by E.C. Fish on April 12, 2013

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**SPOILER ALERT: The piece below contains spoilers for the first hour of the Mad Men premiere. If you are the sort of person who reads recaps before watching the episode, you have been warned, and deserve what you get.**

NOTE: This is coverage of the first hour only, and as such, I am not even watching the second hour before writing the piece. Please excuse any observations made here that the second hour turns to utter crap.

Fish here, with the first of this season’s Mad Men recaps. Contributing Editor Claire Moshenberg and I are dividing Sunday’s two-hour premiere (officially speaking, Episodes 1 and 2) and the rest of the season down the middle. Claire’s Season Five recap catches me with the odds, and thus with Episode 1.

I did not initially take this as good news. Mad Men is a densely plotted, character-heavy series that takes its own sweet time between seasons, meaning that its season premieres have historically been dull and rather ponderous catch-ups: necessary, but not always enjoyable viewing. For my sake and yours, I am pleased to report that, despite some real problems, the Season Six premiere was an exception, thanks to the introduction of a new, if unseen, character: 1968.

While the series has always done a yeoman’s job of grounding itself in its period settings, the show’s timeline has now brought it into the biggest, noisiest, scariest zeitgeist of the decade — one that in many ways haunts us to this day. If the first hour of the premiere is any indication, the show this season seems to be responding to that zeitgeist with an awareness well beyond its usual meticulous period set and costume design, expressed both through small details (Sally’s expression of hatred for cops after a traffic stop; Joan’s notice of reefer-reek in the office; Peggy’s boyfriend’s hair) and through the situations encountered by the main characters, many of which evoke the era of concern and chaos.

DON’S INFERNO?: The episode begins with such a portentous thud that I nearly shut the damn thing off then and there and said to hell with it: a POV shot of an as-yet-unidentified man (who turns out to be Don’s neighbor, cardiologist Dr. Rosen) delivering CPR as Don’s wife Megan screams in the background and an ambulance siren approaches. Cut to Don Draper (played by Jon “Trouser” Hamm, who spent the last part of the off-season exploring the concept that there is no such thing as bad publicity and protesting too much) reading Dante on the beach, with voice-over (“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood . . .”). After Season Five, during which Don did relatively little of note besides nurturing a vague existential angst, creator Matt Weiner and the gang invite us — in a particularly heavy-handed fashion — to start the Season Six experience by pressing our hands to our breasts and exclaiming, “Oh no! What’s going to happen to Don?”

Only a few seconds into the episode, I was not really sure I gave a rat’s ass, and the next few minutes gave me ample reason not to. Don and Megan are in Hawaii, ostensibly on business, and Weiner treats us to the full “bloody tourists” experience, featuring an interminable luau scene complete with hula dancers, poi, and a bad emcee (apparently, at one time, cultural exploitation was considered not just lucrative but hilarious). This being late ’67, they are also stoned out of their gourds and having a great deal of sex, making Don’s occasional winces of soulful anguish both inexplicable and irritating. Mere minutes into the season (in which we’ve seen him do nothing but read a book on the beach, get stoned, get laid, eat Polynesian food, and get stoned and laid some more), we are not exactly in Don’s head, here; by the second or third wince, we can only interpret his bouts of pained staring as churlishness or gas. That Weiner expected any other reaction, apparently via the magic of Don’s sheer Don-ness, is character-coasting of the worst kind.

When whatever moral burden that has been furrowing Don’s eyebrows finally propels him out of bed and down to the hotel bar late that night, he meets a young soldier on R&R from Vietnam: PFC Dinkins, reporting for doppelganger duty. Instantly bonding with Don over their matching GI cigarette lighters, Dinkins tells Don that he’s getting married the next morning and that he’d like Don to give the bride away. “I think you’ll regret it later,” says Don darkly. (THUD!) “I believe in what goes around comes around,” replies Dinkins (and oh, Don sure hopes not) before announcing he’d like to be just like Don — “the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers” — when he grows up.

Megan wakes up the next morning to find Don gone (never a pleasant discovery for any of Draper’s women), and after locating him out on the beach at Dinkins’s wedding, she captures the moment with an Instamatic. Don’s participation in the wedding changes him somehow — just how shouldn’t really need to be the subject of as much speculation as it is — and he tells the copywriting crew back in New York, “I had an experience. I don’t know how to put it into words.” Neither do we — and we should. Copywriter Stan speculates the experience was “Megan in a bikini,” but that’s not it. “Ernest Borgnine chase you down the alleyway with a switchblade?” asks Roger, and it’s as good a guess as any.

Meanwhile, the portents keep thudding like falling shot puts. When Don and Megan return to their building from the airport, they are greeted by their doorman, Jonesy, who then falls to the floor and receives CPR from neighbor Dr. Rosen. This explains the first shot — or does it? (THUD!) When cardiologist Rosen arranges to come to Don’s office to pick up a giveaway camera, Don agrees, as long as he can come to Rosen’s office too sometime. (THUD!) Don now points his thousand-yard stare out his office window instead of at the blue horizon, and while lighting a cigarette notices that his engraved lighter — the lighter that began Dick Whitman’s metamorphosis into Don Draper back in Korea — somehow got exchanged for Dinkins’s. (THUD! THUD!) What can it all mean? While I trust that something eventually will grow out of Don’s scenes in this episode, by the end of the first hour it still feels like a long slog through a pile of fetid compost.

MEGAN — OH, WHAT A GIVEAWAY: Megan (played by Jessica Paré) has apparently managed to parlay her Don-sponsored acting career, which we saw her begin at the end of last season, into a role in a soap opera. She spends the few first-hour scenes in which she’s not toking up and canoodling with Don being accosted by a clueless soap fan (who calls her by her character’s name) and complaining that the show’s script isn’t giving her much screen time. She does have one key scene: having gone down to the bad part of the beach to score some joints, she describes the seediness of the experience to Don, concluding by saying, “I had to get my money from here,” and lifting her beach dress to reveal her bikini-clad crotch. Get it? I strongly hope that this was not intended as a character summation, and equally strongly suspect that it was.

BETTY — EMPOWERMENT AS PROBLEM: We first see the second Mrs. Draper (played by January Jones) at a performance of The Nutcracker with her mother-in-law Pauline Francis, daughter Sally, and Sally’s friend Sandy. Driving home, she is pulled over by a state trooper for what she thinks is speeding but turns out to be reckless driving, said charge having likely been inflated by Pauline’s attempts to go full-metal ruling class on him: treating him like a doorman with a gun and a car, name-dropping her son in the mayor’s office, and eventually flat-out ordering him to let them go. “Could things get any darker than this?” she says (THUD!), probably referring to the dark days when armed ruffians don’t know their place.

“My mother’s dead,” pipes up Sandy from the back seat — a nice introduction to a character who will gain our rooting interest shortly.

The episode presents us with a much more confident Betty than we saw last season; unfortunately, for a person like Betty, confidence can be downright scary. Empowerment is a positive thing if it is expressed in positive ways, but such is not the case when Betty feels empowered to be Betty, and confidence without competence is frankly dangerous. Reckless driving is both a good example and a good metaphor: I’m sure that Betty, in her way, felt as above the road conditions as Pauline felt above the law.

After returning home to husband Henry and sons Bobby and Gene, the whole family is treated to a brief violin recital from houseguest Sandy, who claims to be going to Juilliard the next semester. Bobby (who has a bit of a crush on the much older Sandy) insists on taking out her violin, saying he likes the case because “it looks like a coffin.” (THUD!) Betty, in bed with Henry afterwards, teases him about having as much of a crush on Sandy as Bobby does — teasing that turns shockingly mean when she gleefully suggests helping him to rape Sandy (“I’ll hold her arms down”) as a way of “spicing things up.”

Betty later finds Sandy, unable to sleep, smoking in the kitchen. She offers her something to eat, noting that she herself is having something, but needs to be careful because she’s (still) “trying to reduce.” Sandy relates a story about her late mother wearing girdles that gave her stomachaches, and — not knowing Betty very well — urges her to “be herself.” Betty thanks her for the compliment, noting that it is charming, that Sandy knows it is, and that she is being as cynical and manipulative as . . . well, Betty herself.

I initially thought this encounter was Doppelganger-As-Narrative-Device, Take Two. The two discuss Sandy’s continuing lie about Juilliard (which, in reality, rejected her), with Betty offering mentorly advice about how to lie about it better, but Sandy is having none of it. For her, Juilliard is merely a means of getting to New York to join the East Village hippie scene, as opposed to . . . well, turning out like Betty.

Sandy: “People are naturally democratic, if you give them a chance.”
Betty: “Are you on dope?”

When her attempts to instruct Sandy in the fine art of Being Like Her meet resistance, Betty turns to telling Sandy how it’s going to be, ordering her around from a position of supposed authority, just like Pauline did with the state trooper. Sandy will succumb and like it — anything else would call Betty’s life into question, and Betty can’t have that.

I’d like to note that January Jones as Betty is not just a weak actress in comparison to castmates Christina Hendricks (who plays Joan Harris) and Elisabeth Moss (who plays Peggy Olson) — she is a genuinely weak actress in general, and her work in these scenes leaves us with no sympathy for her character whatsoever.

ROGER — AND NOW, OUR KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Roger Sterling, whose transition from upper-class twit to psychedelicized Real Live Boy made him last season’s most interesting character (played by John Slattery, usually the series’ most interesting actor), is in his psychiatrist’s office, trying to get a laugh out of him (“We’ve discussed this; I can’t laugh at everything you say”), when out pops a veritable soliloquy that both gives the episode its title (“The Doorway”) and casts a weird and rather unflattering light on the episode as a whole:

“What are the events in life? It’s like, you see a door. The first time you come to it, you say, ‘Oh! What’s on the other side of the door?’ Then you open a few doors. Then you say, ‘I think I want to go over that bridge this time; I’m tired of doors.’ Finally, you go through one of these things, and you get to the other side, and you realize that’s all there are: doors and windows and bridges and gates. And they all open the same way, and they all close behind you. Look: life is supposed to be a path, and you go along and these things happen to you and they’re supposed to change you, change your direction, and it turns out that’s not true. Turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where.” (THUD!)

The doctor says that he sounds afraid. “More like irritated,”  replies Roger.

Coming at the midpoint of the first hour, that speech makes me wonder if some of what went before was a meta-comment on the show itself, and if I’ve been mistaking boredom for death all along.

PEGGY — INCONVENIENCED BY ATROCITY: Beyond Don and Megan’s celebration of dope and sex, Sandy’s hippie dreams, and the social changes that have already doomed Mother Francis’s insistence that people should know their place, it is Peggy Olson — our vanguard through much of the past five seasons — who manages to catch what is still pre-1968 right in the teeth. Coming home from a vegetarian restaurant that “reminds [her] of Lent” with a diarrheic boyfriend, Peggy is interrupted by a call from her agency saying that a comedian joking about something on the Carson show has panicked Koss headphones into pulling an ad that the agency did for the Super Bowl. That something turns out to be the then-current story of soldiers in Vietnam cutting the ears off of Viet Cong soldiers and wearing them around their necks, making the tagline “Lend me your ears” in the Julius Caesar-themed ad a bit off-putting. That such a horrible event could inspire such a silly controversy and such a lot of office laughter — much less a comedy routine on the Carson show — points up both the ongoing effect of the war on the culture and the way in which the culture dealt with it.

The topic of  how advertising — the act of reflecting us back on ourselves to sell us something — responded to the social upheavals of the late ’60s is one I hope this season explores in some depth. Arguably, what we now think of as ‘the death of the ’60s” began when the genuine social movements of the time were co-opted into the commercial culture, something counterpointed nicely by a later scene, in which Don characterizes as trivializing a suggestion from Dow Chemical that the then-trendy topic of love be worked into an ad for their oven cleaner.

Seeing Don and Peggy working in these intercut scenes fairly begs the comparison that Peggy cinches in her last scene. Wincing after a sip of coffee gone cold, former secretary and Don Draper protégée Peggy yells for her secretary to bring her a hot one — just like Don would. Peggy has always functioned as a sort of avatar of feminism on the series, and the fact that in many ways she has now become Don should make for some interesting developments in the upcoming season.

Unless the rest of the season is like this first hour. Matt Weiner has done excellent work throughout this series. This isn’t that. Weiner, it seems, chose to paint this particular picture with a garden trowel. I wonder what Claire Moshenberg will find on the other side of “The Doorway.”

* * * *

E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.

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