More than half a year has passed from when “Mad Men’s” excellent fifth season left off and Season Six has begun, but you’d think it had been longer given the male character’s impressive facial hair feats. But no — we have only skipped to the end of 1967 (no stopping for the Summer of Love here), and the styles are just a reflection of how quickly everything in life is changing. Everyone is anxious and haunted by the prospect of death, certainly with the Vietnam War escalating and looming large. But if members of the younger generations are taking the opportunity to speak their minds and attempt to rewrite their life courses, their elders are as good as ghosts. Two of our main “Mad Men” especially, Don Draper and Roger Sterling, are floating through their days in a world they don’t recognize, unable to shake the belief that it all amounts to a big pile of nothing — just more doors, as Roger tells his therapist. More doors to go through, not a path to follow with a clear destination at its end. There’s always something standing in the way of contentment, or peace, or whatever one is looking for. The tragic Lane Pryce removed himself from the vicious cycle not even a year ago. Now, Don and Roger are left wishing they were the ones who had escaped. The combined first two episodes, “The Doorway,” present a bleak though not unexpected outlook for the series, still one of the best dramas around. Characters ring in 1968 before the credits finally roll, unaware of the social upheaval still in store for the world. And that’s their problem: the events ahead of them are out of their control.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has expanded to two floors, and even though this is (partly) the same firm at which a secretary once drove a John Deere tractor over an Englishman’s foot at the office, the uptightness of the earlier part of the decade is long gone. The decor already is tackier, and Stan, replete with mountain-man beard, lights up in the middle of the office to nary a raised eyebrow. Joan, a full partner, makes a comment about smelling “reefer,” but that’s as far as it goes. Even the overeager Bob Benson (James Wolk) from accounts is rebuffed by Don and Ken for trying to get noticed. The old ways of schmoozing just won’t work. Much is the same at CGC, with Peggy calling much of the shots while boss Ted Chaough is out of town. She’s a mini Don Draper, with her innate understanding of the business and inherited management style of firmness met with derision and more firmness. She’s better than Don, actually, being not so jaded with life and past indiscretions and generally more agreeable. She understands the darkness like Don does, but she doesn’t have to dwell in it.
Roger is still very much Roger — chasing women and spending his days reflecting on his favorite subject, himself. An existential breakdown can’t shake this man’s arrogance. The death of his mother (and of his shoe-shine man, Giorgio), however, unnerves him more than he anticipated, although ex-wife Mona (Talia Balsam) doesn’t have patience for his moping. Roger is loved, and always will be loved, no matter what he does. That still doesn’t ease his impression that life is meaningless. “My mother loved me in some completely pointless way and it’s gone,” he tells his therapist. “So there it is. She gave me my last new experience. And now I know that all I’m going to be doing from here on is losing everything.” “You feel loss,” his therapist says. “Damn it, how many times do I have to say this?” Roger replies. “I don’t feel anything. Just acknowledging that life, unlike this analysis, will eventually end, and somebody else will get the bill.”
Sally’s friend Sandy has an equally succinct view on life, as she tells Betty late one night. “You go to college. Meet a boy. You drop out. You get married. Struggle for a year in New York while he learns to tie and tie, and then move to the country and just start the whole disaster over.” “That’s an arrogant exaggeration,” Betty tells the 15-year-old, but Sandy’s summation of suburban life is more dead-on than Betty would like to admit. Sandy doesn’t want her life — neither do the disheveled squatters of the East Village, who mostly shun Betty later on as she searches for Sandy. “Why can’t you leave her be?” one of them asks Betty (in the most heavy-handed nod to the counter culture out of the two episodes). “It kills you to be out of control.” “Well somebody has to control this mess!” Betty says. “Hey, we have to take everything the establishment gives away. That’s all that’s left. … We are your garbage. You don’t want this house. You don’t want us.”
Like Roger, Don is up to his typical Don ways (more on his marriage later), but he has been taken down a few notches. He’s quieter, more distant. The opening sequence if his and Megan’s Hawaiian vacation is filled with his silence. Back in New York, he appears even more out of place — surprised by his surroundings, almost, as if he can’t believe he is able to survive away from “paradise.” Don is preoccupied with death. His doorman, Jonesy’s (Ray Abruzzo), heart attack stays with him, and Don drunkenly asks him what it was like to die — what did he see? “I guess there was a light,” Jonesy says. “Was it like hot, tropical sunshine? Did you hear the ocean?” Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson), the doctor and Don’s neighbor who saved Jonsey’s life, is of equal fascination. “What’s it like to have somebody’s life in your hands?” Don asks him (soberly). What’s it like to have control, or better yet, to want control? Because to live is to have responsibility, and Don doesn’t want it.
He doesn’t even want PFC Dinkins’ Zippo lighter, which he must have mistakenly swapped with his own back in Hawaii. Don didn’t want to give away the soldier’s bride at their wedding before Dinkins headed back to Vietnam, but he relents as the two talk about life and war over drinks. Finding the lighter in New York — “In life we often have to do things that just are not our bag,” reads its inscription — he throws it away, only to have it returned by the maid by way of Megan. “I believe in what goes around comes around,” a drunk Dinkins told him on the island, as he faced his wedding and his return to combat. “One day, I’m gonna be a vet in paradise. One day, I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.” What Don does want is an escape, which he tries to convey to Royal Hawaiian executives eager to see the campaign Don has concocted now that he has spent time at their hotel. But Don is surprised to learn he has created a suicide note: a man’s discarded clothes and briefcase on the sand with footprints leading to the water, along with the phrase “Hawaii: The jumping off point.” The other men see a morbid demise; Don sees a warm embrace.
Don’s interactions with Arnold are the heart of the two episodes. Don respects Arnold. What he does and who he is are one in the same. Arnold is the kind of man who, when during a New Year’s Eve snowstorm learns a patient needs him, straps on skis to trek through the city streets to the hospital. Don is the kind of man who sees Arnold off, goes upstairs and sleeps with Arnold’s wife, Sylvia (Linda Cardellini). Earlier, Don had invited Arnold to his office to give him one of the agency’s many extra cameras from an account. Arnold overheard Don discussing a Dow oven cleaner ad with his team, chastising them for “contributing to the trivialization” of the word “love.” “We’re wearing it out. Let’s leave it where we want it. We want that electric jolt to the body. We want Eros. It’s like a drug; it’s not domestic. What’s the difference between a husband knocking on a door and a sailor getting off a ship? About 10,000 volts.” Arnold is impressed with Don’s insight, which he recalls as he stands in the snow before he heads off toward his patient. They aren’t so different from each other, Arnold says, as Don again admires his neighbor’s talents. “You get paid to think about things they don’t want to think about, and I get paid to not think about them,” Arnold says. “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.”
Is it his anxiousness that drives Don from woman to woman? Megan is playing her part, serving as a glamorous young wife now starring in a small role on the soap “To Have and To Hold.” Why has Don turned to a mistress? Or is it Don’s ideas about love that always do him in? He’s not wrong about the overuse of the the word itself, but only finding fulfillment in the thrill of the chase and not the end result leaves him doomed to repeat his bad choices and failed relationships. “I want to stop doing this,” he tells Sylvia as a new year begins. But that would require him to take control. Last season, we had what readers on this site dubbed “Chekhov’s elevator shaft,” two scenes of elevator doors opening at the office to reveal a carless void. That a character would eventually plummet to his death down that shaft seemed a good guess, but that hasn’t yet panned out. Have we now seen Chekhov’s ocean? Don may be destined for a watery grave, but creator Matthew Weiner isn’t done exploring the ennui of his characters. In truth, they may all succumb to that, instead.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.