“The Doorway” (Mad Men 6.1)
April 10, 2013
Back in July of last year, John Semley wrote a terrific essay on how Breaking Bad is the “baldest show on TV.” Reflecting on changing conceptions of baldness in popular culture, he argued that Walt, Mike, and, eventually, Jesse are bald “in the way that Bruce Willis or Yul Brynner or Vladimir Nabokov is bald. Not enfeebled or emasculated, but sleek and effectual.” Baldness signifies power, not inadequacy. More specifically, it signifies corruptible power in the moral universe of Breaking Bad. It also reflects a kind of brutal efficiency in the way the show tells its story from episode to episode–Semley calls Breaking Bad “cold, deceptively unvarnished television, stripped right down to the wood.”
Mad Men doesn’t have quite the same aesthetic. There’s a lot of varnish. (Every now and then, I wonder if the styles and fashions alone are the guiding principle—if the show gets tied up in a kind of 60s nostalgia.) And as Season Six gets underway with “The Doorway,” plenty of hair. Paul Ford describes some of the “hair narratives,” pointing out the woman’s beehive in Hawaii, Betty’s dyeing her hair black, and—my favorite description—Pete’s sideburns: “It’s like he went to bed Charles Grodin and woke up Burt Reynolds. His side profile has become monumental, like that of a Civil War general after a tight shave.”
Those sideburns are yet another period detail Mad Men gives us—a wink that the 70s are right around the corner. But the hair narratives also reflect the simple, and moving, fact that as the world changes, the characters age. Pete’s hairline recedes just a tad more each new season; for me, the sideburns emphasized how much further it’s gone back this year. Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner says that much of the opening episode “was thematically about how you are perceived by the outside world.” A change in hair suggests a change in how characters wish to be seen, as they grow older. Betty dyes her hair after the young (heavily bearded) guy looks at her driver’s license, reads out her eye and hair color, and tells her, “We hate your life as much as you do.”
“The Doorway” struck me as being about middle age, and Don’s middle age in particular. Near the start, Don reads from Inferno, which famously opens with Dante having a midlife crisis of sorts. Here are the opening lines (from Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander’s translation, so not exactly what we hear in the voiceover):
Midway in the journey of our life/I came to myself in a dark wood,/for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell/the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh–/the very thought of it renews my fear!
In Hawaii, Don meets at the bar a younger version of himself in PFC Dinkins, who tells him, “I’m you in twenty years.” Don doesn’t know it, but Megan snaps a picture of him on the beach the next morning—he’s participating in Dinkins’ wedding, giving away the bride. When that picture comes up later in the slide show at their dinner party in New York, I fully expected him to be furious with Megan; after all, she caught him at a vulnerable moment. But he keeps his cool. The vulnerability seems to come later, when the firm’s professional photographer tells him to “be himself,” a direction that hints at the impossibility of “Don Draper” (or, Dick Whitman) being himself.
Don’s midlife anxieties only make things worse, it seems. If Dinkins conjures up his past (and especially his identity as Dick, fighting in the Korean War), Jonesy the doorman, falling with a heart attack, throws Don’s own mortality into his face. Mad Men often invites us to imagine “what if?” scenarios about Don’s life, about how it might have been different had Dick not assumed the identity of Don Draper and become a wealthy ad man. (Consider those early episodes in which Don sees the direction his brother’s life took; or Don’s life in retail, before his chance meeting with Roger kicks his ambition up a notch.) The doorman doesn’t just reveal a cardiac vulnerability Don may fear. Jonesy also shows him, I suspect, what else Dick might have turned into. The doorman might tap on his anxieties—which Don masterfully hides away—of being exposed as an impostor. (That he struggles to recall Jonesy’s name hints at a social distance between them.)
This connection to the doorman is set, in advance, by the cold open. A POV shot suggests that someone is having a heart attack, the doctor performing CPR. I was certain the scream I heard in the background belonged to Megan, and that Don was in cardiac arrest. The season begins with a sleight of hand, though, because the Don in this opening shot turns out to be someone else. Only later do we realize that it was Jonesy looking up to find the doctor’s face.
I thought the doctor–Dr. Rosen–was gracious, kind. (I can’t remember: have we seen him in prior seasons, or is this the first time?) That scene when he stands in the snow, preparing to ski out to see a patient, with Don in the doorway looking on: I found it beautiful. In the quiet isolation it creates, it reminded me of Dante’s opening lines, and made me think of the doctor as Virgil—a guide for Don, someone who’ll help him navigate the dark wood, savage, dense, and dark.
That we see Don sleeping with Rosen’s wife in the next scene—and that it was she who gave him Inferno to begin with—doesn’t make that moment in the snow any less moving to me. (Or, I would guess, Don, who seems genuinely touched by the doctor’s dedication.) The episode left me wondering how the affair would affect Don’s relationship with Rosen, someone he seems to admire and respect.
Ford implies that the buildup to the hair narratives in “The Doorway” starts with “Megan’s bald and glistening navel.” It doesn’t. It begins with the doctor’s bald head in that deceptive POV shot, and then goes to Megan’s navel. I can’t help but think that Rosen’s baldness suggests an effectuality that comes with age—experienced and knowledgeable, the doctor saves a life—and that’s undermined by Don’s desire and lust, reflected by the glistening torso. Held together by a smooth fadeout and the sound of a wailing siren, the two shots nevertheless have a jarring effect: we move from unstable, disoriented vision to the completely controlled look at Megan’s body.
I associate Don’s point of view with both shots. Indeed, both shots give you a pretty good idea of how Don lives his life. When he listens to the doctor in the snow, Dante in the wood, my sense is he’s seeking out a measure of stability. In bed with the doctor’s wife, he’s poised for another fall. (Remember how last season ends: “Are you alone?” the woman at the bar asks him. Often, when Don seems most in control, he’s the most alone.) For five seasons, we’ve watched Don Draper endlessly falling in the opening credits. I don’t think you can avoid the connection between that and Jonesy’s fall. So I begin this season wondering not just where Don ends up falling, but if it’ll be possible for anyone to help him up—if anyone’s there.
- Mad Men: One foot in “The Doorway” (acephalous.typepad.com)
- ‘Mad Men’ has a brilliant opener for its 6th season (thechicagolibrary.wordpress.com)