Mad Men is back, and oh, it does not disappoint. Sunday night's season premiere was full of reminders of why we love this show. The lights! The colors! The costumes! The history! The action! John Slattery! The women! And then, of course, the subtext, and the not-so-subtext. Matthew Weiner has never been afraid of a little death allusion, and this first episode of season six, "The Doorway," was full of them—not just allusions to death but deaths themselves, and at least one near-death experience. There is one funeral attended, and other deaths referred to, and there is one wedding (though there are plenty of references to marriage, and different iterations thereof). In my recaps this season, as with the last, I'll focus on the role of the women in Mad Men, placing them in the context of the episode overall. One theme carries over and I think is strengthened: As Don and Roger flail, ever the more the same, Peggy and Megan—and maybe even Betty—have changed, with professional successes for the former, and at least a hint of happiness for the latter (though of course she's Betty, so it's a weird sort of happiness). As women, they're unfolding more clearly outside of their relationships with men, even as those relationships with men remain important. Be forewarned, spoilers follow.
We begin with a scream, the sight of a man leaning over another, doing CPR, and Megan's voice in the background, saying, "Oh my God." Spoiler One, which we learn later: It's not Don. We've still got way too many episodes to go, people! The man on the floor is the building's doorman, Jonesy, who has had a heart attack, and the man who's bringing him back to life is Dr. Rosen, a neighbor. Clearly, this episode will deal with matters of the heart.
We flash back to Megan and Don on the beach, in paradise, or Hawaii. They're at The Royal Hawaiian as a sort of working vacation for Don. "Everything's better here," it is said, and it is, rather like a honeymoon. Megan and Don drink on the beach and get tans and at night enjoy "totally authentic" Hawaiian food and, later, sex (enhanced by drugs) in their perfect hotel room. At one dinner Megan gets on stage to hula dance and is recognized by a fan. She's on To Have and to Hold, and is now well-known enough for people (or at least one person) all the way from Minnesota to want her autograph. It's the start of the success she's always hoped for, and Don appears to be keeping up, if not quite with the vigor and smiles and blue daiquiris of his younger bride (the voiceover in the beginning is him reading The Inferno on the beach, where, tick-tock, his watch has died). One night he leaves her sleeping in the room and heads down to his old retreat, the bar, in his new late '60s garb (Hawaiian shirt, resort-wear jacket). A couple of servicemen are in from Vietnam; one is passed-out drunk. The talkative one, who still has eight months to serve, is getting married the next day—someone told his bride-to-be that "married guys live longer." He wants Don to give the bride away, saying, "I believe what goes around comes around. One day I'll be the man who can't sleep and talks to strangers." Don, who's always wanted to be another kind of man, sees something in that sentiment. The next day Megan wakes up alone, goes to the beach, and sees her husband giving the bride away. He looks happy. So is she.
Back in New York in December 1967, it's Christmastime and a group of women—Betty, Sally, Grandma Francis, and Sally's friend Sandy, whose mother has died and who the Francises have taken in, are watching The Nutcracker. On the way home Betty is pulled over by a cop, and Grandma Francis, relying on the name of her son and his political power, tries to get them out of the ticket that way. That maneuver doesn't work, but neither does Betty's attempt to smile at the cop (if she can't rely on her husband or her looks, who can she rely on?). Back at home, the new generation takes over. Teenage Sally tells on her mom, who she calls "Betty," now, and Sandy—who already thinks she's too old at 15 to be a prodigy—plays violin for the room. Later, Betty and Henry are in bed and she, jealous of the girl's youth and her husband's pleasure in the music, says to Henry, "Why don't you go in there and rape her? I'll hold her arms down." "What the hell?" he says. "I thought you wanted to spice things up," says Betty. It's one weird what-the-hell moment in which yet again, we understand that we don't understand Betty at all; she is not what we thought she was, even if what she is remains to be seen.
Still later, Betty gets up in the middle of the night and Sandy is downstairs at the kitchen table. Betty asks if she's hungry, and tells her she has to be careful with her own weight. "Why don’t you just be the way you are?" says Sandy. "You're beautiful." It's unclear what Betty's motivations are, but maybe there's some kinship with this girl, because her own mother has died—or maybe she wishes she could harness her youthful potential—but Betty is kind to Sandy, in the way Betty is able to be kind. Sandy has her own issues, though. She confesses she didn't get into Juilliard, and says she's too old to be a violist. (Betty suggests she try again for Julliard and say she wanted to finish high school, which Sandy points out is a pretty fast lie.) In any case, Sandy seems to want to stop having to lie. She feels trapped and wants to escape the charted out married-suburban-life destiny that has captured Betty, to leave and live in St. Mark's Place in New York City, to just live without the current, bourgeois pressures upon her. It's a '50s-'70s clash at the kitchen table. Betty tries to defend her life, and, again, in a non-Betty move, gives the girl a compliment, telling her she's talented.
Peggy Olson, at her no-longer-new firm, has a work crisis. Her campaign for headphones involves the slogan "lend me your ears," and a joke on the Tonight Show refers to soldiers cutting off the ears of Viet Cong soldiers. She has to come up with a fix, but fortunately, professional Peggy has grown by leaps and bounds, surpassing Don in her self-control and drive. What she lacks is sensitivity to the people she manages, her boyfriend Abe later reminds her, and so does her boss, Ted. Peggy is an impressive ad machine, and possibly a creative genius, and also very good in a crisis (as her Ted tells her, too), but she's not nurturing in the slightest. I couldn't help comparing Peggy Olson to Don's new female creative, who Ginsberg says shouldn't feel bad she didn't know that a stewardess on a plane would let a mother hold a baby on her lap, because "she never had any kids." Peggy, we know, did have a child. But Peggy is in a different place now, the place she's wanted to be for a long time. Someone else brings her coffee when she asks for it.
At her old agency, publicity portraits are being taken. Joan stands on the stairwell for hers. "Would you mind holding onto the rail, gorgeous, and thinking of important things?" the photographer says. Don's office has been restaged for the pictures—what's fake is supposed to look real, and he's supposed to do "what he normally does" for the camera. He stands in his window and looks outside and listens to the waves crash in his mind. Later, when he goes to look at his team's ad work for a cleaning product, he asks why everything has the word "love" in it. In one illustration a husband carries his bride into the kitchen. “Anything matrimonial feels Paleolithic,” he says, and asks why they're contributing to the trivialization of the word love. "Leave it where we want it," he says. "We're wearing it out." (See also: Matters of the heart.)
Roger Sterling is going to a therapist. (I would pay to be Roger Sterling's therapist.) But Roger Sterling is having a little bit of what a therapist might call "adjustment disorder." He's afraid of death, though he won't admit it; he doesn't know what life is; everything seems pointless. And then he gets the news from his crying secretary that his mother has died. She is inconsolable. "Talk to Joan," he says. "She'll know what to do." Peggy and Joan; good in crises.
During the photo shoot, Don realizes that he has the lighter of the groom whose bride he walked down the aisle. Inscribed on that lighter is the phrase, "In life we often have to do things that are just not our bag." This haunts Don. That night, Megan comes in and tells him that she's needed at work not just for the next day but for the whole week. She can't go to Roger's mother's funeral. "You should get some sleep," she tells him. "How can I? My wife's a big TV star," he says. I detect something more than flattery here.
When Betty comes home with groceries she finds Sally eating and Sandy gone. "She went to Juilliard early," says Sally, though Betty knows that's not true, and sets out to find her in the squats of St. Mark's Place, where she sticks out like a sore thumb her kerchief and suburban lady-coat. She's pegged as a mom by the boys she finds in a squat, where she also finds Sandy's violin. One of them asks her if she knows how to make goulash, and is kind. Another, who joins later, hates everything her blonde hair and suburban coat says about her, and probably about what that says about him, too. He tells her Sandy has gone to California. "We don't like your life anymore than you do," he says. "I hope you get crabs," she retorts, and leaves the violin in a dark corner. Home again in the suburbs, she tries to briefly mother Sally, who closes the door on her. She gets in bed with her husband, asks him if he ate, and he holds her.
And then there's Roger's mom's funeral. Oh, Roger's mom's funeral. Roger is surrounded by elderly ladies flirting with him. Jane is there, offering to give him his mother's ring back. Roger's daughter and his ex-wife are there, his ex-wife bringing her new husband along with her, which incenses Roger when nothing else will. Don is there, drunk, and when the old lady who insists on speaking first repeats Roger's mom's sentiment that she needed no other man after her husband died, "my heart is full because my son is my sunshine,” Don, the son of a prostitute who died in his birth, pukes in an umbella stand and has to be ushered out. Roger, angry not about that but about his ex-wife's date, shouts, "This is my funeral," and runs out. (Later, he hits on his ex-wife—who's also good in a crisis—after confessing that all he saw at the funeral were women he's disappointed; still later he attempts to be a father to his daughter, who wants more than her grandmother's jar of water from the River Jordan. She wants him to give her husband money to invest in refrigeration. "Have him talk to me," says Roger.)
Drunk Don, taken home by Pete and Ken, wants to know what Jonesy saw when he "died"—and if it looked like Hawaii. "I don't like to think about it," says the doorman. "I guess it was a light." Don gets in bed, and when Megan comes home, she tells him gleefully that she had to push another character's mother down the stairs. "You'll still love me, even if I'm a lying, cheating whore," she says, and goes to make him dinner, giving him the lighter which he tried to throw away. (Later, Don will have Dawn, his secretary, try to return it to the soldier).
Roger goes back to his therapist. "My mother loved me in some completely pointless way and now it’s gone," he says. "Now I know from here on in I’m losing everything. Life will eventually end, and somebody else will get the bill." Yet we don't really see him break down until he learns that his shoeshine guy has died, and the family has sent his equipment to Roger, the only one who ever called him. Roger goes to his office, opens that box, and weeps. Elsewhere at the agency, Don is having The Royal Hawaiian meeting, and the clients don't get his pitch. They think it's morbid; that the footprints on the sand that designate a "jumping off point" into paradise really indicate a guy on the verge of suicide. Which, well, we still have a lot more episodes to go.
Betty comes into the house with her hair dyed black. Her son says he hates it and that she's ugly. Sally says, "What happened to you?" Henry, one man on the show who's also good in a crisis, says, "Elizabeth Taylor, what have you done with my wife?"
And then, it's New Year's Eve. Megan and Don are having a party with the neighbors, including Dr. Rosen and his wife, Sylvia; Dr. Rosen and Don have entered into a kind of friendship throughout the episode, Don giving him a camera and talking to him about being a doctor and, really, admiring him for everything he does. At 1 a.m., still at the Drapers, Dr. Rosen gets a call—he is needed to save a life. He and Don head to the storage room for the good doctor to get his skis, and he heads out in the snow. Don goes to not Megan but Sylvia who, we learn, gave him the copy of The Inferno that started out the episode. "What do you want for this year?" she asks him, in bed with him. "I want to stop doing this," he says. "I know," she says. The punch in the episode is not that Don is cheating (it's a surprise, but come on, we knew it was bound to happen), it's that he does appear to want to change. The other punch: Megan in bed with a screenplay next to her. She has what she wants; he doesn't. "Happy New Year," she says, and hugs her lying, cheating husband when he gets in bed.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.