Monday, April 08, 2013

Mad Men Season 6 premiere: The Doorway

So thanks to a very ill-timed temporary cable/DVR fail last night, I ended up watching the last 30-35 minutes of the "Mad Men" premiere first, followed by the first hour and a half of the re-broadcast at 11:00 pm. And you know what? I don't think it made a difference, given how disjointed, and at times disorienting, the episode was. Despite the recurrence of certain well-established MM themes, it felt singularly incoherent, and not at all inviting to newbies. (though I doubt anyone's going to try to pick up the show in season 6.)

In all fairness, "Mad Men" is well known for having slow starts to its seasons. Typically, the season premiere is more about table-setting and bringing viewers back into the MM universe, and this year was no exception. But there was something especially off-putting this time about the deliberate yet weirdly choppy pacing, the ponderous symbolism, and, above all, the sight of Don Draper lapsing back into mopey existential mode.

I know, I know - these are the things we love about "Mad Men," or at least love to discuss. (Except for the choppiness, which hasn't been a noticeable trait before now.) But after years of watching inscrutable Don wallow in his inscrutable malaise - last season being a welcome, if short-lived, respite - it's frankly wearing on this viewer, at least. Yes, it's all too easy for even smart and self-aware people to get mired in their own discontents, psychological fixations, and patterns of self-destructive behavior, and yes, there's a certain fascination to be had in watching their downward spiral. But only to a point. No one wants to watch the spiral go on infinitely, and it's starting to feel that way (again) with Don.

Luckily, Don isn't the only character on the show. Even if others seem to be reaching their own crisis points, too, at least they show a little more joie de vivre, if only in brief flashes. And the premiere did devote roughly equal attention to three of the other chief protagonists (Betty, Peggy, and Roger) as well, even if it jumped around between them with disconcerting abruptness.

1. DON

Don goes to Hawaii on a post-Christmas work junket (courtesy of Sheraton, seeking an alluring ad campaign for their Waikiki Beach-front hotel), where he mostly broods and meditates on mortality. He's accompanied in body but not in spirit by an obliviously happy Megan, who frolics in a bikini, smokes weed, dances at a luau, and is flattered to be recognized as the character she plays on a TV soap. On returning to wintry New York, Don's confronted with more reminders of mortality, which ultimately infect his pitch to Sheraton. The discomfited client observes that his proposed ad evokes associations with suicide; Don disagrees, but the incident only makes him brood some more. Meanwhile he bonds with a downstairs neighbor, a Jewish doctor named Rosen, and for a while it looks like the two men are competing to see which admires the other more. Then - the climax, of sorts, of the episode - we discover that Don's been banging Dr. Rosen's wife (played by Linda Cardellini). And rather joylessly, by all appearances. Oh, Don. Get over yourself, for fuck's sake.


New territory for Betty! In short order, she gets a ticket for reckless driving, tries to counsel Sally's violin-prodigy friend Sandy (whom we've never seen before, but whatever), then, remarkably shows she's more than talk when she learns Sandy has disappeared and goes looking for her. This leads her to a squalid tenement in the Village, where she and some hippies meet un-cute and have a sneer-off over some pretty nasty-looking homemade goulash. (Ok, the goulash man seemed a little kinder than the others, but overall, it's safe to say there was no love lost on either side.)

Apart from the bad fat makeup and grotesquely weird joke she cracks to Henry about raping Sandy (seriously, wtf, Matthew Weiner?), I appreciated the writers' efforts to develop Betty's character in a new direction. Her interactions with the Goulash Guys felt a bit forced (January Jones' affect seemed particularly flat in those scenes), but prior to that it was interesting seeing her trying and largely failing to relate to Sandy, showing both her good intentions and the limits of her empathy. I especially liked her unexpected response to Sandy's withering "Do you?" when she asked if the girl knew what it meant to have nothing. Most viewers, including me, undoubtedly thought, "Of course Betty doesn't, any more than this kid does," which her initial silence seemed to confirm. It turns out though, that her modeling days had a decidedly unglamorous side. Not likely on a par with what she encounters later but enough for her to try to reach out and connect, which is something we've rarely seen from Betty since season 4. I hope for more of this, but I don't trust the writers to make her more sympathetic. More rape jokes seem more likely.


We catch up with Peggy at her new firm, slowly but surely becoming the new, female version of Don - working through the holidays, running her underlings ragged, and coming through with a last-minute brilliant save when a planned Superbowl ad for headphones ("Lend me your ears") gets derailed by a gallows-humor comic routine on Johnny Carson.

I haven't much else to say about Peggy's storyline except (1) I didn't think her brilliant save sounded all that brilliant (but that's happened to me before on this show, with Don and Ginsberg) (2) do I detect a hint of potential sexual tension between her and the boss, Ted what's-his-face? Too bad if so: I like Abe, ridiculous new hair and all, and he and Peggy seem pretty happy together, at least for the moment.


Roger, like Don, spends the episode fending off constant reminders of death, mortality, and the pointlessness of it all. Only somehow his existential struggles feel more palatable than Don's (in fact, his storyline was probably my favorite of the four) because, well, it's Roger: possibly the only man on the show who can make even death funny. Even when he's on the couch he's an assiduous entertainer, as his shrink dryly observes - though even Roger can't salvage a clunky monologue on life being a series of doors and bridges that had all the subtlety of an anvil.

He does better as MC of his mother's memorial ("He's only saying what everyone's thinking," he quips of Don's drunken puking), although his tantrum at Mona's bringing her new man - and his angry Freudian slip ("This is MY funeral!") - isn't much better in the subtlety department. But in his scenes after the funeral, there was something really poignant in the muted Roger Sterling sadness under the Roger Sterling humor, both in his pass at Mona and in his conversation with a daughter who shows no interest in either her grandmother or her own father except as a source of funding. When news of the death of the shoeshine man proves the tipping point, Roger's final breakdown feels like genuine, palpable pain.

5. HAIR. Because it really was a character of its own in tonight's episode. How long has it been in Mad Men time since the end of last season? Not that long, from what I gather, and I find it hard to believe that Abe, Peter, Stan, Harry, and Ginsberg would all have changed their hairstyles so radically in such a short period. As it is, the combo of ridiculous new 'dos (which, along with the awful checked jackets and the fondue fad, feel more '70s than '60s) was hilariously distracting. Can't decide which one's the most hideous, but I think it's a toss-up between Harry and Ginsberg.

Random observations:

-According to my sources, the season 6 opener takes place at the end of 1967. Vietnam hangs around the edges of this episode, most obviously manifested in the soldier Don meets in Hawaii, but also in the ad-killing joke about Viet Cong ears. 1968 was a watershed year for Vietnam, in a bad way, but it remains to be seen what, if any, effect, it'll have on our characters. Most likely an oblique one.

-Some more experimenting with time-shifting in this episode, in particular the abrupt cut from the doorman welcoming Don and Megan home from Hawaii to the flashback to the doorman's earlier collapse and back again to the present. Unlike some of the more interesting manipulations of time in season 5, however, this one felt purposeless...except maybe as a reflection of Don's state of mind.

-The carousel makes a reappearance! If past history is any indicator, it's not a good omen for Don's and Megan's marriage.

-Is Bob Benson, accounts, going to be a significant character? I didn't really get the point of his subplot. Is he the new Pete?

-Not enough Joan! Though she looked very fetching in purple.

-When did Stan and Peggy become BFFs? Still, I liked their little late-night phone bonding. Also enjoyed Peggy's phone interrogation by her boss's pastor. (The last line was the kicker: "And also with you.")

-Roger's daughter looks a little like Lindsay Lohan, if LL hadn't let herself go to shit. Also, obscure literary observation of the day: the son-in-law's interest in refrigerated transport reminds me of a subplot in Steinbeck's East of Eden, where, let's just say, a similar investment did not go so well.

-Bobby gets a line! Two lines, in fact, but the one about the violin gets my vote for line of the week: "I like the case. It looks like a coffin." Kid clearly got the memo for this week's episode.

-Runner-up LOTW: "I can't laugh at everything you say." (shrink to Roger)

-Second runner-up: "She was always so nice to me - when she could hear me." (Roger's secretary, weeping over his mother's death)

-Least subtle line of the week: "I want you to be yourself." (Photographer to Don.) Runner-up: Roger's monologue about doors and bridges.

-Visual touches I liked: Don's ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian echoing the image of his clothes strewn across his bedroom floor; the contrast between the bright tropical warmth and color of the opening Hawaii scenes with the final, haunting image of the good doctor Rosen skiing off through the streets of New York in the falling snow.


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