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'Mad Men' Season 6 premiere recap, 'The Doorway'

Hotels and AccommodationsPersonal ServicePhotographyArtJanuary Jones
'Mad Men' Season 6 premiere recap, 'The Doorway'
Did Don Draper cheat on Megan? That's not really the point of this episode.
Mad Men, Mad Men Season 6, Mad Men Season 6 premiere, Don Draper, Jon Hamm, Matthew Weiner

Did Don Draper cheat on Megan? You get an answer, but it is far from the point of the episode.

"The Doorway," the good-but-not-great, often poetic (but also often very slow moving) Season 6 premiere is not an exuberant return. The action is often very detailed, very muted, very dark. But after a not-the-best Season 5, it was wonderful to see "Mad Men" become a bit more nuanced with its characters and the themes it has often explored: the various types of masks people wear, if people are stuck in their lives or can change.

Co-creator/series mastermind Matthew Weiner wrote this two-hour premiere, which tried to balance four plot lines while still maintaining a cohesive feel. The major themes here are death and mortality -- fun stuff! Notably, the stuck-in-muck lives of Don, Roger and Betty.

The title, you ask? Let's leave it to Roger -- who is uncharacteristically in therapy and very introspective -- to explain. He says life is just one door after another.

"That's all there are and they all open the same way," he says. "And they all close behind you."

Yikes. As witnessed in the statement above, some  most of Weiner's metaphors and themes are handled in a heavy-handed way. At one point someone tells Don: "I want you to be yourself." He's a photographer, but still.

Again, it's all a bit  heavy-handed: In a previous interview Weiner said this season is all about how "people will do anything to avoid anxiety," and in the premiere a character actually utters those words.

So yeah, the themes are bleak -- but the dark humor we all love about "Mad Men" is there in full force.

Drunk Don even vomits during a memorial service. Really. Oh, and Betty makes joke about her husband flirting with a friend of Sally's and again, jokingly (thank god), mentions that he could rape the girl as a way to spice of their marriage/life.

Again, dark. But this was riveting stuff. Let's go over how Weiner set up his major characters for Season 6.

Don Draper: It's Christmastime, 1967 (Peggy at one point mentions the teams for Super Bowl II, which is basically the only way to tell), and Don and Megan are in Hawaii. He's checking out a new client, the Royal Hawaiian hotel (hey, it's better than the Howard Johnson trip).

But he looks bored to death. He's even reading about death -- Dante's "Inferno." Yes, Don Draper has officially become the only person ever to read "Inferno" on a Hawaiian beach.

A lot of the Hawaii scenes include a lost-in-thought Don staring into space and not smiling at all, while Megan smuggles joints into their room, laughs at everything and goes up on the stage during a luau and probably holds back from singing in French.

You also learn that Megan now stars (as a maid) in a soap opera called "To Have and to Hold," which sounds pretty awful. Don's manly pride/control issues seem to have passive-aggressive problems with Megan's new acting career.

Don's so restless that he wakes up in the middle of the night and goes down to the lonely hotel bar where his only company is a dude passed out.

A drunken GI, PFC Dinkins, on leave from Vietnam, shows up and explains that the passed out dude is his best man (he even asks Don to be the guy's replacement at wedding the next morning and Don does a non-Don Drapery thing and agrees to give away the bride). Dinkins eventually tells Don that one day he'll be the sleepless guy sitting alone at a bar -- ouch. Maybe Don should steer away from the midlife crisis Hawaiian shirt-wearing.

Back in NYC there's more death imagery (Don flashes back to seeing his building doorman having a heart attack), before tan-but-unhappy Don goes back to work to take inane company partner photos.

Side note: For some reason, in the press kit, Weiner told TV reviewers not to say whether the company expanded to another floor. We saw them  expand in the Season 5 finale, so it really is no surprise/not a big deal to say, yes, SCDP is now multiple floors.

Also, is it called SCDP, now that P is gone? It's never explained.

The photo shoot scene with Don is exquisite. While he's struggling to pose for the shot, Don looks at a lighter in his pocket. It was PFC Dinkins and it's inscribed with: "In life we have to do things that are just not our bag." Most depressing/honest lighter inscription ever?

Don's bag has never been being himself, but also not staying faithful. When he returns from vacation, his writing staff (including a new female writer, who looks like some sort of frumpy combo of Peggy and Jan) are working on a campaign for an oven cleaner.

The company wants them to use the word "love" and their first ad mock-ups include a imagery of an affectionate married couple in their kitchen.

"Anything matrimonial feels paleolithic," Don tells him. Yikes, 1967 is rough. And 1967 also means the writing staff, especially fully bearded Stan is both sporting some wild facial hair and smoking weed in the office. Was this a thing that really happened? The reefer part, not the facial hair part.

Don spends much of this episode in a fog. It's easy to see just how unhappy he is with his great-on-the-outside life, and how focused on his own mortality he is (I'm guessing Lane Pryce's death is very much still fresh on his mind). During a darkly funny memorial service for Roger's dead mom (more on this later), a drunk/out of it Don throws up.

Don's downward spiral to sadness and self-hatred is exposed in the most unlikely of places: an ad pitch. This is where Don usually shines and keeps the private stuff private. But his proposed ad for the Royal Hawaiian is depressing: It looks like a man walks off a plane, gets undressed and kills himself by drowning in the ocean. He even calls the ad "Hawaii: The jumping off point" and goes on and on about how different cultures believe the soul can go in and out of the body.

What happened to the man in the ad, the confused clients ask. He shed his skin, Don says.

"We sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike," Roger tells Don. "You know how we did it? We ignored it."

Yeah, not your best work, Don.

One of the final parts of the episode is a boring New Year's Eve party at Don and Megan's with some of their friends in the building (there's fondue! And a Hawaiian vacation slide show!). While we saw building friend Dr. Rosen earlier in the episode, we meet his wife, Sylvia (played by random guest star Linda Cardellini) and a few other annoying people, including one flirtatious middle-age blonde whom you are lead to believe is sleeping with Don.

But, no. Weiner is full of surprises when he's not handing down obvious metaphors. After we have to endure Don talking about death some more, this time with Dr. Rosen ("What's it like to have someone else's life in your hands"? he asks the doc), Don enters the Rosen apartment and sleeps with Sylvia.

"Did you read my Dante?" she asks.

"It made me think of you," he says.

And there's this ambigious episode end: "I want to stop doing this," Don says.

"I know," Sylvia responds.

Does he mean the affair? Does he mean lying to Megan and Dr. Rosen? Does he mean having to sit through Weiner's labored symbolism? So many questions.

Roger Sterling: Roger is by far the stand-out of this episode (welcome back, John Slattery!), from his hilarious therapy session (I would pay Roger to sit in on his sessions) A credit to Slattery: He's in full mid-life crisis mode, but his acting never seems forced and cliched.

Roger is back to his good old sardonic self, especially when his secretary, Caroline, tells him that his 91-year-old mother passed away. He tells her that it's not really a surprise -- she was old as hell -- but he doesn't shed and tear and looks blankly at his secretary when she hilariously says, "She was always so polite to me. When she could hear me."

But Roger at his mother's funeral/memorial service? Pure gold. Maybe equal with his LSD trip (really). We not only get to see him interact with two ex wives (yep, Jane and Mona received invited), but watch his Emmy-worth eye-rolls as one of his mom's friends gives the worst eulogy ever (Don even throws up after the woman says that Roger' mom used to say, "My son is my sunshine"). This part played out like a huge black comedy. After yelling at Mona's new man, Roger fnally yells "THIS IS MY FUNERAL" (yep, Weiner-ish heavy-handedness) before he softly confides to Mona that he regrets not spending enough time with his mom.

"I looked out at that crowd and just saw a bunch of women I disappointed," he admits.. Have we ever seen Roger be so vulnerable? I doubt it.

Betty Draper: I was surprised to see January Jones get as much screen time as she did in the premiere, especially after her very limited appearances in Season 5.

And before I go on: Yes, she's still fat. Just not-as fat. Let's call her A Little Less Fat Betty.

SSB gets the least heavy handed, metaphorical subplot about mortality -- but it's also a bizarre (almost ridiculous) one.

We meet Sally's friend, Sandy, who plays the violin, lies about getting into Juliard and smokes in the Francis kitchen. She's 15, and apparently stays with the Francis fam a lot (we also learn her mom is dead -- again, lots of death).

Betty has formed some sort of bond with Sandy, perhaps because she sees a little bit of her vanished life dreams in this girl and perhaps because she wishes Sally was a bit more like her (FYI: Sally has gone back to love-hating her mom as opposed to loving her when she got her period).

When one day Sandy can't be found, Betty goes looking for her in a run-down house that's apparently where the cool 1967 NYC bohemians live, but should be condemned because it's awful and scary (it was hilarious to see Betty her, letting the bohemians know how to properly make ghoulash).

Betty spots Sandy's violin case while Sandy's bum friend aren't cooperative with Betty and her looks of shock at the living conditions.

"We don't like your life any more than you do," one tells a shocked Betty. So summar: Betty married to Henry still, Betty still a bit fat, Betty still unhappy with where her life has taken her.

And unhappy with her blonde hair. After one of the bohemians describes Betty's hair as "bottled," she goes and gets it dyed brunette.

Raise your hand if you ever thought you'd see Betty with dark hair.

Peggy Olson: This least depressing (aka: not about death. Or containing actual death/death references) belongs to Peggy, who seems to have become a mini-Don Draper at her new ad agency. Seriously,  girl is confident, even with dealing with a crisis concerning an ad for headphones and concerns people might connect it to recent jokes about Vietnam a comedian made on TV.

Peggy handles everything superbly (and even still calls Stan to talk things out. Awww, she misses SCDP), and is apparently still dating Abe, now with 67 percent more facial hair.

Also, did I detect a little bit of flirting with Peg and the ad agency head who hired her? I assume her plot was to show how Peggy is the only one still young, not fearing death. But I also assume her great life is not all it appears to be.

MORE HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SEASON PREMIERE:

PETE: If you're wondering about Pete Campbell, he's as annoying as ever, even when uttering just a few words. His pronounciation of King Kamehameha made me cringe (seriously, "King Kame-HA ... me-HAAAA."

BAD PORK: Lesson learne: A 1967 luau looks just as touristy and lame as one likely is today.

THE NEW GUY: What's the deal with this new staffer/suck-up Bob Benson (James Wolk) and will we have to spend the whole season seeing people annoyed with him. 

BEST LINE: "I don't know if it's the photographers or writers but it really smells like reefer in here" -- Joan. (Answer: probably a bit of both).

LINES I'M TRYING TO GET OUT OF MY HEAD: Betty's very-odd rape joke-talk ... thing ... with Henry about Sandy. "She's in the next ropom. Why don't you go in and rape her? I'll hold her arms down. You said you wanted to spice things up." Betty, no.

BEST BACK-AND-FORTH:

Sandy: "People are natually democratic if you give them a chance."

Betty: "Are you on dope?"

MOST DEPRESSING LINE THAT PRETTY MUCH SUMS UP EVERYONE'S STATE OF MIND: "Life will eventually end and someone else will get the bill." -- Roger.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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