis), as Don helps him out in the storage room. Clearly he likes and admires this man.
There’s something up with Don, though business is going well and marriage appears to be running smoothly. Yet chiaroscuro continues, as Don makes his way from shadowy Storage through a narrow corridor and back into the apartment… only to climb into bed with Sylvia, Arnie’s wife, in their apartment.
Sylvia asks Don what he wants for the coming year, to which he replies:
Not to do this anymore.
Hey Don! Time to return to laps at the Men’s Club, and writing in your journal?
Take Us Away… Hawaiian Wedding, 1961 Style
Joan also appears but only briefly, looking somewhat out of place (as does Don?) in her stunning style that seems more early sixties than contemporary to the times.
Taking us out in music that harkens back to the first season, Weiner gives us 1961’s Hawaiian Wedding song, and best I can tell, a crooning Elvis Presley. But did we really need to be reminded that Aloha means hello and goodbye?
“This is the moment
Of sweet Aloha
I will love you longer than forever
Promise me that you will leave me never
Here and now dear,
All my love,
I vow dear
Promise me that you will leave me never
I will love you longer than forever… ”
Dead Heroes? Dead Mothers? Dead Dreams?
Now, now. Forever love seems to be asking a bit much – bedding the best friend’s wife, then crawling back to your own Sweet Unsuspecting Megan and hoping she never leaves, promising to love her forever. Then again, whose love is it that Don wants? Which woman from the past or present? Could it be the mother he never knew? (Plenty of dead mother mentions throughout this episode.)
And the cigarette lighter from PFC Dinkins that Don throws away and Megan returns to him? Is it impossible to bury the past? And what about deception? As Sally’s friend says:
It’s incredible how fast people come up with lies.
As this episode comes to a close, we may know that the body on the floor was Jonesy the doorman, but how many more bodies are going to disappear this season – into an altered state, through a doorway, an elevator to Hell, or a premature stairway to Heaven? Then again, we’ve just embarked on 1968. Let’s raise a glass, though the country is on its way to a raging inferno, and a self-destructive path.
Apparently, so is Don Draper.