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Mad Men Recap: The Nocturne of Their Discontent

Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) - Mad Men - Season 6, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Some of the first words in the first episode of Mad Men’s sixth season are a quote from The Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy: “Midway through our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”

Don reads these lines in voice-over on a Hawaiian beach with Megan near the end of 1967. It seems a safe bet to assume that as this season unfolds, The Inferno will continue to resonate, just as William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” resonated throughout season six of The Sopranos, the show on which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner cut his teeth as a producer. You don’t begin a new season of a symbol-laden series like Mad Men with a point-of-view shot of a man lying on the ground looking up at the doctor trying to save his life, cut to the show’s hero reading Dante on the beach, and then drop the reference. This opening double-episode, titled “The Doorway,” has Dante-esque intimations of hell, purgatory, death, and spiritual torment galore.

But I don’t want to give them too much weight right now because we’re only at the start of the season, and because I was more intrigued by two other elements that seemed like keys to this particular episode. The first element is Roger Sterling’s monologues in therapy. They delve into the importance of doors (and windows, and other portals, actual and symbolic) in the episode, and in Mad Men generally, and in life. More on Roger’s arias of malaise in a moment.

The second element is a bit of Chopin’s "Nocturne in E Flat Major, Op. 9. No 2,” which you can listen to and read about here. The piece appears when a new character, the teenaged, soon-to-be-runaway Sandy, plays the violin for the Francis family. This solo version segues into a full orchestra version in a flashback that shows the doorman in Don and Megan’s building suffering a heart attack and being saved by another new character, heart surgeon Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson), the Drapers’ downstairs neighbor.

According to the Chopin Institute’s web page, the composer “derived the entire nocturne from a single theme subjected to variations, altered through the continual surges and ebbs of ethereal ornaments and figurations. Only in the conclusion of the work does he introduce a variant: a sudden eruption of expression leading to a concise apotheosis – just as suddenly broken off and stilled.” As it turns out, that’s a dandy summation of the structure of “The Doorway.” The episode seems very loose, even scattered, but it’s actually tightly organized. The organization isn’t easy to see because it’s subtle, musical. It’s all about the arrangement of scenes, and how certain images and lines of dialogue (particularly those having to do with doors, mortality, dissatisfaction, and love) keep popping up in Roger and Don’s scenes, and to a somewhat lesser extent, in the scenes where Betty goes to Greenwich Village to chase after Sandy, who’s ditched her Juilliard enrollment, gone to live with squatters and then disappeared. (Peggy’s story — she’s settled into her role as Ted Chaough’s resident Don Draper — is fascinating, but doesn’t seem intimately connected to the other three, because unlike Don, Betty, and Roger, she seems fairly happy.) The Chopin sequence introduces “a variant: a subtle eruption of expression”: the longer flashback showing the doorman's heart attack. This eventually leads to “a concise apotheosis” at the end, when Weiner gives us a piece of previously withheld information, the fact that Don has been secretly sleeping with Arnold Rosen’s wife Silvia (Linda Cardellini, yay!), and that she gave him the Dante paperback. The monologues and the Chopin snippet bind the episode’s scattered allusions and dreamlike connections between characters together.

Written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher, this sixth season premiere feels like a direct continuation of themes from season five, which was obsessed with death and fear of death and climaxed with the suicide of founding partner Lane Pryce. That fear hasn’t left. In fact, it seems to have settled and hardened within two major characters, Don and Roger; both are suffering major midlife (or in Roger’s case, slightly post-midlife) crises that are worsened by direct confrontations with death. Roger says good-bye to the most important person in his life, his 91-year-old mother, who lavished him with love after Roger’s father, Roger Sr., died. He accepts her passing with an eerie poise and humor that’s obviously a façade, a comedy mask that eventually crumbles and gives way to tragic sorrow. Roger isn’t able to cry for his mom until the sudden death of the building’s shoeshine man opens the floodgates.

Don, meanwhile, is feeling — what, exactly? Who can say? Because Don (like most Mad Men characters) doesn’t talk about his feelings, it’s hard to parse his unhappiness. He’s feeling suffocated in his marriage to Megan, I think, because she adores him but doesn’t satisfy him. She’s the little woman, his beautiful wife, and now she’s got a role on a soap opera that’s making her a quasi-celebrity. (I love how she gets mistaken for somebody else — her character — in Hawaii; happens to Don all the time.) Don is still a lone wolf at heart, and ever since his 40th birthday in season five he’s been feeling old in relation to Megan; the pot-smoking, increasingly hairy creative staff that he supervises; and the culture as a whole. And I think that the business with the lighter — which Don accidentally took from that soldier during the Hawaii vacation — has reawakened his terror that his false identity will be exposed and that everything and everyone he enjoys will be taken from him. (He tries to get rid of the lighter, but it always returns to him — a touch worthy of early Polanski.)

Related to that fear of exposure/punishment is a reawakening of old trauma related to the Dick Whitman/Don Draper switcheroo, including the burial of Don’s tragic childhood story, which started with the death of his mother, a prostitute, in childbirth. This last trauma gets figuratively dredged up in the pre-funeral reception for Roger’s mother: All of the talk of how much Roger’s mother loved him (as well as a healthy dose of booze) makes Don so nauseous that he throws up. The trigger comes from the elderly Hazel Tinsley — who’s what my own late grandma would have called “a pill” — quoting Roger’s mom’s statement about surviving her husband’s death: “I don’t need anyone. My heart is full, because my son is my sunshine.” Don never had a maternal figure express anything like that sort of devotion. So he throws up the feelings that have been packed down deep within him — an example of the body giving us physical metaphors when we aren’t willing or able to create verbal ones. It’s an eruption, a purging, and (I suspect) a premonition of more reckonings ahead.

Don, Roger, and Betty all seem to be running away from their natures, or from their unsatisfying lives, or both. Roger runs away emotionally from fears of professional obsolescence and deep personal loneliness by withdrawing into his “Roger Sterling, the Most Charming Man Alive” persona until it starts to seem like a sad, desperate, bitter caricature of the man everyone still adores. Meanwhile, Don withdraws emotionally from his marriage to Megan, in which he feels increasingly old and unnecessary, by entertaining self-destructive thoughts (the ad campaign for the Waikiki Sheraton is a baldfaced cry for help) and relapsing into his old lothario behavior. (“Anything matrimonial feels Paleolithic,” he says during a creative meeting, a line that feels as uncomfortably autobiographical as that suicide-tinged pitch for the hotel campaign.)

The editing of the episode suggests that the doorman’s heart attack happened not long before Don and Megan went to Hawaii, and that he’s thinking about it as he reads Dante on the beach, and that he remembers it again when he and Megan return to the lobby where the near-tragedy happened. The doorman’s heart attack blurs together with Lane Pryce’s suicide in the show’s master narrative, along with all of the other deaths and emotional traumas Don has endured or witnessed, including the death of his mother (in childbirth), his father (in an accident), and his stepbrother (by hanging, like Lane). His monologue about how love has been devalued (in the same scene as his “Paleolithic” comment) feels like the angry babbling of a man who has strayed too far from his true nature, subconsciously realizes it, but can’t quite drag the realization to the surface, much less figure out what to do about it. “We want that electric jolt to the body,” he says. “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 ten thousand volts.” That’s the approximate wattage of Sylvia’s smile in that scene between them near the episode’s end, after he’s seen Arnold Rosen ski away into the snowy night, then cuddled up with Mrs. Rosen.

Betty rebels physically, if just as unthinkingly, against her circumstances. Over the years she has evolved from a cold yet sleek and chic model/actress/glamour puss into a depressed, chunky suburban housewife, binging and dieting (or as she puts it, “reducing”) and fighting with her increasingly combative daughter. (Sally’s more snappish here than ever before.) Betty runs away from her own increasingly unbearable home to find the runaway Sandy, and briefly seems to want to become Sandy, hanging with self-righteous hippie squatters who ridicule her bourgeois values even as she gives them cooking tips. (The Village scenes in this episode feel a bit like a dream sequence; it’s fitting that one of the squatters uses the word grok from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, because that’s what Betty is here.)

What’s the story here? I mean, in the Aristotelian sense? I don’t think there ever has a been a “story” on Mad Men — at least not the sort of neat, on-point story we’re accustomed to seeing on a TV drama, either over the course of a season or within an episode. As I wrote in a preview of season six, Weiner’s series evokes one of my favorite quotes from Sons and Lovers: “Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as if it was slurred over.” Weiner and company grok this. They’re more interested in what you could call the nonstory-ness of life — how existence is filled with the devices of fiction, yet they never congeal in a satisfying way; most of our epiphanies are false or self-justifying ones, except for the handful that turn out to be true and meaningful, and that we muster the strength and perseverance to act on and make permanent.

Which brings us back to Roger’s therapy monologues, the first of which addresses the episode’s title head-on. His first sentence, hilariously and perfectly, is “I don’t know.” After a moment he launches into a riff that would sound just as appropriate coming out of Don’s mouth. “I’m busy. I’m a busy man. I walk around that place, people say good morning to me, they don’t really care. They don’t even know me.” Then he seems to mock himself for indulging in self-pity, even of a comical sort. “Oh, God. Doc! What is it all about? Help me!” Then comes the heart of the monologue: 

"What are the events in life? 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 and then you say, ‘I think I want to go over a bridge this time. I’m tired of doors.’ Finally you go through one of these things, and you come out 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 your direction, but it turns out that’s not true.  Turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where.”

The psychiatrist says, “You sound afraid.” Roger replies, “More like irritated,” and cites one cause, “New Year’s … You’re supposed to blow out the candles and wish for something, I don’t even know what it is.” Interesting that he’d conflate New Year’s (the time of resolutions to change one’s life) and birthdays (blow out the candles, make a wish). There’s a whole lot of conflating going on in this episode, in terms of parallel actions or plot twists (Sandy runs away, Betty runs away after her; Don accidentally “stealing” the soldier’s inscribed lighter, stealing yet another man’s identity in a symbolic, small way, like a kleptomaniac of impersonation). None of the characters are aware they’re doing it, just as they’re not aware of the Freudian slips that pepper their dialogue. (Think of Roger at the reception, shouting, “This is my funeral!” — another involuntary death wish by a depressed man.) What will become of these characters? Will they be aware of the becoming, however dimly? 

When I look back at early episodes of Mad Men and then watch episodes from seasons four or five, I think of photos of my own family over the generations, and how mysterious and amazing it is to see their clothes and hairstyles, cars and homes, living conditions and marital status changing almost imperceptibly over the course of years or decades, snapshot by snapshot, each picture capturing a moment, but never the moment. Do we make decisions, or do decisions make us? Do we make the times, or do the times make us? Will Don decide to divorce Megan, or will Megan decide to divorce Don, or will they decide to stay together and be unhappy, or happy? Or does “decide,” as we use it in the context of storytelling, have almost nothing to do with how things happen in real life? These are the questions that Mad Men raises when it it’s not delighting us with a sleek suit, a clingy dress, an aptly chosen period song, or a witty one-liner. I’m glad it’s back.

“I had an experience,” Don says, of his Hawaii sojourn. “I don’t know how to put it into words.”

Odds and Ends

  • As I said higher up, I don’t think Peggy’s story in this episode quite fits in with the other three major stories (Don, Roger, Betty), but it’s very satisfying, because it shows Peggy settling into an independent life at her new agency, and becoming not a “female Don Draper,” but a more authoritative Peggy, one who sometimes talks and acts like Don, and doesn’t seem terribly worried about coming off as mannish because her boss, Ted, believes in her, and her staff respects her. I liked all the stuff with the panic over The Tonight Show routine about Vietnam, and how Peggy’s advice to let the whole thing blow over (disregarded) echoed Don’s line to her in season two, after she gave up her and Pete’s baby: “It will shock you how much it never happened.” Mad Men has always had a ruthless belief in the necessity of forgetting rather than forgiving — of just deciding to move on from a disaster, and hope that other people do, too. This Tonight Show stuff was a little reminder of that tendency.
  • Funniest exchange of the episode (to me): Peggy trying to convince the pastor of Ted's church to put him on the phone, and getting sidetracked into talking about the Super Bowl, where the headphone makers' ad is supposed to run. Peggy: "I don’t know, I think it’s gonna be Oakland or Houston against Green Bay." Awkward pause. "And also with you.” [Hangs up.]
  • When Don talks to the soldier at the bar (PFC Dinkins) it’s as if he’s talking to a younger version of himself. I love that he (in a sense) impersonates a father when he gives the man’s bride away at the seaside wedding. That’s something he might get to do for Sally one day, if she decides she’s the marrying type, which she may not be. It’s also the sort of rite-of-passage event that Don’s own biological father was never a part of, and that the real Don Draper didn’t get to participate in, either.
  • It seems weird that the episode would give us a point-of-view shot belonging to a doorman who’s not a major character. At first I wondered if that shot was actually from Don’s point of view, and that part or all of this season would prove to be an extended near-death flashback; then I put the thought aside, because having Don collapse in the same lobby and be saved by the same guy who rescued the doorman is way too cutesy for Mad Men. Thoughts?
  • Somebody needs to do a complete count of all of the doors, windows, and hallways that figure prominently in this episode. I am sure it will be quite a long list, and it would not surprise me if it keyed in with Roger’s monologue exactly, and contained echoes of Dante as well.
  • Neither Joan nor Pete were strong presences in this double episode, though Joan had a memorably uncomfortable moment on the stairs that suggested how hard it might be to be taken seriously in this environment even as a full partner. ("Do you mind holding onto the rail, gorgeous, and thinking of important things?” asks the photographer who's taking publicity stills of the partners.) Pete had a couple of amusingly snotty moments, and a good one where he breaks Don's cojones over an impending meeting with the Sheraton people that he would rather cancel. "Their bosses are coming back next week and they just sent you on a very expensive trip," he says, then walks away, uninterested in finding out whether Don has a witty reply.   
  • Roger's second therapy session is less theatrical but just as affecting. Among other things, he confesses that "You know, I used to jump off mountains, and it never occurred to me that I had this invisible parachute." The "parachute" is his late mother, who "loved me in some completely pointless way, and it's gone. 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 lost," the therapist says. "Dammit, how many times do I have to say this, I don't feel anything," Roger says. That's not entirely true, as his tears confirm, but there's a kind of numb dread in his demeanor here that we also see in the faces of Don and Betty. "Just acknowledging that life, unlike this analysis, will eventually end, and someone else will get the bill."
  • Over the weekend, I spent a couple of hours Googling to find out if the Tonight Show episode referenced in this episode (human ear jokes, Phyllis Diller filling in for Johnny Carson) was real. I knew going in that the episode aired pre-seventies, and that almost all of Tonight's master tapes prior to that year had been stupidly and shortsightedly erased by NBC so that they could reuse the tapes, so I did not expect to find anything, and I did not. 
    Fortunately, Bill Geerhart of the blog CONELRAD says it was real, and gives us an exact date: 'The comedian referenced in tonight's Mad Men episode is Milt Kamen. He was on with guest host Phyllis Diller on 12/22/67." See David Haglund's "BrowBeat" column for more details on the episode's "dark Vietnam subtext." I always knew Mad Men was obsessive about its real-world chronology, but this bit is so obsessive that I'm having a hard time processing it. Who on the writing staff knew about this? Amazing!
Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC