Mad Men Recap: Suicide is Painless, but This Show Is Not
As I sit down to write about this episode, it seems appropriate that I hunch over, drink bourbon and smoke a cigarette and gaze narcissistically into a past about which I feel a great deal of existential angst, despite having my whole life ahead of me and every privilege in the modern world… So why is tonight different from any other night? Because it’s the premiere of Mad Men’s sixth season!
Before we begin I want to note that judging by the commercial breaks, Lincoln, for whom John Slattery did a cool commercial a while ago, seems to have replaced Jaguar as the overly-intrusive main sponsor of Mad Men. The ways in which this show subverts its own product placement deserve an essay of their own, but I’ll say this: last season the fictionalized Jaguar company involved the SCDP agency in prostitution, and in a later episode, a Jaguar was almost used for suicide—until the car wouldn’t start. So good luck, Lincoln, you’re gonna need it if your products actually end up appearing on the show.
The episode, “The Doorway”, written by the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, starts off with Don and Megan in Hawaii, with Don intoning a passage from the Inferno, which he reads on the beach. Beyond the Dante allusion, there is a lot of heat and fire imagery in the sequence that follows, from Hawaiian fire dancing, tiki torches, and a pair of joints Megan scores. All that hellfire is juxtaposed with repeated reference to Hawaii as “paradise.” Look at my English major paying off, haters!
Apparently Megan is recognizable from some soap opera now—“I can’t believe Victor won’t acknowledge you,” coos a fan who approaches her. Don meets a soldier about to get married before leaving for Vietnam. The soldier’s best man is passed out at the bar, and Don ends up serving in his stead as the couple get married on the beach. Megan finds Don and snaps a picture. Don later realizes he accidentally stole the soldier’s lighter, which has the soldier’s name on it.
The whole Hawaii sequence—from a master of ceremonies telling obnoxious jokes to the tourists for what feels like a long time, to the soldier bragging about killing water buffalo—made my skin crawl. Weiner, in his work on The Sopranos as well as Mad Men, is great at this: showing the subtle horror of average lameness. Don’s aloof smirk is the only thing stopping these scenes from becoming pure “Look at these godawful people” and nothing more—but Don’s passivity also makes him complicit.
Meanwhile, at the Francis residence, Henry and Betty have apparently taken in a young orphan who hopes to study violin at Juilliard. Bobby Draper says the violin looks like a coffin. Last season laid on the ominous death vibes pretty thick, but this season seems to be taking it even further. In the next scene, Don witnesses a doorman called Jonesy having a heart attack, and a doctor named Arnold Rosen administers CPR. Rosen’s wife is played by former Freaks and Geeks star Linda Cardellini.
Betty climbs into bed with her husband and commences saying SUPER HORRIFYING things about the young violinist, suggesting Henry “rape” her. I read this as a comment on present-day rape culture: the past year has brought a lot of ignorance about rape to light thanks to comments from Todd Akin and Tosh.0, to name a few, and it’s interesting to consider the idea that rape might have been spoken of as a mere kink, the way Betty talks about it here, more often in the late ’60s.
Betty then goes downstairs and has a conversation with the violinist, who didn’t get into Juilliard. Somehow this scene made me sympathize with Betty despite the disgusting monologue she just delivered—Betty, in her modeling days, lived in a packed apartment and ate soup out of cans, and the violinist, apparently now intent on moving to Greenwich Village and becoming a bohemian, is pretty arrogant. This is another thing the show is great at: I was raised to believe that the revolution of the ’60s was purely altruistic and important, but I think it’s equally important that we view the squares with sympathy, and see how they stayed square.
We check in with Peggy, whose awful boyfriend is now rocking a Frank Zappa ‘stache, and Roger, who is in therapy, but who mostly uses the psychiatric couch to joke—perhaps he should have been a standup comedian. Roger, who once said, “When God closes a door, he opens a dress,” gives the episode its title by discussing doorways in life, which “all close behind you.” His shrink is not amused, and the next scene parallels this moment, as Peggy is forced to endure a coworker’s stilted recounting of a late-night comedic monologue about American soldiers taking Vietnamese ears for trophies.
A guy named Bob Benson is scheming hard to impress Don, even giving him an extra coffee he just happened to have on him. Ginsberg’s new mustache totally beats Peggy’s boyfriend’s. Peggy, convincing her client to give her time to figure out how to make a great ad, is in full glory-days-Don mode.
Meanwhile, Don, who once said that love is just a sentiment created by ad men like him, is now upset at his firm’s and other agency’s “trivialization of the word.” One gets the feeling he has since learned love from Megan, and has already fallen out of it.
Don gives Dr. Arnold Rosen a camera in a drawn-out scene full of unusually boring banter. Sometimes this show errs too much on the side of dropping its audience into a trivial moment in its characters’ lives and forcing us to wait and find out the significance, if there is any, and this focus on Don and the doctor’s cordial acquaintance is one such instance.
The halfway point of the two-hour special is saved, though, by Roger’s reaction to his mother’s death. Roger is characteristically hilarious throughout her funeral service—a Groucho Marx trapped in a world of Margaret Dumonts. However, it’s clear he had been holding out for his mother to die for a long, long time. Roger’s psychiatrist’s question, “What exactly are you joking about?” becomes very relevant, especially when drunk Don vomits on the floor (at the mention of sunshine) and Roger notices his ex-wife’s plus-one. Roger yells, “This is MY FUNERAL!” and tries to kick everybody out.
This episode placed a special emphasis on uncomfortable monologues: the hacky MC in Hawaii, Betty making rape jokes like a bad comedian herself, Roger’s Portnoy’s Complaint moment, the “ears” routine, and a vomit-inducingly trite eulogy by a friend of Roger’s mother.
Drunk Don presses Jonesy about what happened “when he died.” (“I guess there was a light.” “Like a hot tropical sunshine?”) At this point there are so many commercial breaks that I start to wish I was seeing the soft light of death myself. Betty goes to Greenwich Village to look for this girl, and again I sympathize with her—everyone in the squat Betty visits is a total creep. Megan’s character on the soap opera she’s on becomes villainous, and I really wish we could see the show, a la “Invitation to Love” on Twin Peaks.
The Greenwich Village subplot ends with Betty dyeing her hair for some reason. This is why they introduced that character and everything? I’m wrestling with what all this is supposed to mean, except that Betty is losing her marbles even more than usual.
Don pitches “Hawaii: The Jumping-Off Point”, an ad campaign that unintentionally reminds the Hawaii people of suicide. Don’s pitch and subsequent defense of it (“Heaven is kind of morbid”) is so bad my sister said it reminded her of “Nathan for You”, the new show in which comedian Nathan Fielder tries to sell terrible ideas to real businesses.
Now it’s been over two hours and Don and Dr. Rosen are still just palling around pleasantly. They discuss—you guessed it—death, and then—you didn’t guess it—Dr. Rosen skis away in the snow on the street, and Don gets it on with Linda Cardellini, for what is clearly not the first time. The episode ended, and my sister, as devout a fan of the show as I am, said, “What did any of that mean? Who were half of those people?”
This episode reminded me of one of the best episodes of The Sopranos, an episode Weiner has writing credit on. In it, Tony does something very, very bad, then goes to Las Vegas, where he is surrounded by hell imagery on the level of what we saw when Don was in Hawaii. Tony takes peyote in the desert and yells, “I get it! I get it!” What Tony “gets” seems to be that he can do whatever he wants without consequences. Don seems to have had an epiphany, too: at one point he says, “I had an experience. I don’t know how to put it into words.” Judging by his hectoring of the doorman and by his terrifying pitch for a vacation destination, Don’s unseen epiphany involves a longing for death. What that means for him, or anybody else, in the future, remains a mystery.Related