***POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD***
By now the AMC period drama Mad Men has become an institute of sorts – it’s a brilliantly written and wonderfully acted show – one of the best. The sixth season, reportedly its penultimate, has a rough assignment ahead: to match (and hopefully top) the brilliant fifth season. It’s still not clear if that’s going to happen but the season opener “The Doorway” is a wonderful start, doing a great job in introducing the folks of SCDP.
At the close of the fifth season our gang of alienated ad men and their loved ones went through some tumultuous life changes. In this season we see them start to deal with these progressions in their lives. Brilliant protegee-turned-serious threat Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) left SCDP after hitting that pesky glass ceiling. We’re introduced to her as becoming more and more like Don Draper (Jon Hamm) – she’s treating her kind boyfriend dismissively, and her underlings seem to be little more than eager irritants, and when a client is pushing back against an a idea because it’s threatening to remind customers of the Vietnam War, she’s cutting, impatient and quick to shut him down. But like Don, she’s also superhero when it comes to pulling great ideas out of the recesses of her mind. Olson’s Peggy is arguably my favorite character and it’s nice to see her roaring back in her inimitable way.
Betty (January Jones) meanwhile promises to be a more integral character, if judged by her appearance in this episode. Still a bit doughy from her weight gain from last season (but still looking stunningly gorgeous – more to love, right?), she’s still struggling to deal with her petulant kids. Kiernan Shipka is back as Sally Draper – the 10-month gap only added to the child actresses’ maturing beauty and total command of the screen – she’s magnetic and easily steals her scenes.
So Betty on to Sally’s violin prodigy friend from school, Sandy. The kid’s a great violinist and plays for the assembled Francis family. Later on, Betty and Sandy have a heart-to-heart and she admits that she’s not going to Julliard. Instead she’s planning on running away to St. Mark’s Place. When she disappears, Betty gets dressed in matron-best, including an elegant head scarf and makes her way to an abandoned building where she runs into some vagrants making Hungarian goulash. She spots Sandy’s violin, and is rebuffed by the ruffians and they tell her Sandy’s ran away to California, but not before calling Betty a bottle blonde. Her response: she returns home a brunette – except instead of looking like Elizabeth Taylor, like her lovely husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) suggests, the effect is more Betty Rubble.
Roger (John Slattery) is suffering a loss: his aged, doyenne mother died. He seems fine until the funeral, which acted a bit like a Mad Men reunion – Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), ex-wives Jane (Peyton List) and Mona (Talia Balsam), Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) all attend along with the other regulars from SCDP. Don shows up smashed and throws up in an umbrella stand, prompting Roger to throw a fit and kick his guests out of his house.
Speaking of Don, the episode is largely based on the show’s lead. The show opens with someone having a heart attack before we’re transported to Hawaii, where Don’s on holiday with his beautiful wife Megan (Jessica Pare), who is embarking on some measured success as a soap actress (she even gets a middle-aged matron as a fan). The two return to New York for New Year’s, and celebrate with friends – including a saintly doctor.
The theme of this show seems to be war and death – and both concepts are interwoven wonderfully into the episode. Death is always on Don’s mind – upon their return to New York from Hawaii, he and Megan help their doorman come back from a heart attack. Later after Don’s drunken scene at the funeral, he’s brought to his house and harasses the doorman about his minute flirtation with death. As a result, he puts together an ad campaign for his new client, Sheraton. Unfortunately, the ad – an empty beach with a man’s suit on the sand and footprints leading to the water remind the Sheraton folks of the tragic end of A Star Is Born, where Norman Maine (James Mason) walks into the water, to his death.
Vietnam has also impacted Peggy’s work. Her ad campaign for headphones is imperiled because of reports of Vietnam soldiers wearing the enemies’ severed ears on chains. She has a nervous subordinate trying to redo the bit from The Tonight Show, and Olson’s irritated reaction to the kids’ halting rendition of the joke is hilarious.
So why is the episode called “The Doorway”? I’m not sure – I’m still trying to figure it out – the doorman might be a clue as he’s a catalyst – there are also some symbolic doorways – Don and company going through the doors of SDCP and we learn that the office has expanded significantly. Don also goes through the doorway of his office to see it completely rearranged. There’s also a red herring doorway Don goes through at the end – I won’t say ‘cuz it’ll give it away.
The episode, by the way, ends as a bummer – a real disappointing ending not because it’s not well written, but because we’re disappointed in Don’s actions (a hint – he’s a cad). So, hopefully the rest of the season will maintain the excellence of this first episode. If it does, we’re in for a run.