Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Dante’s Inferno – Canto I
Mad Men returned on Sunday night to start it’s sixth season and – as was the case last year, which culminated in the suicide of Lane Pryce – the theme of death surrounded both the show and Don Draper. With the action returning at Christmastime in 1967, only eight months have passed since Draper found himself cutting down his colleague and drinking buddy, Lane, who hung himself in his own office, so that mortality would be on Don’s mind is not a surprise. He has a new friend, Dr. Rosen, who is a cardiac surgeon who lives in the same building as the Drapers, but Don is in awe of his work and questions him about what it feels like to have someone’s life in his hands; fears that when the doctor shows up early to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices it means that his patient died. Draper also displays his obsession with mortality by questioning Jonesy, the doorman, what he witnessed when his heart stopped beating; and he unwittingly creates an ad campaign for Sheraton that makes people think of suicide.
Nevertheless, it is not just within the realms of the show’s anti-hero’s subconscious that the theme of death is present, rather it is omniscient throughout the premiere, with references from several characters (Bobby says he likes Sandy’s violin case as it reminds him of a coffin; Roger says that his mother’s requiem is “his funeral”) but there is a special focus on Don’s mortality. As Draper sits at the hotel bar on O’Ahu, he hears Private First Class Dinkins say that his passed out friend “is either dead or has great balance”; during the wedding ceremony on the beach, the brief part of the vows that are heard include “Till death us do part”; and the very opening of the episode focused on a man being resuscitated (by Dr. Rosen) while we hear Megan’s voice. While the person who had suffered the heart attack ended up being Jonesy, it still made the audience contemplate Don’s death and this happens again at the start of the second hour, which begins with a shot of Draper lying in bed, in a view that looked very much like he was in a casket. This was very reminiscent of the beginning of the final episode of The Sopranos (a show that Mad Men creator – and writer of last night’s episode – Matthew Weiner worked on and he scripted the penultimate hour of that series) with Tony appearing as he would in a coffin, while funereal tones play from the alarm clock and if you believe, as I do, that this was one of the clues to what ultimately happened at Holsten’s diner, then the fate of Don Draper is looking very ominous.
The opening of the episode in Hawai’i presented Don as being merely a passenger in paradise – he does not speak until he is asked if he was in the service by PFC Dinkins, instead just watches as his wife, Megan, is the centre of attention, even being recognised and called by a different name – Corinne, from her new role on a soap opera – as Draper/Dick Whitman was back in the first season. What we do hear during that time is a voice-over of Don reading Inferno – the first part of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy – and that poem could represent the course that the show will take during these final two years. With two seasons remaining of Mad Men – both of which are likely to have 13 episodes, as there have been every other year – that means that heading into last night, there were 26 more installments of the show to go. In the Divine Comedy, Inferno charts Dante the pilgrim’s passage through the nine circles of hell; in Purgatorio, he goes through ante-purgatory and then climbs the 7 terraces of purgatory; and in Paradiso, he journeys through the nine spheres of heaven: 9+1+7+9 = 26. Could the end of Draper’s story be charting the path of The Divine Comedy? In last night’s episode, Don could have been described as being in limbo (the first circle of hell) – he was not so much experiencing a perfect life on a beautiful, tropical island, but rather silently viewing it as though it was all on television and when Megan wants to show their neighbors the photographs of their trip, gone is the time machine of the first season finale, instead Draper cycles through the slides without emotion or explanation. Dante placed the lustful in the second circle of hell in Inferno and this old vice of Don’s is seen once more as, despite his admiration for Dr. Rosen and his own desire to stop doing it, he is having an affair with his neighbor’s wife. If this parallel is to continue, then the next two weeks will see Draper succumb to the sins of gluttony and greed, over the remainder of the series, it remains to be seen if Megan will be his Beatrice to guide him to paradise.
Some other thoughts on the opening episode of season 6:
- Peggy continues down her own path of becoming the next Don Draper by making her staff at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough work late on New Year’s Eve and chastising them by telling them that if they do not know the difference between the idea and execution, then they are of no use to her.
- Betty remains one of the least redeeming characters on a show that is full of them, as she is evidently jealous of Sandy’s youth and though she goes looking for her in the Village, it appears to be less out of concern for the girl, rather out of a spite and envy. And I could not even begin to discuss the bizarre and horrifying conversation she has with Henry in bed about Sandy – what.the.hell.
- There is a new Pete Campbell in town at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (the dead man’s name remains…for now) in the form of Bob Benson – the new kid who wants to be Don’s best friend and gives him one of the two coffees he has bought, before passing the other one off to Campbell. Later, he sends food platters to the memorial for Roger’s mother, something that earns him a chiding from the normally mild-mannered Ken Cosgrove, who also ridicules Bob’s blatant attempt for attention by working in the reception area, rather than in an office.
- It said a lot about Roger Sterling that he broke down in tears over the death of Giorgio, his shoe-shine man, but not his own mother. It was not that the individual’s passing was upsetting to him, but that it played into Roger’s own fears of dying and there not being anybody there to mourn him.
- Sally Draper is now a full-on teenager – calling her mother by her first name, not Mom; making fun of her by asking if she is really counting her meals; and closing the door on Betty when she is on the phone.
- As always, some brilliant humor was sprinkled into the show: when Don asks Stan if his Sheraton ad makes him think of suicide he replies “Of course! That’s what’s so great about it!”; when Roger is consoling his secretary over his own mother’s death, he gives a consoling hug while holding two glasses of vodka; and when Draper vomits at the memorial gathering, Sterling explains it “he only said what everyone was thinking”
Despite that humor, this looks likely to be another dark season of Mad Men, especially as the timeline of the show has now reached 1968, the year that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.