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'Mad Men' Premiere Recap: The Jumping Off Point

Fasten your seat belts: A turbulent episode ushers in turbulent times

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in 'Mad Men'
Michael Yarish/AMC
April 7, 2013 11:05 PM ET

"Army."

That's the first word Don Draper utters following a 10-month absence from our TV screens. Not "Yes," not "No" – the potential answers to the "Are you alone?" question that hung Don's future in the balance since last June – but instead a prosaic answer to a prosaic question about his military service. It's a bit of a letdown considering it took almost a full seven minutes into the episode before Don even opened his mouth (his brief voiceover reading from Dante's "Inferno" notwithstanding), but then again, we'd never expect anything less from Mad Men. Creator Matthew Weiner's deftness at drawing out the suspense borders on the sadistic at times, but it's all for the sake of outstanding television, which he achieves brilliantly in the AMC drama's sixth season premiere, titled "The Doorway."

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Just deciphering the episode's name could take up an entire recap: It could stand for the doorway to the Gates of Hell, which Don reads about on Waikiki Beach ("The Inferno" appearing as a metaphor for his increasingly tortured existence); it could mean the various doors we go through in life, suggested by Roger during his therapy sessions; or it could represent the back door Don uses at the end of the episode, in which he provides the probable answer to the "Are you alone?" question ("Yes").

The season premiere is also a hell of an exercise in spotting esoteric history, as only a few brief clues provide the answer to what year we're actually in after bidding farewell to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce contingent in spring 1967. Weiner was careful to avoid highlighting critical Sixties milestones or obvious music or movie references, perpetuating the ambiguity by playing Elvis Presley's 1961 version of "Hawaiian Wedding Song" over the closing credits. Despite some significant style changes among the male characters (everyone's growing their hair) that had me wondering if we had jumped two years into the future, it turns out we've only moved ahead about seven to eight months in the Mad Men universe. Casual references to a South African doctor performing the first human heart transplant and the fact that New Year's Eve took place on a Sunday, along with a New York Times headline proclaiming "World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year; City Gets Snowfall" confirm that "The Doorway" opens at Christmas 1967, and ends the morning of January 1st, 1968. "World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year," you say, NYT? You ain't seen nothing yet. Weiner may have made the executive decision to skip over groundbreaking events like the widespread riots during the ironically named Summer of Love, but it's unlikely he'll circumvent the turbulence of the year that brought the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

Blue Hawaii
Like The Brady Bunch and Full House before it, Mad Men joined in the time-honored television tradition of filming in Hawaii for its season premiere. Except instead of John Stamos crooning "Rock A-Hula," Megan gets a hula lesson from a self-proclaimed "Hawaiian Elvis," and in place of an ancient tiki, Don inadvertently takes home a Vietnam GI's military-issued lighter, which proceeds to haunt him well after he's returned to New York. The Drapers (yep, they’re still together) are in Honolulu to check out the Royal Hawaiian Hotel – a potential SCDP (yep, they’ve kept the "Pryce") client. Megan is in a perpetual state of bliss: she's getting recognized for a recurring role on a soap opera (that Butler Shoes commercial paid off!), marijuana is accessible, and she's ensconced in a luxury suite. Who cares if her husband seems a little detached, wandering off early one morning to attend the wedding of a drunken Vietnam soldier he met the night before?

Other than PFC Dinkins' lighter, the only other souvenir Don brings back with him is a tan. He's more stressed out than ever, distracted and downright miserable. Upon his return to SCDP, a new staircase and Harry – tricked out in so much mod wear I thought he was auditioning to replace Paul Lynde on Bewitched – attest that the company has indeed expanded to a second floor. But it's more the differences in hair – styles and facial – that illustrate the times they still are a-changin', even for the old guard. Pete and Roger have sideburns, Stan has sprouted a beard, and Ginsberg, with fuller hair and a mustache, could double as the Jewish George Harrison. Don, on the other hand, his hair Brylcreemed and in his regulation dark suit and skinny tie, looks like he just walked into a meeting with Rachel Menken seven years earlier.

Which is all part of the theme for this season. Sure, "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" played while Roger took LSD, but ever since Don scratched the needle in the middle of "Tomorrow Never Knows," we've all known that the aforementioned Beach Boys tune could double as the Don Draper theme song. And the accidental swap of his identical-looking lighter with that of PFC Dinkins’ hasn’t helped matters. It’s too reminiscent of when Dick Whitman switched his dog tags with Lt. Don Draper all those years ago, so it sends Don further into a downward spiral that culminates in his arrival at Roger's mother’s funeral three sheets to the wind. He pulls himself together to present his ad campaign to the Royal Hawaiian execs the next day, but it's beyond evident that Don's misery has finally started to permeate his work: His campaign gives off the vibe of a man committing suicide, and even more telling, Don is unable to convince his clients that his idea is the right way to go.

By the time Don sneaks into his neighbor's apartment for a post-midnight affair on New Year's Eve, it's almost anticlimactic. It's been firmly established how unhappy he is, so it’s hardly a shock that he’s A., cheating on Megan and B., not enjoying the sex with his mistress, Sylvia Rosen – Linda Cardellini, looking like an overdone Elizabeth Taylor – the wife of his heart-surgeon buddy, Arnold Rosen. When Sylvia asks him what he wants for the new year, his answer encapsulates how pathetic his life has become: "I want to stop doing this." It's sad because it's unlikely he will. His compulsion to sleep with women who can’t even hold a candle to his current wife (sorry, Linda, but you’re no Jessica Paré) is his own form of self-flagellation. No matter how far he runs, he can never escape the fact that his identity, his entire life, is a lie.

Touchdown, Peggy!
Other than a late-night gossip fest over the phone with Stan, and the fact that one of her Cutler, Gleason and Chaough colleagues happens to be former Sterling Cooper head of accounts Burt Peterson (please tell me Sal Romano will be next!), Peggy's story line continues to follow its own trajectory away from her SCDP past. In short, she is CGC's Don Draper now, with a kicky new haircut. She's calm, self-assured, persuasive with clients, can teach her subordinates the difference between three separate ideas and three versions of the same idea – and she keeps a cool head in an emergency. When a late-night-TV comedian riffing on the Vietnam War makes a gruesome joke that sounds awfully similar to Peggy's upcoming Super Bowl commercial for Koss headphones, the client panics and demands a re-do. A few long nights at the office eventually provide Peggy with her Draper-esque epiphany while she watches Abe Drexler (they're still living together, with Abe now channeling the Frank Zappa look, complete with handlebar mustache and soul patch) rock out on the headphones in question. But she has a few lessons to learn as a manager: Ted Chaough, having rushed back from a retreat thanks to Peggy’s endless messages, reassures her that he trusts what she's doing ("You're good in a crisis") – and that she needs to tell her employees when it's time to go home. Too bad it was only Stan, and not Don, who heard the whole exchange by speakerphone.

She's Leaving Home
So, let me get this straight. We're supposed to like Betty now, even though her sympathies are misdirected toward one of Sally's hippie wanna-be friends instead of her own daughter? Fifteen-year-old Sandy, who’s been bunking at the Francis house for the holiday, has been rejected from Juilliard, and all she wants is to turn on, tune in and drop out. A midnight snack with a still-"trying-to-reduce" Betty (January Jones remains stuck in prosthetics, but they've lessened a bit since last season) only strengthens Sandy's resolve, and soon enough, a kerchiefed, frumpy-coated Betty is standing in the kitchen of a St. Mark's Place flophouse done up in Grey Gardens chic, showing Sandy's picture to the ruffian dwellers. But she’s too late: Sandy split for California, having sold her violin to a combative longhair named Zal.

The whole searching-for-Sandy experience winds up being a painful reminder that Betty is not the sprightly young model she once was. She's called the greatest insult of the day, "the establishment," by Zal, who goes on a generic late-Sixties diatribe on how Betty needs to let Sandy go: "It kills you to be out of control." Betty’s retort is a just-as-typical older-generation scolding: "Well, someone needs to control this mess." Viewing this scene from a 21st-century perspective allows us to see that both Zal and Betty make some valid points. You can't blame the youth for wanting to break out of their parents' shackles, but, ugh, you’re never going to get laid living in squalor. Realizing Sandy has been lost into the counterculture vortex, Betty leaves the violin case behind and returns to the comforts of her local beauty salon, Zal's condescending "Blondie" comments having gotten the better of her. Betty's new brunette 'do turns Henry on big-time, although that may be because instead of Liz Taylor, she now looks like a younger version of Pauline Francis. Ew.

Wrap-Up
An extra hour wasn’t nearly enough to bring the audience up to speed on all of Mad Men's integral characters. Pete was relegated to the background, doing little else than helping a wasted Don back into his apartment, although Joan made more of an impact with her absences than her appearances. Her refusal to attend Roger's mother's funeral did not go unnoticed by the SCDP staff, leading me to believe that the Ballad of Roger and Joan has another verse in store.

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