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Monday, April 8, 2013

Review: Mad Men, The Doorway

Season 6, Episode 1
Grade: A-
Verdict: Another deep and thoughtful premiere that is an especially good showcase for the Roger Sterling fans in the audience. Thematically, this is an episode that portrays the series in peak form, and even accomplishes the Herculean task of making Betty somewhat likeable, for once.

Anytime you put on an episode of Mad Men, it's an experience where you just have to shut everything else out or you're sure to miss something. Of all the television programs I watch, of which there are admittedly only a few, I often find Mad Men to be the most enriching experience one can partake in. I'm not sure if it's the perfect attention to detail that it displays of the era in which my parents grew up in, or the writing that so perfectly encapsulates its intended themes without beating you over the head with it (at least not very often), or the incredible acting. The answer is surely a mixture of all three in my case. While the show took a little bit to take off with me, by Season 4 I was so fully invested that I could easily call it my favorite on television. Here we are at Season 6 and my love has only intensified. So, what did Don tell those ladies at the bar at the end of last season?

The truth is, we don't actually find out, not in the strictest manner anyway. "The Doorway" focuses on differing meanings on that episode title, and does so through four distinct storyline branches focusing on Don, Peggy, Roger, and Betty. This is interesting because this is probably the core four (minus Pete) that the show's foundation was built upon before Joan, Ken, Harry and others all started to pull their own focus within the program's reins. But let's take a look at the individual elements and see how each theme percolated through the individual character arcs, some more successful than others, but with a 2 hour long premiere, and such a specific theme, certain areas will ring stronger with particular characters.

Don begins the episode in Hawaii with Megan, on a trip sponsored by a client of his in order to give him the ideal marketing plan for their chain of hotels. While Megan has become a successful actress on her daytime soap opera, of which she is the villain (not subtle, Mr. Weiner), Don is sort of adrift without much driving him, he doesn't even contribute so much as a line of dialogue until directly prompted. As seen in the above photo, he spends his time alone at the bar, lost in drink and fairly deep in thought. He participates in a fellow bar patron's (and solider's) wedding, because "Why not?". Don is a man who needs a role, and is feeling the ticking clock of mortality hang above him. When Megan and Don return from their trip, we get a flashback to them walking in the door of their highrise lobby to only be greeted by their doorman having a heart attack (or stroke). Don, a man of action generally, is completely frozen by what to do, acting only when a Doctor neighbor just happens to be there on the scene instructs him in what to do. For a man whose early life is so marked with tragedy and pain, it's fascinating that the idea of death frightens him so, but perhaps it makes sense as its a reminder of everything he's been trying to escape.

When Don finally tries to sell his ad idea to the hotel chain, an idea that frankly is a bit too ambitious for his seemingly conservative clients, he refuses to understand how the ad could be construed as suicide. Don has simply shut that part of his brain out completely, again showing a man struggling to understand his current station in life. We learn later in the episode that he has also resumed his philandering ways (incidentally with the wife of the Doctor, of whom he has befriended). Don is a man needing someone who needs him, and his affairs, while inexcusable, are an outward expression of that. This current relationship is revealed by the episode's conclusion, and is actually the final "doorway" revealed, with Don instantly regretting his actions, but also unable to stop as its not only his attempt to regain some semblance of control of his life, but his youth and vigor as well.

Betty is also another character who is trying to reassert her position in life. When we last left her, she was struggling with the significant amount of weight she gained and that was generally her plot arc for last season. I'm not a Betty fan, nor do I appreciate the actress much, but I thought this was a step in the right direction for her character if she's going to be returning to the spotlight of the show's focus regularly. One thing I very much appreciate is that Betty's weight is still something she's struggling with, and she hasn't dropped it all completely as she's still clearly got some puffiness in her face and is wearing some less than form fitting outfits. It's a nice touch, as few people transform their bodies that quickly, and it was rarer particularly in that day and age. The overall theme of the episode for Betty doesn't come into focus until deeper into her storyline, which revolves around her attempts at trying to play "surrogate mother" to one of Sally's school friends, Sandy. When Sandy disappears post-sleepover at the Francis household, Betty takes it upon herself to go find Sandy at one the various flop-houses she assumes Sandy may be frequenting due to her idolatry of said lifestyle. 

When she arrives at the "squat", she's greeted by the line that "the door is always open" from one of the various "tenants". Betty's maternal instincts kick in when she decides to cook goulash for the young men that are just barely scraping by. Despite her fairly selfish nature, it's difficult for her to shake the things that make her tick particularly now that she's come to accept the fact that she's older and far more settled in her own life than where the series began as the more child-like, former model turned ignored wife and mother. When a more aggressive tenant arrives and accuses her of being a part of the establishment, it's a funny look at how the next generation perceives the one that came before them, even one that's probably only separated by 15 years at the most. It wasn't that long ago that Betty herself was living in similar conditions before she found herself in the cycle that Sandy accused her of being a part of. My favorite moment is actually when Betty and Henry are in bed and she offers playfully to hold down Sandy so Henry could rape her. It was a really an interesting way for her to try and spice things up with Henry, and again, displays the age that she's beginning to carry.

Roger is the other character that carries the majority of plot within the episode. With Roger, the doorway metaphor is more clearly spelled out during a session he has with his therapist, how he describes life's journeys and its inevitable disappointments. The crux of his storyline is centered on the death of his mother, the news of which he reacts to in a fairly muted away, again bringing up the theme of mortality. In Roger's case, his mother was in her 90's, and it was an expected death, sad nonetheless, but Roger is fairly stoic even somewhat lighthearted when the funeral proceedings begin. When Jane offers to return his mother's ring, he refuses and says "she liked you, you paid the rent on time". It isn't until one of Roger's biggest disappointments, the dissolution of his first marriage to Mona and his estrangement with his daughter is staring him in the face that he begins to lose that cooler demeanor that he normally carries.

There's a great touch written in by Weiner that when Roger abruptly ends the funeral and makes everyone leave, he stomps up the stairs and you can hear a door slam. This just drives home the meaning of what doorways mean to Roger, as that they represent the sense of disillusion that he's been bottling up and really only revealing to his therapist in a somewhat joking fashion. Mona joins him and urges that he reconnect with the one person that he can definitely salvage a relationship with, his daughter. There's a nice moment where Roger finally pulls himself out of his sulking mood and has a nice chat with Margaret regarding her husband's potential investment opportunity. It's one of the rare moments we've seen Roger play responsible and caring father rather than the more free-wheeling lifestyle that he encouraged in Don and Pete, and again, a sign of character evolution. The best moment though, which could rank up there with the best work John Slattery has done on the show was when he's finally in his office, alone with the shoe-shine box of the also recently deceased man who shines his shoes, and he simply breaks down. All the emotion he's bottled up is finally coming out in full-force, behind the safety of his office door.

Peggy plays with the least amount of screentime of the four major players in the script, but her scenes highlight just how much into her own she's come and how her professional life is quickly invading all the confines of her private life. When she walks in the door with Abe at their apartment after a night out, she immediately gets a call from her supervisor (or colleague, it's a little unclear) that one of their ad campaigns needs to be immediately changed due to the insensitivity it displays to the actions of the Vietnam War. Peggy immediately convenes her team together and begins to work them into the night to find a solution for the ad in question. She eventually finds a solution that she proudly displays to her boss, who is equally happy, but also brings up the fact that the people that work for her don't realize they can go home now. Peggy, in her own way, is turning into Don beyond just becoming a skilled ad-exec, she's also taking on the work-place style of her former mentor. It's ironic that Peggy would absorb that aspect, as it was a factor that caused her to walk out of SCDP at one point, but the traits we often take away from our past employers are often aspects that we don't even realize.

While the screentime therein may be the smallest, Peggy's personality shift highlights just how much each character has begun to turn into another version of the character that came before, as the AV Club (www.avclub.com) has already been keen enough to point out. Peggy (and Pete, just in a different way) has become Don, Don has become Roger, Roger is becoming his own version of Bert Cooper. Betty may have scorned her for saying so, but Sandy was onto something when she talks about the cycles that we get sucked into as we get older, get jobs, get married, move out to the country, etc...she just doesn't realize that it happens to the city mouses too, just at a slightly different angle.

A few things extra thoughts:

- I really hope that the switched zeppo lighters don't play a big part this season in somehow revealing Don's actual identity to the authorities. It's by far one of my least favorite aspects of Mad Men, and often rings very false in contrast to the wonderful realism on display throughout.

- The suck-up Account man is a neat little character that I can't quite put on my finger on what his angle is. I feel like he's someone that's trying to weasel his way into a better position in the company, but I'm curious how this will all shake out. It wasn't that long ago that Don was pulling similar stunts, sans tastelessness, with Roger.

- Stan's beard. Awesome.

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