Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Pilgrimage to 'You Know Where'

Mad Men, Season Six, Episodes One and Two, "The Doorway"

This season opener shifts us from the existential question that ended last season (Are you alone?) to an existential consideration of death. From opening on the doctor working on a heart attack patient to Don reading "The Inferno" in Paradise, to discussion of Sandy's mother, to the death of Roger's mother, to the evocation of James Mason's character in "A Star Is Born," to the death of Giorgio the shoe shine man, death is everywhere on the surface of and front and center in this episode. It also lurks around the edges, pushing its way into characters' lives and consciousness in uncomfortable ways, similar to the new accounts man Bob Benson with his two cups of coffee, hoping to run into Don on the elevator. The deaths of Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam insert themselves through Don's encounter with the soldier in the bar and the comedian's joke about American soldiers cutting off the ears of Vietnamese people, which threatens to disrupt Peggy's ad for the Super Bowl. If the season delivers on what this premiere offers--Don as a Dante figure, journeying through the levels of hell to come to an understanding of sin and suffering, of who he truly is, and of the meaning of life, we're in for an excellent collection of Sunday nights.

Along with the existentialists' pondering of death is always the question of how to live life--how to live it authentically (which was Heidegger's term). In order to be authentic, one needs not only to face death, but to have a strong sense of who he or she is. And this question of identity has plagued Don as long as we've known him and will continue to do so. The soldier on leave defines Don as a veteran: "One day I'll be a veteran in paradise." Yet, having his veteran status brought up always has to bring to the forefront for Don his fraudulent identity. The lighter serves as a reminder of this throughout the episode. When the photographer tells him, "I want you to be yourself," Don is thrown. Who is he? This heightened existential crisis seems to heighten his creative powers. His idea for the Hawaiian resort ad is philosophical and mythological. "Aloa means hello and good-bye" as the soul can leave the body for awhile in Hawaiian legend, walking into the sea as Don's soul seems to do on hearing the waves while looking out of his office window onto a Manhattan winter. I flashed back to his swim in the Pacific Ocean while visiting Anna two seasons ago. That was a swim of baptism and re-birth, while the resort owners see death in the poster Don pitches to them. Is it 'hello' or is it 'good-bye'? Is there a distinct difference, or are they both points on the same circle?

Roger ponders these questions with his psychoanalyst as he worries about his own end and mourns his perception that his experiences haven't changed him enough: "Experiences are supposed to change you; they don't." He thought they should constitute a series of weaving doors, bridges, windows, and gates to interesting places, but ponders that instead "they all open the same way and close behind you." Instead, they are merely pennies that you pick up; they "keep going in a straight line to you know where." Yet his musings feel more like pro forma lines he thinks one must go through to become authentic. Sometimes they sound like one-liners from the comedian he so often is. When his mother dies, he says he feels nothing. It isn't until he receives the dead shoe shine man's box that he breaks down and shows genuine emotion. In it does he see his own end, empty, leaving behind just a box that no one but a virtual stranger might be interested in?

Peggy also suffers a crisis of creativity when her clever and creative ad for headphones evokes for her client the brutal deaths of Vietnamese at the hands of American soldiers. She wants to be an artist, the creator of "a great ad," but is working in the service of consumerism for companies that want just to make money--and so must avoid controversy. Can she be an artist in this commercial world? She seems to be channeling Don, both in her creativity and in her rough way of dealing with her employees. Yet she pulls through, creating another ad that both fulfills her creative impulses and is likely to satisfy the client who is risk-averse. (And, I must say, I think she looks wonderful. Really cute haircut and I loved her outfits.)

The biggest surprise, though, was Betty. She, too, is still struggling with her identity. When she tells Sandy that she's trying to lose weight, Sandy asks her, "Why don't you just be the way you are? You're beautiful." Betty still is heavier than she was when married to Don and dresses more matronly, but she seems more comfortable in her role as mother. She seemed genuinely sympathetic when talking with Sandy about her mother's death, and her trip to the tenement to find the run-away friend of Sally put her out of her comfort zone, yet reinforced her role as mother, wanting to take care of some of the runaway teens. She seems more comfortable in her skin and relationships, though the scene with Henry where she pushed the rape scenario onto him was troubling. I don't quite know what to make of that.

What I most liked about the episode was that it waited until the very end to answer the question of whether Don would start philandering again. And, the answer was surprising--not that he did, but its situation and how it plays out. He didn't take up with a young woman he met in a bar, but with a middle-aged neighbor whom he may have met at the scene of a near death. The quick encounter suggests an answer to the question of why Don does keep turning to other women. After Don asks the doctor, "What's it like to have someone's life in your hands?" the conversation ends with the doctor saying, "People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety." The next thing we see is Don knocking on the door of the doctor's apartment and ending up in bed with his friend's wife. On his journey through hell and (possibly) toward a final paradise of figuring things out and coming to terms with who he is, Don experiences much anxiety. And so, to alleviate it, he turns to the company and bodies of many women. But, when this one asks him what he wants for the new year, he answers, "I want to stop doing this." Which means he'd need to put an end to his constant anxiety; which means he'd need to find some answers to the question of who he is. I wonder who his Beatrice will be.

No comments:

Post a Comment