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Wednesday, 30 of September of 2020

Mad Men – “The Doorway (Parts 1 and 2)”

“Sometimes you have to do things that aren’t your bag.”

Megan and Don toast the new year.

And cent’anni to you, you Italian slut.

Returning to the kind of pacing to this show is always a little different. After watching a year of shows paced like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Bunheads makes watching Mad Men a little interesting.

I feel like I say that every year with the first episode. It’s the slow burn of that show combined with the major plot twists masquerading as trivialities, that Downton Abbey syndrome for a show. Trying explaining Mad Men to your parents and dare to make it sound interesting. Do you talk about a man’s slow decline hidden by genius? Ad agencies in the 1960s? Or do you focus on the soapier aspects of the show, even though those are really symptoms of the show’s true premise?

This isn’t to distract from how good the show is. I wouldn’t say it’s a plodding show like The Killing felt to me in the first few episodes. It just takes some time to get back in the saddle.

But then it didn’t take long for me to get on that horse and ride when you start the season with a Dante quote. Oh, Matt Weiner, you devil. I’m going to apologize to you upfront, reader, for the inevitable focus of this review on that quote. I’ll try tell you my thoughts on this, if not all the words in my head, at least their meaning.

Don appears to be living the dream right now. Clearly, that’s just a setup for oncoming disaster. You wonder how he can possibly threaten to screw this up with everything working like clockwork. What will prompt a selfish, catastrophic series of poor decision-making? How will the show plaster over it?

We should probably look at how the episode begins and ends. Reading Dante’s Inferno, particularly the first tercet, is important to how Don feels about his life. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai nella selva oscura che la vera diritta era smarrita. In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood that the true way was lost. Don’s mid-life crisis is less about looking toward death as it is looking back at the terrible things he’s done thus far. That he’s sleeping with the doctor’s wife, an Italian that gave him the Dante to read in the first place, and begs that he wants to stop doing “this” (because an adulterer, liar, perpetual self-destructionist) only hits harder that his mid-life crisis is of a different stock.

It’s important to note that Inferno, despite having a reputation of being a volume of ghouls and devils and reciprocal punishments, is a work of contrition. Dante, in his escape from the “dark wood” and pursuit of the true way, a goal represented by his passed virtuous love, Beatrice residing in Paradise, goes through Hell, seeing the sins and sinners and matches them within himself. It’s the first step of his purification process and what we would consider the first step to recovery: admitting you have a problem. Just as Dante swoons at the site of the sin of lust, one that he identifies in himself, Don seeks change when faced with his adultery. That he has that conversation after his lover asks about reading “her” Dante hits that point harder.

Does that mean that this will be a season of contrition for Don? Will we see him journey toward self-improvement? It feels like that’s been territory we’ve been treading for a while now, particularly since he was doing so well with not cheating on Megan. But, then, here we are. He’s quit drinking before. He’s quit smoking before. And now he’s quit women and backslid on all of them. Does any of this actually trouble him enough to actually break the cycle?

His being troubled starts how it always does: with the boozing. Don’s drinking has grown from being a joke among the viewers with how much the admen throw back hooch all day long to main signifier for Don’s internal struggle. The boozing here seems to almost be an extension of the most depressing season last year in the wake of Lane’s death, even blurrier lines of morality represented by the rise of Joan, and how he continues to enjoy life when more deserving people have jumped off this mortal coil. Combine that with the “feeling” he got in Hawaii, this desire to shed his skin and and be reborn (evidenced in his proposal) and it’s like Don is going through a mid-life crisis in the opposite way other men are stereotyped to. For a man that’s been crashing through the barriers of social convention for as long as we’ve known him, his desire for a simpler life that begs less for destruction is basically the same as the ordinary man who buys a Corvette at 47. These two men are just arriving from different ends of the spectrum but find themselves in the same dark wood.

While a Dante reference will almost always pique my interest good enough for 3000 words, we should move on to other parts of what seemed like the world’s longest episode (was it?). Namely, my favorite Peggy.

Watching Peggy in action was a bright spot in the episode (unsurprisingly). Her exit last season from SCDP was bittersweet but the only thing that made sense for that character. Staying at that agency would just mean reliving the cycle of her being abused by Don and, any more cycles of that threatened to make her story jump the shark. Her walking away was the best way to keep her character fresh.

It also meant that we could finally have two Dons on the show. Obviously, it’s not a perfect replica, mostly from how she gets treated at the new agency (a much gentler but still sexist organization) but we get that confidence and that determination that Don brings to the table. But there’s an easiness in Don’s job that we usually don’t get any more. The drama with Don hasn’t been with his work life for some time, it’s his personal life that’s been troublesome. With Peggy, it’s like we get a Don reboot with the added pressure of her gender and class.

Don Draper: Year One is filled with all kinds of realizations that we take for granted in Don that the story world is just now recognizing in Peggy. When Ted says, “You’re good in a crisis,” you almost are amazed that Ted is amazed. We can already see that future because we know what Peggy is capable of. But it’s like we’re seeing the beginning of that messianic investment. She’s succeeding despite the societal baggage she’s forced to carry around with her. It’s almost like watching the rise of Don without having to depend on flashbacks.

The only difference is that Peggy is performing at a level like if Don knew then what he knows now. She has that ruthlessness and business-like approach Don cultivated over the years that will catapult her up the ranks more quickly. With that in mind, it’s also adorable to see her sweeter side. I never liked Abe until he sat down in her office and listened to records on the Koss headphones. That sweet smile she gives him. The almost innocence he gives off while nodding his head to the music. I’m curious about the drama they’re going to throw her way, if it’s just that, eventually, she’s going to come up against Don for something or if there’s some curveball in Peggy’s immediate future. Just like Don looks like he’s living the dream, Peggy seems to have all that she wants right now. It’s gorgeous to watch.

The obvious difference between Peggy and Don, though, is that Peggy isn’t self-destructive, or at least doesn’t seem that way. She seems honestly happy. Will that drive her success story while Don ferries across the Acheron? Maybe her story is less Don Draper: Year One and more This is Don Not Dominated by Anxiety, Paranoia, and a Clinical Need for Validation. It’s reminiscent of Draper but it’s wholly Peggy. Credit goes to the show’s writers (and the actors) for being able to make that distinction so vividly.

A lot actually happened in the episode (it had to — it was so long). So let’s take a tour of the rest in some quick hits.

  • Betty’s search for Sandy is basically uninteresting to me for some reason. The rationalized reason is, of course, that Sandy might be walking down the same path that Betty did, which, of course, ends in puerile madness. But most of anything that happens in the Francis household is awful if it doesn’t involve Sally. Other than her, none of those characters hold any appeal outside of the spotlight of Don. Betty changed her hair color? Snore. The I’ll-help-you-rape-your-daughter thing? What the?
  • The sexualization of Megan (a not at all difficult task) is interesting. It’s not something they did with Betty at all when Don was married to her (not within her character) and important for us to recognize the times they are in and the difference between her and Don’s past paramours. Think of the focused examples of her sexiness in Hawaii: sliding the joints out of her bikini bottoms, the MC making sure the audience knows how attractive he finds Megan as he dances with her, the juxtaposition of the hula dancer and a topless and high Megan about to engage in the throes of passion, and (of course) the side-boob when she wakes up in the morning. The rest of the episode has her more buttoned up (it’s colder in NYC) and even more mothering. It’s hard to deny the inklings of a swinger party when there’s fondue on the table of a sunken living room but her sexuality was certainly dulled after their trip. Don certainly loves the free-spirited version of Megan but is able to cheat on the mature version of her.
  • Roger has been something of comic relief for Mad Men for a while with a small thread of pathos as he’s starting to feel like his best years are behind him. His line to the shrink about how his life will be all about losing things is poignant for a man his age and contributes to the overall theme of the series of people like him being left behind in an era of rapid change. His weeping for the shoe shine guy when he couldn’t even shed a tear for his mother (though he did have a petulant tantrum in him) is a classic turnaround for this show but makes sense. He expected to lose his mother. Losing Giorgio is less about this man passing as it is evidence that he’s right about losing everything. The world is crumbling. And the love of his life, Mona, is with some other jackass. And his daughter is growing up. And he’s more and more useless at the office. How long until he’s doing crosswords with one of the elderly secretaries?
  • GD that scene with Stan and Peggy was adorable.
  • Important news: Cosgrove is still the man.
  • I didn’t discuss any of the stuff between Dr Rosen and Don, even though Don is schtupping Mrs Rosen. The quote that summed up Don’s interest in the good doctor is about what they get paid to think about or not think about. Clearly, Don recognizes that what he does doesn’t mean he holds a life in his own hands though he knows that feeling from being a soldier (sort of). Having that sense of purpose is something Don never really had. Rosen does good in this world, heck, even skis to the hospital when he can’t drive in a snowstorm. Does Don have that sense of purpose? Is advertising as important and intense? It slightly feeds into Don’s “awakening” but, to me, isn’t as immediately interesting as the possible stride into his journey of contrition.
  • Still the mentions of Don “being himself.” Is Dick Whitman even a story anymore?

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