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Dear TV: Mad Men Season Six: Episode 1

Matthew Weiner's death obsession

Michael Yarish

Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. They write epistolary criticism about TV. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's Mad Men. While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. 

Dear Television,

David Benioff, the creator of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” does not believe that television series should be in the business of developing themes. “Themes,” he recently told Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, “are for eighth-grade book reports.” After sorting through the overstuffed suitcase full of symbolism that was “Mad Men”’s sixth season opener, it’s hard to imagine that show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, expressing the same sentiment. “Va fungool,” Weiner might say instead. “Themes are for Bach, Chopin and the descendants of David Chase!” “Mad Men” is nothing if not a work of ideas—plots are all primarily part of the execution of that idea, the development of a theme. 

And, if we’re to take the show at its word, that idea is mortality. I’d love to criticize the heavy-handedness of this theme’s development—from Don reading The Inferno at the beach to the violin case shaped like a coffin (as we’re explicitly told by little Bobby)—but it strikes me that Weiner is fully aware of how bluntly he’s handling this material. By the end of the second hour, when Megan practically puts coins on Don’s eyes to help him fall asleep, and Roger exclaims, “This is my funeral,” to a room full of his ex-wives and family members, the death references dropped more like jokes than elegant variations on a theme. In other words, the themes of this episode did not roil beneath—they floated on the surface.

Even the opening death scene is a fake-out. We hear a scream that is recognizably Megan’s; we think the person lying unconscious on the floor may be Don. When the scene is reconstructed mid-way through the episode, however, Don is only a silent spectator; the real victim is Jonesy, the doorman for Don and Megan’s building. And then, it turns out, Jonesy isn’t even dead, and the upshot of that whole scene is the introduction of Don’s new lover, Sylvia. (Did anybody else find the sudden appearance of Linda Cardellini more genuinely shocking than the sudden almost-death of Don Draper’s doorman?) By the time that we realize Don’s copy of The Inferno is a clue about the affair, it’s easy to imagine that all this death might just be a distraction from something else.

After the Royal Hawaiian pitch, Roger tells Don, “We sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? We ignored it.” So, if “Mad Men” isn’t ignoring death anymore, what is it selling? It’s hard to notice anything else beneath the din of the 13 million conversations about one thing going on in this episode, but there’s also a strong preoccupation with the visual: Megan photographs Don at the beach wedding, Don gives away a Leica camera; Stan assures the Royal Hawaiian team that his painting is only an approximation of a photograph; all of the partners are being photographed for publicity stills; Betty takes a Polaroid of Sally’s wayward friend Sandy to the seedy, goulash-drenched East Village; and, of course, Don takes a ride on that old familiar Carousel. (The last time we saw Don use the slide projector, it was to sell Kodak on a false idyll of his married life, which, not coincidentally, is the same trick he’s pulling here.) Then, there are all the comments about perception and point-of-view. The “To Have and To Hold” fan tells Megan she looks much “trimmer” in real life than she does on television; Peggy’s tagline for a headphone ad reads, “Sound so sharp and clear you can actually see it”; and, lo and behold, the themes converge as Don drunkenly pleads to his recently “dead” doorman, “Jonesy, what did you see? 

To some extent, I think all this is about the fact that “Mad Men” itself is an artificial document about artifice. As such, the show is looking for ways to encourage and reward our active spectatorship, our own acts of noticing. Did you see all of the bodies lying around this episode—on the beach, at the SCDP offices, at St. Mark’s Place—or all of the significant knick-knacks on Sylvia’s bedside table—the crosses, the model heart? The “Mad Men” audience is notoriously obsessive (cataloguing all the clues leading up to Lane’s suicide last season, for instance), and Weiner serves up all of this potentially meaningful detritus like a pig at a luau. But the conspicuously curated mise-en-scene might also be a provocation about the reliability of our vision as spectators and critics. Can we trust our vision? Does the portrait photographer called in to take the SCDP PR shots really know what he’s documenting when he photographs Don looking at that lighter? Could we do any better than Peggy underling Laurence recreating a stand-up routine from memory if we had to retell the story of this episode after watching it only once?

But then there’s Betty. Despite the Grim Reaper photo-bombing every shot of this episode, maybe—definitely—the most disturbing moment of “The Doorway” came with Betty’s bonkers rape fantasy about Sally’s violin-playing frenemy Sandy. This monologue begins, as I read it, with Betty trying to parse Henry’s gaze as he watches Sandy play the violin. “You and Bobby had the same look on your face when she was playing,” she says.

Betty: Why don’t you go in there and rape her? I’ll hold her arms down.

Henry: Betty, what the hell?

Betty: You said you wanted to spice things up. Will it ruin it if I’m there? I’ll leave you alone in there. I’ll put on my housecoat and take Sally for a ride. You can stick a rag in her mouth, and you won’t wake the boys.

In an episode engraved with large-print symbolism, this scene is remarkably inscrutable. After years of living with secret agent man Don Draper, is Betty’s spidey-sense so out-of-tune that this is what she thinks Henry’s look of fatherly pride signifies? Or, after five seasons of corrosive misogyny, is Betty telling a kind of truth? Whether Weiner wants us to see Betty as a prophet or just plain bananas, it’s notable—in an episode where mortality is often a punchline—that we have Betty here to remind us that there are some fates worse than death. We ought to notice them when we see them. 

Just saying what everybody else was thinking,