MAD MEN, SEASON SIX/EPISODE 2: MORTALITY IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING

by Claire Moshenberg on April 13, 2013

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**SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers ahead for the second hour of the Mad Men Season Six premiere.**

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When I was 18, I had an affair. Young and lonely, obsessed with myself the way insecure people are when they’re both, I fell into a relationship with someone whose most interesting characteristic was a girlfriend temporarily in another country.

How does the story end? She came back. They broke up and we broke up and they got back together. I saw them as I walked through our tiny campus; on his front stoop, he stroked the flat pane of her lower back and smoked, and she threw her head back and laughed. He was a wince, a little pinch here and there when he brushed past me at parties. She was more fascinating, the way wronged partners are when you misbehave. I nursed odd fantasies that if I could just explain myself to her, we’d have a coffee, we’d laugh at the same joke.

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I wondered from the beginning what Don’s gaze meant when it landed on Dr. Rosen. He appeared so intent and engaged — strange for a man who’s rarely either, stranger still for someone who didn’t speak for a full eight minutes of this episode, eight lovely minutes of his wife’s lithe frame browning on a towel and ocean and parties and blue drinks. What dark secret did they share: secret identities, drugs, a forbidden romance? Or had Don, after five lonely seasons, finally found a friend?

No. Don is sleeping with Dr. Rosen’s wife. And Don has the odd, tender eyes of someone doing a terrible thing and wanting to say it out loud, looking for absolution from the wronged party. Megan is just Megan: she committed the sin she laid out last season; she’s become not only familiar, but bright and shining, better. Don wants Dr. Rosen to be his friend, to sell his camera, to make everything okay. Don wants it all to disappear, and he doesn’t want to have to do a damn thing to make it so.

“People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety,” the doctor says, before whooshing through Manhattan on skis, off to save lives as Don knocks softly on his door, off to bed the doctor’s wife. It’s New Year’s Eve; scant hours before, the four of them sat in Don’s living room and played couples, all lined up with drinks in hand and snow outside. Megan showed a whirl of vacation photos and we remembered, for a moment, Season One Don pitching “The Wheel,” how Betty was everywhere when he showed the tender snapshots of his past (and in his present, there was one woman, then another, and Betty discarded in the suburbs). All these years: new women, new wife, new photographs, same Don. In bed later, the doctor’s wife asks, “What do you want for this year?”

“I want to stop doing this,” he says.

“I know.”

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A few years ago, I was driving along the west coast to Monterey. It was warm and we’d rented a convertible. Northern California is like the setting of a childhood book — look at the crags, the rocks, the ocean pulling up blue against the hard surf. It’s nothing like where I grew up; it exceeds every dream I ever had for myself. I almost never remember that, because I go to day to day, I shower and work, I cook and sleep. But on this trip, I saw a ghost. The whole drive, I had the vivid sense that I was sitting next to myself, except I was four years old. I felt how wide my eyes would be, the wild thrill that would fill my little heart. There I was, the little big-haired kid who grew up in hand-me-downs, my mom still in college, everyone striving, my mind quietly sketching my own imaginary world where I was cared for like the little girls whose houses I visited, with their closets full of dress-up clothes and careful sandwiches in their lunchboxes. I felt the hot sting of guilt and joy. We want to pretend they’re far apart, but they lie right on top of each other, like love and hate.

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“People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” Why be anxious? The hot sting. I saw it, twice. Don goes on vacation and comes home pitching ad copy that is accidentally about suicide. “Heaven is morbid,” he says. “Something happens, you die, you go to heaven.” Pleasure is never just your pretty wife in a bikini, lolling in the sun as you eat roasted meat and drink yourself silly. Life experiences are never just funny stories delivered with a broad smile: “. . .so I gave the girl away at the wedding, right on the beach.” Because the GI is going to die in Vietnam, and you stole his lighter by accident; he said one day he’d be you, and one day, a long time ago, you were him. And you have to die to go to heaven, so you kill your life a little every day, just like you did before. You sleep with other women, you nurse scotch and resentments, you keep smoking even though it’s done and people are quitting by now. You kill yourself a little every day to go to heaven, and daiquiris and sunshine, joints tucked in a bikini bottom — it’s morbid. It’s all morbid, and nobody sees it but you.

Don shows up drunk to Roger’s mother’s funeral because he never had a mother (his mother was a prostitute who died giving birth, and his stepmother was a woman who treated him like the living reminder that her husband slept with prostitutes). Kenny Cosgrove polls the audience, “Is your mother alive?” and Don finds a new scotch. An old woman declares that Roger’s mother’s life was filled with her love for Roger, and Don proceeds to vomit profusely. Dick Whitman is sitting next to him. He can remake everything but who he used to be.

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Betty was a model in New York, remember? I love her elbows on the table in the first episode, the plume of smoke from Sandy’s cigarette. Betty has a heart, remember? So when she catches Sandy running off to New York City to be free, she runs too, quietly. She runs right to the Village in her little scarf and carefully tiptoes through a dark house with no water, where grey teenagers lie on the floor and on each other, listening to Dylan. Grown-ups aren’t welcomed, but are missed: “My mom makes great goulash.”

Soon Betty’s in the kitchen, coaching delinquent chefs on watched pots, her blonde hair as prim as her pursed lips as she rejects a passed joint. New thieves tumble in with batteries, advice: “We don’t like your life any more than you do.” They kick her out, call out her bottle-blonde hair — a sign of her tending, her vanity. Her coat catches and rips on the door frame as she walks out with Sandy’s stolen violin.

She leaves the violin behind. Why? She took the violin because she cared about Sandy: she went to the Village; she let teenagers insult her appearance and values; she exposed herself to a range of nuisances and realized that Sandy is gone. No one has any need for the teen prodigy’s violin. Betty comes home tired and changed, with her torn coat and – after she visits Sally’s room to say hello and is ushered out with an eye roll and a closed door — yet another reminder of her waning relevance. Her daughter is changing, teenagers are changing, and unlike Don, Betty is tired of being the same person in a series of new environments. Sandy and the flophouse kids mocked her bottle-blonde hair. A dark brunette Betty emerges the next day, shaking her deep brown tresses, her son leaping up and grumbling, “I hate it. You’re ugly now.” But she doesn’t tear up or smart — she grins. Letting go of our past selves is its own little death, and so often it starts in our hair follicles. (How many times have I looked at my life with a hand wrapped around my ponytail and thought, “Snip”?) Here’s swingy, shiny proof that Betty is darker, older, different, and she’s plopped that proof right on top of her head so nobody can question it. No one can call her “Blondie” anymore.

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Roger wants a change, because in Roger’s mind, he has nothing and feels nothing. His marriage is gone, his professional relevance is gone, his mother is gone and her love is gone with her. He looks into the crowd at his mother’s funeral and only sees “women he’s disappointed” — one ignored daughter and two discarded wives — all thriving in his absence.

“I used to jump off mountains, and I never knew I had this parachute,” he complains to his therapist.  “Now I know all I’m going to be doing from now on is losing everything.” He loses his shoeshine guy and gains his kit. He loses his numbness and rests his elbows on his knees, sobbing in his cavernous office.

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They hung Lane from a doorframe and I thought that was the end of it. But why is there no hooded specter in the credits? We have tired talks about Joan’s lovely curves and Draper’s slick part, when the star of the show, again and again, is Death.

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Quick hits:

  • Any piece of writing that uses the phrase “aloha means hello and goodbye” in a meaningful way is sorely in need of another round of edits. Same goes for the old “my mother died and I feel nothing . . . now let me sob over the death of my shoeshine guy in peace” storyline.
  • This episode was brought to you by questionable facial hair and its spokesperson, Abe.
  • We’ve embraced every other ‘60s trend because of this show — can we get around to haberdashery? Please? (This is a two-sentence love letter to Jane’s hat at the funeral.)

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Claire Moshenberg is a San Francisco-based author, activist, and new-media consultant. She is co-proprietor of the web site Charm City Jukebox and a contributing editor of The Spleen.

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