This past Sunday night, AMC's Mad Men returned for its sixth season with a two-hour premiere that resumes the story nearly a year after the Season 5 finale, December of 1967, and brings us up to the wee hours of New Year's Day 1968. Since the times are a-changin', many of the characters have undergone superficial changes ranging from Pete's rapidly fading hairline and Harry's sideburns and jacket to the writing staff's facial hair and open marijuana smoking in the office. Betty encounters a pack of hippie runaways, Peggy has transformed into a female Don Draper and is living happily in sin with her boyfriend, and comedians are joking about the Vietnam War on the Tonight Show. It was the worst of times and it was... well, it was pretty much the worst of times, such as they are, for most of our favorite Mad Men.
From the very beginning of the episode, appropriately entitled "The Doorway," the themes of death and the afterlife hang heavy and will likely continue throughout the season. Although it wasn't directly referenced, the suicide of Lane Pryce in last season's penultimate episode was a catalyst for this direction and still looms over the show. Not only did Lane's insurance payout help to cover the cost of expanding to a second floor and installing a new staircase, but his shocking death set the stage for the darkness of the season premiere.
Opening with a point-of-view shot of someone receiving medical assistance and then apparently dying, we fade back into paradise, represented here by sunny Hawaii, where Don and wife Megan are vacationing to prepare for an ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian hotel. Just to really drive home the point, Don is reading a copy of The Inferno that we later find out was loaned to him by his new mistress, Sylvia, the wife of his neighbor, Dr. Rosen. We also find out that the person who died at the beginning of the episode was their doorman, who was revived and is profusely thankful to the doctor in subsequent scenes.
However, the way that these opening minutes are structured, a half-baked theory could be concocted indicating that it was actually Don who died, but didn't come back, and the remainder of the series is his metaphorical journey through the afterlife. Don says that he was standing nearby and saw everything when the doorman had his heart attack, but the only person visible in the POV shot was Dr. Rosen while Megan could be heard screaming "Oh my God!" off-camera. This ambiguity was more likely designed to confuse the viewer in the initial moments of a new season, teasing that it was Don who was receiving medical attention, but it could be worth noting that Don discovers his watch has stopped working after the fade-in on the beach. A drunk Don also asks the doorman if the light he saw when he died was like a tropical sun.
The spectre of death permeates the ad campaign that SterlingCooperDraperPryce comes up with for Royal Hawaiian, featuring an empty suit laying on the beach with a tagline about their hotel being "the jumping-off point"; even the placement of the necktie in the mock-up is reminiscent of a hangman's noose. This subconscious obsession with death dovetails nicely with Don's descent into hell. After flirting with fidelity last season, he is cheating on his latest wife with the married Sylvia (played by Linda Cardellini of Freaks and Geeks) and making meaningless New Year's declarations like, "I want to stop doing this."
Roger Sterling was hit hard by death in "The Doorway" as well, although he was strangely unaffected by his mother's passing at the age of 91 and had to console his secretary. He was far more upset about his regular shoeshine guy dying and broke down in tears in his office after receiving his shoeshine box as a gift from his family because Roger was the only one who cared. Roger's potential death is foreshadowed in the episode as well, when he overreacts during his mother's memorial service and declares, "This is my funeral!" During a private conversation between Roger and his ex-wife Mona, she wonders aloud what their daughter would say about him at his funeral, while much of Roger's introspection during his therapy sessions concerns his life's journey and passing through doors.
One of the reasons that Mad Men is so rewatchable one season at a time is because of these subtle and not-so-subtle hints that are sprinkled throughout the episodes. In preparation for the new season, I rewatched Season 5 and picked up on minor comments or situations that fit together like puzzle pieces in retrospect, and I suspect Season 6 will be no different once it has reached its conclusion. Is the season premiere alluding to the death of a major character? The death of the business? Or just the end of an era? In some ways, "The Doorway" felt similar to the final season of The Sopranos when Tony was in a coma and living a life he could have had if he wasn't born Tony Soprano. The central question is the same — is it truly possible to change who you are and who you have been? Or should you just succumb to your true nature as "the man who can't sleep and talks to strangers," as one character so eloquently phrases it?
An honorable mention goes out to January Jones. Out of the entire cast, she has taken the brunt of the criticism for her acting talent (or lack thereof) and not always fairly. After playing a minimal role last season, Jones proved her skills in this episode, especially in the early scene in bed with Henry when Betty sweetly suggests that he could rape Sally's 15-year-old friend sleeping in the next room and offers to hold down her arms. She also notes that he could stick a rag in her mouth so the other kids wouldn't wake up. While Henry is in shock, she reveals the reason behind her vile comments: "You said you wanted to spice things up." The cheery look on her face and the bright tone in her voice are a perfect contrast to the content of the words coming out of her pretty little mouth, illustrating just how badly broken this person is. The picture is complete when Betty shows up later with her hair dyed black looking eerily similar to Henry's mother.
On the business side of the coin, Peggy seems to be doing quite well since splitting from SCDP and has grown into a female Don Draper, forcing her staff to work over the holidays and treating the less talented with disdain. She shot out a very Draperian line while dismissing the Tonight Show viewer who helpfully re-enacted a standup comedy routine that had worried a client: "There's no second show. Go home." For the history buffs out there, the bit in question — a joke about soldiers in Vietnam wearing necklaces made of severed ears — was completely fabricated, but inspired by real events and comedians such as Milt Kamen, who performed on the Tonight Show on December 22, 1967, which fits the show's timeline.
Sadly, there is no known video available of those old Tonight Shows, so to avoid any criticism about historical accuracy, Peggy's firm has a loyal viewer perform the unnamed comedian's routine to the best of his recollection. Even in the context of the show, the re-enactment could be wrong and Peggy points out that her colleagues don't have a transcript or any real information. Because of the outrage over the story about the soldiers, Peggy's ad for headphones with the tagline "Lend me your ears" had to be altered, providing some dark humor to balance out the bleakness.
At first glance, the season premiere seems to move at a glacial pace, but that's nothing new for Mad Men. The drama, tension, and subtext bubbling beneath the surface should produce a profound new season that may be one of its last, if series creator Matthew Weiner is to be believed. Although the second hour seemed to drag compared to the first, "The Doorway" was a strong start that put all the pieces into place and established an effective tone for the potentially penultimate Season 6.
FINAL GRADE: A-