Death looms large over the characters in the sixth season premiere of “Mad Men.” Sunday’s episode, “The Doorway,” is a solid season opener that ruminates on identity and on the passing of time as well as on human passing. It presents promise of a darker, more reflective season than the last one. What the episode lacks in plot, it makes up for in character development and thematic exploration.
“The Doorway” opens from the viewpoint of someone being resuscitated, and immediately establishes an ominous tone. The action quickly shifts to Don Draper (Jon Hamm) lying on a beach in Hawaii as he reads Dante’s “Inferno.” After Draper witnesses his doorman having a heart attack, he becomes obsessed with the idea of mortality. This obsession even creeps its way into his advertisement pitch to Sheraton Hotels, which unintentionally alludes to suicide. The imagery of the grim reaper continues throughout the episode and weaves its way into most of the story lines.
As “Mad Men” begins its penultimate season, the show has become significantly more contemplative. The primary theme of this episode—and likely the season—is the dynamic world of 1968 and how little they have actually grown in response to the changes in the world around them. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) clearly articulates this idea during one of his therapy sessions as he compares life to a series of doors. According to him, one opens each door expecting a new life-changing experience, but finds that, in reality, there are no such experiences. Instead, he says, all doors “open the same way and close on you.”
“Mad Men” has always excelled at employing seemingly unimportant objects to further explore its characters’ thoughts, motivations, and moods and this episode is no exception. A cigarette lighter is used to remind viewers that the cool Don Draper they have to come to know is not real but is the result of a lie—another character in an ongoing drama.
The gradual deconstruction of Don Draper the character is thoroughly compelling. At the end of the episode, Don makes a New Year’s resolution to change—but we all know this is not going to happen. Circumstances around him change, but his behavior seems to be gridlocked.
The only character that seems to have consistently grown from the show’s first season is Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss). The high point of her evolution doubled as one of last season’s memorable moments, surprising Don with her resignation letter. That moment illuminated Olsen’s maturity over the time that viewers had come to know her. Her process of maturation continues in “The Doorway” as she takes the helm of her own department and manages a group of copywriters. It is a genuine pleasure to see how much she has learned from Don. The writers present her as a somewhat healthier and happier version of him.
As strong as Moss’ portrayal of Peggy is, John Slattery delivers one of his best performances as Roger to date. Throughout the episode Roger struggles to deal with the death of his mother in an emotionally mature way. One of the most moving moments of the episode comes close to the end when Roger finally breaks down after hearing about a second death so soon after his mother’s. The juxtaposition of a crying Roger alone in his office against the sounds of New York in the background makes for an extremely powerful scene.
We can expect the rest of the season to revolve around the theme of the characters each trying to find some amount of happiness in their changing environments. It will be interesting to see whether Don Draper is actually capable of growth or will remain a behaviorally and emotionally stagnant individual, one who is either unwilling to or incapable of adapting in response to environmental changes.
“Mad Men” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC.