‘Mad Men’ recap: The jumping-off point

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In the category of “high-class problems,” having a show whose return is anticipated so feverishly that it’s inevitably going to be something of a letdown is pretty near the top of the list, but that’s the cross that Matt Weiner, creator of “Mad Men,” has to bear after Sunday’s slow-moving, two-hour-plus season premiere, “The Doorway.”

Things almost always get off to a slow start on this show, as if Weiner knows our brains might explode if too much happens right out of the gate, but even by those standards “The Doorway” was, until the last few minutes, a notably and, I think, willfully uneventful episode.

Think about it: Most of “The Doorway” takes place in 1967, and not much happens, but as soon as the new year arrives things at last get interesting. In the wee small hours of 1968, the show finally reveals the answer we’ve been waiting for since the end of last season: Yes, Don is cheating again, and not only that but he’s doing it with Lindsay Weir.


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Considering what lies ahead in the next few months alone – the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Tet Offensive, President Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election, the occupation of Columbia University – it makes sense the year would begin with such a bombshell. It’s a premonition of what’s to come, while the rest of the episode plays like the calm before the storm. With its jarring juxtaposition of the mundane and the cataclysmic, the headline on the front page of Don’s New York Times -- “World bids adieu to violent year; city gets snowfall” – summarizes the atmospheric, uneasy calm of “The Doorway.”

Given what we know of Don, not to mention humanity in general, the revelation that he’s stepping out on the lovely Megan is not all that surprising (I believe it was Confucius who said “cheats with you, cheats on you”). And yet it is surprising, especially since he still seems very much in love with Megan (and who wouldn’t be? She makes fondue!). Not only that, but he’s sleeping with the wife of Dr. Rosen, a guy he genuinely seems to like. For a minute there, it looked like Don might have found a friend, but no. More likely he’s found a future enemy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Aside from the opening narration from Dante’s “Inferno,” Don doesn’t speak a word for the first eight minutes of the episode. There’s a hazy, dreamlike quality to these scenes, one that seems to parallel Don’s own detached state of mind. He’s reached a jumping-off point, as he later puts it in his failed pitch, but where he’s coming from and where he’s going are not so clear.

We’ve seen this before on “Mad Men”; put Don in the sun for a few minutes and suddenly he’s transformed (maybe he’s just got a really bad case of seasonal affective disorder?). But there’s something especially inscrutable about the origins of Don’s latest identity crisis. Let’s try to puzzle it out for a minute, shall we? Don’s encounter with the young soldier in Hawaii obviously conjures up memories of his own identity switch which, as any self-respecting “Mad Men” scholar knows, was made possible when the man formerly known as Dick Whitman accidentally dropped his Zippo in a puddle of gasoline.

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So naturally, Don is spooked when he discovers that he’s accidentally taken the wrong lighter back with him to cold, gloomy New York. There’s a sense that Don has in a way been possessed by the spirit of the soldier in Hawaii, who says he’s a believer in “what goes around comes around.” The repeated references to the first heart transplant, which took place in December 1967, heighten the sense that some kind of identity switch has taken place – or at least that Don feels like it has.

His malaise only worsens once he learns that Roger’s mother has died. At her funeral, he borrows a page from the Roger Sterling playbook and upchucks in the corner. It’s unclear whether Don’s been drinking all morning, or whether his nausea was induced by the inevitable thoughts of his own mother’s death. Most likely it’s both.

Anyway, it’s all very cryptic and foreboding , but I don’t actually know how intriguing it really is once you get past all the oblique symbolism. Part of it is that seeing him sneaking around with yet another woman isn’t quite as novel as it was in Season 3, but it’s also that at this point Don Draper’s compulsion to use sex as a means of escape is far less interesting than just about everything else on this show.

Again, this qualifies as a high-class problem: Matt Weiner has created such a rich cast of characters that it’s hard not to get a little bored with Don’s tortured womanizing, and wish you could just watch a spinoff about Sally, Roger, Joan, Peggy or Harry.

It could be that Weiner is aware of this. After all, Roger gets almost as much screen time in “The Doorway” as Don. Having once eschewed therapy as “this year’s candy pink stove” – a toy for bored suburban housewives – Roger’s now in treatment himself. The results are predictably hilarious, but not totally without insight. With mortality very much on his mind, Roger wonders if life is just a meaningless and inexorable march toward death, or if there are actual lessons to be learned along the way. The answer to that question becomes crushingly obvious when Roger’s favorite shoeshine guy suddenly dies and he inherits his kit because no one else seemed to care. Clearly, the introspection that began last season with that impromptu acid trip is only going to continue.

Even Betty surprises in this episode, first with her off-color rape jokes – hasn’t she gotten the memo about those? – then by throwing a goulash party at a squat on St. Mark’s Place, where she goes in search of Sally’s precocious friend Sandy, and finally with her brunet dye job. Her instant bond with Sandy is reminiscent of her creepy attachment to Glen, except that instead of serving to show us how stunted she is, their rapport actually seems to suggest that Betty is becoming a more compassionate person. In the past I’ve complained that Betty hasn’t been allowed to evolve the way other characters on “Mad Men” have, so I was delighted by her escapades in the East Village. I’m hoping next week she runs into Lou Reed and Andy Warhol.


PHOTOS: On the set of ‘Mad Men’

Last but in no way least is Peggy. Now firmly settled into her new job, she is becoming more like Don than ever – barking orders at her underlings and experiencing late-night creative epiphanies that save her accounts. And despite shacking up with Abe – or is it Frank Zappa? -- she remains, like Don, almost totally apolitical. She is, for instance, more upset about “The Tonight Show” messing up her campaign for Koss headphones than she is about American soldiers slicing off the ears of the Vietcong, and when Abe remarks that “it’s about time this unjust war is finally having an impact on commerce,” she barks back “Meatball!” while grasping desperately for the sandwich he’s brought her. (Are we entirely sure Liz Lemon isn’t her baby?)

The question now for Peggy is whether her relationship with Abe is long for this world. My guess is no, and not just because they’ve already reached that level of familiarity at which they openly discuss their bowel movements with each other (ahh, romance!). I’m rooting for a fling with newly hirsute Stan – their phone call was adorable – but if I’m not mistaken it looks like Teddy might have other ideas in mind.

We shall see.

Stray thoughts:

--Kiernan Shipka as Sally is sullen teenage perfection, especially with the line “She thinks she’s 25 because she uses tampons.” You can practically hear her eyes roll.

-- Joan barely gets any screen time in the episode, which is obviously unacceptable, but at least she got to use the word “reefer.” Things with Roger seem even frostier than they were last season. Wonder what he did this time.

--Bobby version 4.0 is here, and boy, is he creepy!

--I counted two F-bombs in this episode. Racy!

--Love the photo assistant in go-go boots and an orange mini-dress. Jane Bryant must really be having fun this season.


--Also love the scene with Peggy on the phone with Teddy’s priest/minister/spiritual advisor/whatever, whom she calls “father.” There’s a part of her that will always be an obedient Catholic girl.

--Anyone who thought the death imagery was going to let up after Lane died, think again!

--If you, like me, were wondering if that “Tonight Show” routine was a real thing, Slate just about has the answer.

--The most interesting new face at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is easily that of Bob Benson, the brown-nosing guy who rides the elevator with Don and happens to mention his Wharton MBA. Don is turned off, but let’s not forget he was the one sucking up to Roger for a job 15 years ago.

--Here’s a fun segment on the cruising scene at Bloomingdale’s.

--What are your predictions for the year ahead? Share in the comments!


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